January 09, 2021

Stop blaming the tools

topics: articles, tools
Rosie Sherry
"Slack sucks for communities."

"I can't bear another Facebook group."

"Forums are so last decade."

Wherever you go, people are opinionated on why a community tool won't work. On the flaws. On the things that it can’t or won't serve.

I'm opinionated and have preferences too. I personally like to push the agenda of self-building your own community, mostly because I think more communities should learn to exist without relying on community specific tools that often limit future growth. However, it's not for everyone. Realistically it also doesn't stop me from using certain tools as an interim.

Hosting a paid Substack newsletter, for example, has been an interim for me. It was something to help me get from A to B. Now I want to get to C, D, E, and F, but I don't feel like I can do that with Substack. So I will move on, as annoying as it is. (For me, and you. Sorry!)

However, on the flip side, I probably wouldn't have made the progress that I have. Rosie.land would've stayed as a simple weekly curated newsletter. I wouldn't have shown up every week writing nor done the meetups that I've been doing. And ultimately, worst of all, I would have been sad Rosie for not making progress that I like making.

Progress over perfection!

There are communities on Whatsapp and Telegram. People doing good things, but I just personally can't keep up with the conversations and find the conversations so hard to follow. There are Telegram groups with hundreds of people on them and they work to a certain extent, just not for me. There are other people it works for, and that's ok.

Then there are Facebook groups. I actively avoid them mostly down to ethics, but also at the same time the main reason I still have a Facebook account is down to a handful of groups that I'm on and check into occasionally. Yet, for all my non-tech friends, Facebook is still the default.

Try a Facebook group for teens and there's a very slim chance it would actually work. As far as I know teens are rejecting Facebook. Instead, they are going to places like Discord and TikTok. I have Discord mostly to communicate to my kids. πŸ€·πŸ½β€β™€οΈ

Another one that gets slammed a lot is Slack:

  • "It's not built for communities"
  • "The history gets lost quickly."
  • "There's no moderation tools."
  • "I'm on so many and I'm overwhelmed."

Then there is Instagram. Someone the other day said that they didn't think community could be built on Instagram yet there are many people doing just that. Communicating through their images and videos. Using hashtags. Organizing events. Following one another and sending DMs. It can be done!

I believe you can build a community pretty much on any tool, but that doesn't mean any tool will work for your community.

The focus should be on knowing your community, choosing appropriate tools, and understanding who you may be including or excluding.

The trade-offs are everywhere.

We are also experiencing community overwhelm


Part of the problem is we are overwhelmed by the number of communities that are out there, most of which have been created on the spur of the moment without proper consideration on how to intentionally and sustainably move forward.

Sometimes spur of the moment communities can thrive and succeed, most commonly not.

And mostly these communities are hosted on platforms like Facebook, Telegram and Slack where the red notifications can become overwhelming to deal with.

Communities should exist for the right reason, not just because you have a great idea. We need to get better at thinking about the ecosystem as a whole. About who or what we are competing with. About the lives and challenges that our potential community members have. And also, of course, the kind of community we want to create.

Before creating a community, put yourself in their shoes.

  • do you know what communities they are on?
  • do you know why those communities are succeeding, or not?
  • what makes your community any different?
  • will people ultimately believe in what you are trying to do?
  • how will you manage to provide value and belonging?
  • do you actually want to commit to this for a significant part of your life?

No tool is perfect


People can have a great time in a run-down restaurant if the food, people, and conversation are good. Having that same experience in a 5-star restaurant won't necessarily make it better, in fact there's a good chance it could be worse.

Often I feel like we're seeking the perfect community tool, but forgetting that a tool is only part of the picture.

ProductHunt started with an email list. Ministry of Testing started a bit of following from me and a very inadequate online hosted community. Weekend Club started after connecting with people at a local indie hacker meetup, then it turned into a paid Slack accountability community. Indie Hackers started with text-based interviews, then many months later launched a custom forum.

No tool will make a community. However, at the same time, choosing the right or wrong tool can certainly make all the difference.

It's easy to find flaws in anything, but perhaps looking at the positives and what they could do for you is a better approach:

  • Telegram & Whatsapp: it's super easy to reach on people's phones!
  • Slack: the conversations are relevant to now, no need to trawl through old messages. You can even DM people privately and easily!
  • Discourse: isn't it wonderful to have great moderation tools and long historical discussions?!
  • Facebook: lots of my friends are there, it would be super easy to get some conversations going.

It's a people problem


At the end of the day. Community is super frustrating because you are dealing with people. People have to want to show up. A Slack might work, it might not. A Discourse might work, it might not. And who knows what else might work.

The tool and the features are not the point. It's about the people.

People need:

  • to want to show up
  • to care about your vision
  • to be excited or interested in what is going on
  • to extract or give value
  • systems for being communicated to
  • rituals that they can identify with
  • schedules that work for their lives and brains
  • to be understood
  • to feel special
  • to feel heard
  • something that isn't already on offer
  • feel comfortable with the type of tools or approach you are taking

You don't need a perfect tool to achieve this. You need an approach and a system that works for the people you serve. Some of this can be achieved with a tool. Much of it is really down to other things that many people forget is part of community building:

  • community service
  • a culture of experimenting
  • day to day admin
  • always be seeking for growth

What tools are you using or plan to use for your community? πŸ‘‡

—Rosie Sherry