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Keys to the Community

4:59 am

One of the very best things about Fluther has always been our community. You’d be hard pressed to find a smarter, warmer or wittier bunch of people anywhere on the web. What exactly are the keys to building such a great community? Did we just get lucky, or was it the result of careful planning? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately, and it seems to me that it’s a bit of both. Nature and nurture, in other words.

Photo by practicalowl on Flickr

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Our community started out with friends and family of our founders: two Ivy League grads who valued knowledge, warmth, and humor — not to mention proper grammar. Naturally, the original members of the collective fit a similar pattern, and since our initial growth was all word-of-mouth, we had a strong core of like-minded members before we got particularly popular. I’d say that’s had a huge impact on how our community has developed over time. Even so, it’s probably quite important to envision your ideal community right from the beginning, and our founders certainly did. Fluther was modeled on the cooperative environment Ben and Andrew had grown to love at Brown University’s SunLab. “People in the lab were always willing and able to help with your problems; you just had to know who to ask,” Ben says. “We imagined the whole Internet could become a lab where people would happily help each other, if we could only connect them.”

As the community has grown, what we’ve noticed is that each new wave of members seems to form their own group of ‘friends’. This is especially true when a lot of people join all at once after media attention or during mass migrations from other sites. Over time, the mini-groups tend to end up integrating into the community as a whole. In a ‘your friends are my friends, my friends are your friends’ way, we are all interconnected.

Compared to a lot of other Q&A sites, we have some pretty strict guidelines, which some people find off-putting, but others love. It’s a self-selecting environment… people who object to not being allowed to use txtspk, make personal attacks, or spam the site don’t tend to stick around long. Guidelines wouldn’t mean anything without enforcement, though. Live, active moderation is so important in fostering good relations and civil discourse. If a flame war breaks out (hey, it happens), a mod steps in with a fire extinguisher. Problem members are warned, then suspended, and ultimately escorted out of the ocean if they can’t play nice. Equally important is the effort to treat everyone, well, equally. No one is ‘above the law’… if you break a guideline, you’re going to get modded, no matter who you are. Even the founders and most of the moderators have felt the gentle sting of the mighty tentacle.

As an outgrowth of our community, true friendships often develop. I think there are a couple of components to that. Firstly, an excellent interface and a pleasant environment encourage members to visit every day, and there’s nothing quite like seeing a familiar ‘face’ for getting to know someone. We celebrate milestones, provide a way for members to message each other privately, offer chat-rooms and created a Social Section where more lighthearted fare can be enjoyed. We also have a few ways for members to connect off-site, like our Facebook page, a Photobucket group, and by allowing our members to post links to their own off-site activities (blogs, FB, etc.) on their profile pages. In all of these ways, connections are formed, friends are made, and a great community thrives.