Eran's blog

Scaling Community

With community based tools and games spreading all over the net lately, I find myself thinking more and more about communities and ways to make them scale. Obviously thanks to the Internet we can create communities of scales never seen before. Physical limits no longer apply rather we are limited by human capacity to filter information and by the technology that helps us makes sense of this information.

I spent some time as a very active member of Consumating.com. During this time I learned to love the overheard feature. Overhears show on top of the screen and quote some random post from a random conversation. It’s a great way to discover conversations and people you didn’t know about so far but how does it scale? What happens when consumating grows to 100,000 users? A million? 650 million?

The simple solution is some static division of users: by geography, age, industry, etc. This solution seems to work pretty well in many cases especially if the division is appropriate to the context. Where this approach lacks, however, is when certain categories of the arbitrary division aren’t popular enough and users end up in what seems like an empty site or when some category becomes too popular and crowded. In such cases it might be better to use a dynamic, user-driven approach.

On tribe.net (and I’m told on Ning as well but I never bothered looking) any user can create a new group (or tribe) based on whatever topic (or lack thereof) she finds interesting. Some tribes are location based, some are interest based and some are community based. One of the pros of this system is that it is self regulating. Small tribes with little interest or activity tend to die off while tribes that get too big can fork off into several related tribes. Any user can start an offshoot of the parent tribe to concentrate on more specific topics or subsets of the community. Of course, this eventually brings us to a similar problem, what happens when you have too many tribes?

This problem becomes even worse on mobile. While on the web we can (somewhat) easily navigate lists or even hierarchical structures of groups, this is not so easy on a mobile phone. Navigating long lists is painful, and hierarchies will likely take too many page loads and end up in confusion. Perhaps a search based solution or a matching/recommendation engine would do better in this case. I’d love to hear about any ideas, experiments or even better, working solutions to this problem.

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Filed under: Mobile, Social Software

7 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. assaf says:

    My working solution for now is the easiest to implement. I don’t feel like brining the abundance of information from the PC to the cell phone, and I don’t feel left out when I’m away from the Qwerty keyboard. So it’s not just a smaller device, it’s also a more personal one. And the community is smaller, so navigation is a non-issue. A classic case of embracing constraints.

    But then , I don’t use Twitter, so I’m probably an edge case :-)

  2. limbo says:

    @assaf, yeah you are an edge case (in oh so many ways) but you’re the easy edge case. What do I do with the crazy collectors who need at least 600 friends on whatever social network they join? or what do i do if the average turns out to be not 15 but 50 or a 100 friends? anything over 10-20 gets to be annoying on WAP.

  3. assaf says:

    The first constraint I embraced is that I no longer bother solving problems for people who cannot embrace constraints. That only leads to frustration but no working solution.

    So now we’re down to something simpler. Most people I know who have a large collection of contacts (600+), also maintain a profile they use to keep in touch with their close social circle. So they’re not unreasonable. Once you get rid of the unreasonable, everything is easier.

    We still didn’t solve the number problem, the average is way too big for a cell phone. So now we can conceptualize or solve something. So I’ll pick the only problem I have: e-mailing people from the cell phone. Say you take the ten most frequent contacts I use, and display just those ten. No browsing, no clunky frustrating search. Just ten.

    I bet most people won’t even know there’s a limit in place. And the few that will notice, won’t have a problem living with it.

  4. Keri says:

    Totally interesting. In a previous life as a researcher into online communities, I was (am) way interested in the topic.

    I really like the way you express the conundrums around this space of limitless “connection”.

    One thing that I saw very early on was that we were going to get into a space where our capacity to connect was limited by our ability to filter information. Low and behold, this has indeed become the case. We’re all mired in it, overwhelmed by it and on the otherhand intensely excited by it and the possibilities.

    Nobody’s ever gonna want to read this paper, but about 3 years ago I wrote a paper on the myth of mass media. Long paper and part of my dissertation, but the basic hypothesis was that I thought it was frustrating that people thought that there ever had been a specific “mass media” as a fundamental truth. I argued (and still argue) that the “mass media” was functionally an accident of certain technological advances (the printing press in particular) that favored certain modalities of communication over other. Paper means you can write it in one time, but have access over time to transmit your message. But you have to be present with the paper to receive the message, etc. It is and was highly theoretical and sort of boring in the end. Computers (which is simply another technology) allows us to bridge in certain ways that same time/same space/scarcity of resource paradigm in some interesting ways that I believe still will eventually put the “mass media” into a very discounted (though still fairly important) role.

    But anyway, the last research I did argued that we needed to come up with (and I posited a matrix of) concentric and intersecting communication circles to influence. We needed to (and I did) look to anthropological research into theories of groups and community formation to conceptualize who we need to communicate with — what the message would be to those intended recipients and set up norms around those various groups so that we could maximize the reception of our message to those various groups. Meaning message size, intensity and a couple of other axes.

    But I also realized that people are way smart and they could get along without me and my hot air. ;-) In some ways I decided to just simply enjoy the ride and see what happens.

    The norms, the technology and the tools that allows us to manipulate (to the extent we can) others and to move our message have evolved very interestingly over the past 2 or 3 years. Alot of social technologies have come and many have gone because they didn’t evolve a useful paradigm that was useful in peoples’ lives. And sheesh, that’s ok because there are alot of us — alot of competing needs — alot of egos that need attention — and all of us with finite attention or capacity to filter that information. But our capacity to chunk, mash, search and integrate that information using our own tools (social and technological) are evolving right along with it.

    I suspect many are finding, though, that they have an exceedingly finite capacity to interact with and care for and about a shockingly few people. Usually people we live with or close to and interact with more in real life than we do through a technologically mediated communication channel. So, I think in some really fundamental ways — we’re getting back to where we started from — the basics, if you will. But in that, I think we can finally recognize what those fundamentals are.

    Ugh, I smell a paper coming on. Let’s see if there’s another professional community out there that will buy my bullshit. LOL.

  5. soakland says:

    A fixed task like contacting or keeping tabs on your existing friends has a lot of data that is explicitly shown to you.

    In contrast if you’re just poking around for new entertaining stuff, a recommendation engine can keep the complex and deterministic data structures to itself, and just feed you bite-size pieces that only require simple choices in response. Picture rating is a perfect example – you only need to press a digit to rate and move onto the next picture.

  6. timbo says:

    Technology has never been known to constrain human beings in the long run. We’re trying to accept constraints but, frankly, I haven’t noticed a lot of acceptance of constraints lately.

    Perhaps technology should be thought of as a scaffold? Our minds and our interactions can be all over the scaffold…or, we can stop trying too hard and be satisfied with only seeing and moving about part of the scaffold at whatever pace best suits the individual? Humans are still individuals, no matter how hard some of us would just like to be “integrated” into the whole…to be part of the scaffold. Perhaps, eventually, humanity’s instantaneous thought will be (almost) instantaneously part of the technology scaffold…but, for now, we’re apart from each other, even with the current scaffolding. I, for one, prefer that delay.

    –Being Apart

  7. Keri says:

    I like it. The scaffold idea is totally interesting.


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