Tackling community debt — What if we kicked out inactive community members?

I've been thinking a lot recently about community debt and how this can be a more considered part of our community strategies.

And then, as I do, I tweeted about it.

I feel the need for it so much more now, since the pandemic, everything in community just seems to have skyrocketed — and I don't think it's always a good thing. We've all been guilty of signing up to new communities, with good intentions, yet often we fail to go back to visit, contribute and give back.

I do it all the time, definitely more so since the pandemic. 🤫

It's almost like we feel it is our right as random citizens of the internet to get access to these spaces forever. That we should only leave on our own accord. That no one should kick us out unless we misbehave.

Yet, much of this thinking is from a member's perspective, I think we need to learn how to become better members. As community founders or builders we need to think about how we keep the community tidy, safe and manageable. Maintaining a community is real work. Community burnout for 'community managers' is real.

Maybe we should design in expectations of keeping the space lean and clean. Just like people clean their email lists out, we too should be encouraged to clean our community members out.

For those that have just had a heart attack at the thought of this idea, of course, context matters!

Will this work for long existing and long term communities? Probably not.

Can we do this for communities that are just starting now, or recently? It will probably be easier!

Also, what's the worse that could really happen? I know from previous experience I stress over this kind of stuff for ages. Then I clean stuff up or I let people know something is changing and no one truly kicks up much of a fuss.

More actionable bravery required Rosie!

What is community debt?

Community debt is where you prioritize community activities that will later impact the community experience in the future in a negative way. Generally speaking, it prioritizes community scale over quality of growth.

Why would we want to kick people out?

Vanity and scaling metrics is rife within communities. We associate number of members with greatness. We have to move away from that as a culture. It is not healthy.

Admittedly, 'kicking' is a bit of a strong word and is normally associated with bad behaviour. I can see how using this would upset people and is probably not the best way to word it.

Perhaps we can use words that explain the situation better — removal, tidying up, or even community gardening.

When building communities, one of our aims is to create a thriving space where communities are cultivated more organically, where we can create value for the members and the community as a whole.

It becomes harder when we have too many people. When some members want to intentionally create relationships and they waste time with people who don't. Or people that just drop in occasionally, dump their stuff and leave.

These are just a few examples of things that can impact communities negatively.

When we consider it from a community builders perspective:

  • we are responsible for managing and protecting all the data
  • keeping people safe
  • having conversations
  • understanding everything that is going on.
  • nurturing the community as a whole
  • ...and a million other things.

Often more members can cost us money too — sometimes directly in software costs, other times more indirectly with the time we spend managing the people and the data.

Clearing out space allows communities to focus on doing what they need to do to thrive. Less can be more. And just like many of us believe in minimalism or 'KonMarie' in real life, we can apply those same principles to community building.

Examples of the benefits of keeping members clean...

What if you are doing your members a favour? Helping them feel less guilty for not showing up, or perhaps just freeing up some space in their own minds.

What if the conversations become more relevant? Less small talk, deeper connection, greater action.

What if it helps you as a community builder feel better? Maybe it helps you cope and manage the day to day, surely that’s a benefit?

How would you go about doing it in practice?

Of course it depends on the tools you use. It might not be so easy to figure out with some tools. Other ones make it easier.

Discord makes it pretty easy to clean people out in the past 7 and 30 days. Ideally, I'd want more date range options to help me with cleaning up.

Slack also has the option to view inactive members. I've definitely been in Slack communities that deactivate inactive accounts.

If you're worried about 'lurkers', build that into your process. Maybe include reading of an email as a community activity.

However, at the same time as community builders it can be totally ok to build community for those that don't lurk. Masterminds and companies are communities and companies, they only work when people show up and contribute.

Personally, I would use Orbit too (yes, I have biases as I work there). See who is drifting away. See who hasn't interacted in x period of time.

Some other ideas include:

  • Last visited
  • Last posted
  • What has been contributed over time

It's not for every community

Context will always matter.

If people are or have paid for access to the community, maybe you don't want to do this.

It's easier to build this into the culture at the beginning. Perhaps to make it as part of the sign up process — making it clear what happens when people become inactive.

  • The when: after 1 week, 1 month, 1 year...
  • The why: we want to cultivate a tidy and safe community
  • The how: we will (not) notify you when it happens
  • The what (happens with your data): when you are removed we remove all your data.

I can see this type of stuff working better for chat type spaces — ala Slack and Discord. Chat spaces have a tendency to not be used for historical conversation purposes. People also drift out of these spaces a lot easier.

When you remove a person from a forum type community, there are genuine challenges about what should happen to the content. Does that all stay and remain intact for historical purposes? Are people ok with that?

Again, this backs up the idea that communities take effort to maintain.

I'm experimenting with this idea

I've wanted to hang out with other indie founders in a more intentional way, so I'm using this as an excuse to start a small community around the idea of being more intentional about connecting.

I'm putting up small barriers (a $9 entry fee) to stop just anyone joining. Then if people don't participate for a month they get removed. The rules are clear from the beginning. This community is not for everyone. That is ok.

Of course, as a community builder this brings all kind of thoughts and new (fun?!) challenges.

I was asked what would make it successful. I said survival, and I literally laughed out loud at myself — seriously, if I and the members don't put in the effort to connect, then it will die out pretty quickly.

Maybe this is the push and the shove that we will need to encourage us to take action within the community.

Maybe this will stop me from procrastinating on actioning certain things and just doing it.

Maybe other members will feel a sense of responsibility too.

🤷🏻‍♀️ Maybe not, but it's a fun and low-risk experiment that I think even I could learn from.

I'll keep y'all posted on how it goes, or if you are an indie founder, or interested in becoming one, consider joining!

Get creative and experiment!

If you take anything away from this post — let it be the idea that we have every right as community builders to be creative and try out new ways to build community.

I'm really not saying to go kick inactive people. What I'm saying is to rethink how we design communities.

Maybe it is something that could apply to your community, maybe not.

How can we build better communities?

We are on a quest to learn and explore what makes great communities.


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