Online communities are like offline communities. First, you’re new and inexperienced; then you know the ropes. Eventually you become thoroughly integrated and familiar with the culture. Finally, you may develop connections and friendships with a subset of the group, which then begins to meet separately from the whole. When cliques form like this, new arrivals often don’t understand what’s going on in them, and may not feel accepted in the community—at least not at first.
Even among folks accustomed to online communication, being new starts up the same kind of cycle. When you’re new, you ask a lot of questions, you don’t know where to start, you hesitate to insert yourself into a conversation or group that appears—at least to you—to be a cohesive subset. Social networks supporting individual-to-individual connection solve many of these dilemmas; you choose your connections. However, in many group-oriented areas like forums, the newbie/oldtimer dynamic comes up.
Life stages in an online community
As community managers, we need to be aware of the different life stages present in a community that’s been through its newbie cycle and moved on—or at least many of its members have moved on—to a more mature phase. Consider the needs of members at each stage:
• Newcomers. As a matter of cultural priority, remind members in all stages about the importance of newcomers to the community. The overall atmosphere of respectful conversation has to support community development along intended lines.
• Old-timers. The folks who’ve been your mainstay since the beginning are trying to socialize or get work done in the community. While you expect them to be patient with new arrivals as a matter of policy, it helps to do what you can to relieve them of the obligation to spend a lot of time answering newbie questions.
• Everyone. All the members do better when they understand who is who. Respect and status are due to the people who’ve been around for a long time and who know the ropes. Orientation and help are due to the people who are new.
Welcoming environment for newbies
Because you’ll be working with all segments of the community at the same time, do what you can to make it easy for them. If you have few newcomers, you’ll be able to manage the gap in experience handily. If you get lots of new people on a regular basis, you’ll want to plan for a systematic tiered approach. Here’s some suggestions:
• Basics. Make sure the newbie population immediately finds the essential roadmaps. These should be in place and updated as necessary: How to get started and introduce yourself, a statement of community purpose, and community standards and associated guidelines. Consider newbie forums that invite people to ask any questions they may have.
• FAQ. Provide a FAQ composed and regularly revised according to the questions typically received from your constituency.
• Features. Make it a regular habit to feature members—both new and old. It’s promote-able, and such “human-interest” stories bring people back out of curiosity.
• Profiles. Include profiles as part of your membership, and—if possible—a visible designation of the period of time they’ve been involved and any particular responsibilities or community affiliations they’ve taken on during that time.
• Topics. Maintain the topics that usually interest the newcomers, and provide spin-offs of them for old-timers who don’t want to continuously revisit old territory.
• Hosts. Consider providing hosts or designating willing community helpers as mentors for the newbies—again, relieving the old-timers of repetitious remarks/questions that can be annoying. Newcomers to a mature community will appreciate guidance before they attempt to sift through the potentially massive history of a community to find the most relevant conversations for their roles or interests.
If it’s clear that particular groups of community members prefer to be on their own, you can provide them with structures that allow that separation. The idea is that if intimate social groups have their own venues, they will be less likely to view others in the community at large as intruders. In interactions beyond their separate area, such folks are then more likely to be welcoming.
Ideally, a separate Groups structure works well (where people can run their own forums, posting content only for their own interest groups). If formal separate Groups are not possible, even designating forums of a message board for certain groups can provide the same effect. In a particularly large message board community, for example, it may be important to include a newbie forum for each major segment, and to invite willing community members to step in informally there to help with welcoming and orienting the new people. If you’ve had success managing communities with lots of people at different stages, please chime in.