One of the biggest complaints I hear about communities are that they are too noisy — members enter a community, try to find something meaningful to do, to consume, and to contribute to. What often happens is that people feel overwhelmed and don't come back, or at least that is what they say.
Whilst some tools are more susceptible to this overwhelming feel, I don't think it's a tool problem. I've heard people complain that Discord, Slack, forums, social media and even newsletters are just too much to keep up with.
There is another aspect too — we have to be careful about believing what people say. On one hand I genuinely believe people feel overwhelmed in these scenarios, however, part of me also thinks there is more to the story than that.
😬 How does it feel to walk into a crowded room?
We could look at it from the perspective of a large crowded room. Perhaps at a party or a conference. People are talking and laughing. It looks like everyone is having a great time.
This must be what success looks like! This is what your boss wants. A hive of activity.
Then a member walks into the room. They have wandered in. They don't know anyone. They're trying to figure out what the whole places is about. No one says hi as they walk in. They are expected to go to another room and introduce themselves. A bunch of people wave and do some funny signs. Then they are left on their own again.
What are they supposed to do now?
Maybe this is fine for those that are confident and extroverted in their human nature, but what about everyone else? When we build community we have to consider the wide range of preferences and needs of everyone.
⚠️ Don't confused a flurry of engagement for real community value
Crowded rooms are actually very hard to get value from. Things move too quickly. It's hard to make sense of what everyone is talking about. The topics are often of no huge interest. And usually it is the loudest people in the room who get heard.
And maybe that's ok. Sometimes. But really it depends on the context.
I don't think that crowded rooms are bad. They can be just fine and functional in certain situations. But perhaps having a crowded room all the time, or a very visible crowded room is something we need to be more aware or cautious of.
When you go to a concert, or even something like a football stadium, you don't walk straight into the seating area. There is an entrance. Staff to welcome you. Places to walk through. Refreshments to be purchased. Then when you have everything you need, you go to your 'seat'. Perhaps you have a specially chosen location too. Maybe next to friends. Or near people who support the same team.
It could be a shock to the system if you went to a concert and walked straight into the main arena. You'd feel lost. Unsure to go. Stumble your way through. And ultimately, your chances of not going back have skyrocketed.
It would also be super tiresome to have to show up at the stadium everytime you wanted to contribute or find out what is happening. Busy spaces have their time and place.
What can we do about crowded rooms?
The overwhelm of a crowded space is such a common problem that I feel we should be talking about it a bit more — becoming more aware of it is a great first step.
When we think about the communities we are building we have to get better at understanding why people 'bounce' — why do they not come back? And why are they complaining about the noisy room.
Some things we should think about...
From a members' perspective:
- they are busy: how much time do they really have to browse what is going on?
- they are (often) new: getting a handle of people's names, identities, community culture and let alone the topics they are talking about takes time. As mentioned above, they are usually busy.
- people often don't come to browse: when you go to Google, you don't come to browse the internet. You come to search for a specific thing. The same can apply to community, not always, but often.
- people want to problem-solve: normally their own problems, they will tend to first search, before diving into having a conversation or asking for help
- people get pushed too early: often we are in a hurry to push members into a space, maybe we need to let people find it in a more natural way, when they are ready.
Looking at it from a community builder's perspective:
- fear of failure: we feel and are put under pressure if our spaces aren't (constantly) active.
- vanity metrics: we are judged and measured by the stats and whether people are showing up in bulk.
- insecurity: this leads to community builders feeling insecure.
- why do people show up: what is it that people are actually seeking?
🎨 Design a community for everyone's needs
A community does not need to mean everyone needs to exist and show up in the town hall. A community is about serving a need and supporting people in a specific context.
Maybe in that context people just need help to a question once a year.
Maybe they don't need any help at all, maybe they want to give or donate to the cause.
Maybe they have lots of time and energy and want to contribute many things.
Maybe the tech is overwhelming and they want information in an email.
Maybe they just want to check the website for the latest information.
Maybe when people say it is too noisy it's because:
- they can't find the information
- it's just an excuse for showing up
- they can't find what they are looking for
- they don't really know what is on offer
- the tech is overwhelming them
- it's just not that important to them right now
The more I think about this, the more I see the frustrations of "it's too noisy" as an opportunity for us as community builders to really explore what it is they need. We don't need to take it at face value — we can use it as an opportunity to explore, understand and problem solve for.