Building and Maintaining Communities


Principles, Key Research Themes, and Notes for Great Communities

Principles for a great community

  1. Eat together
  2. No meetings, run decision making through Slack
  3. Have a high bar for who can join
  4. No bosses, many leaders
  5. Support disengaged housemates
  6. Automate friction points (e.g. chores)
  7. Avoid dating / breakups within the house (exception for True Love)

The Evaporative Cooling Effect

Communities worsen as they grow because the quality of members decreases. This can be mitigated by direct exclusion, mechanisms that cause low-quality members to self-select out, or designing the community to consist of isolated "warrens" of people.

If anyone can join your community, then the people most likely to join are those who are below the average quality of your community because they have the most to gain. Once they're in, unless contained, they end up harming the health of the community over the long term.

Social Gatings are mechanisms that allow participants to self-select out of the group. Unlike direct exclusion, it works in a much more scalable fashion. Nicheness is one possible social gate, charging money is another popular one.

There are two fundamental patterns of social organization: plaza and warrens. In the plaza design, there is a central plaza and every person's interaction is seen by every other person. In the warren design, the space is broken up into a series of smaller warrens and you can only see the warren you are currently in. Plazas grow by becoming larger, warrens grow by adding more warrens.

Warrens are notoriously difficult to get started. New users, stuck in empty warrens often don't know how to connect to hubs of activity. The onboarding process is crucial and still not well understood. On the other hand, plazas only need to be started once and then they remain a hive of activity for new users to participate in from the first day.

The killer feature of warrens is that they allow your community to become almost perfectly scale free and grow like mad without ever sacrificing quality.

Geeks, Mops, and Sociopaths in Subculture Evolution

Subcultures start with a small group of creators. This attracts fanatics who don't create, but contribute energy / money / admiration. If the area is exciting, "mops" will come, people who are there for a good time, but contribute nothing. If enough mops arrive, "sociopaths" will come to exploit the subculture for personal gain.

A small group of creators invent an exciting New Thing. Riffing off each other, they produce examples and variants, and share them for mutual enjoyment.

The new scene draws fanatics. Fanatics don't create, but they contribute energy (time, money, adulation, organization, analysis) to support the creators.

Creators and fanatics are both geeks. They totally love the New Thing, they're fascinated with all its esoteric ins and outs, and they spend all available time either doing it or talking about it.

If the scene is sufficiently geeky, it remains a strictly geek thing; a weird hobby, not a subculture.

If the scene is unusually exciting, and the New Thing can be appreciated without having to get utterly geeky about details, it draws mops. Mops are fans, but not rabid fans like the fanatics. They show up to have a good time, and contribute as little as they reasonably can in exchange.

Mops also dilute the culture. The New Thing, although attractive, is more intense and weird and complicated than mops would prefer. Their favorite songs are the ones that are least the New Thing, and more like other, popular things. Some creators oblige with less radical, friendlier, simpler creations.

A large subculture with mops is ripe for exploitation. The creators generate cultural capital, i.e. cool. The fanatics generate social capital: a network of relationships—strong ones among the geeks, and weaker but numerous ones with mops. The mops, when properly squeezed, produce liquid capital, i.e. money. None of those groups have any clue about how to extract and manipulate any of those forms of capital.

The sociopaths quickly become best friends with selected creators. They dress just like the creators—only better. They talk just like the creators—only smoother. They may even do some creating—competently, if not creatively.

Sociopaths become the coolest kids in the room, demoting the creators and work out how to monetize mops.

What can you do to prevent the invasion of mops?

You can charge them admission, but they'll inevitably argue that this is wrong because capitalism is evil.

You can exclude mops. Mop exclusion keeps the subculture comfortable for geeks, but severely limits its potential. Often there's a struggle between geeks who like their cozy little club as it is, and geeks who want a shot at greatness—for themselves, or the group. In any case, if the New Thing is cool enough, mops will get in regardless.

What can you do to prevent the invasion of sociopaths if you're a creator?

Be slightly evil. Learn and use some of the sociopaths' tricks and capture more of the value you create (and get better at ejecting true sociopaths).

Let's Disrupt Dating Apps

Over time, dating apps fail to maintain high quality communities

How to fix dating apps

  1. Don't call it a "dating" app. The app should be labeled as a "singles" app.
  2. Focus on having a good time. The "conversion" shouldn't be a match, it should be having a fun night out.
  3. Enforce a 50:50 ratio. This might bring DAUs down, but without enforcing a M:F ratio, you end up with asymmetric markets.
  4. Without becoming a meetup app, the app should occasionally push events — concerts, hikes, movie nights — with groups of 6-10 people.
  5. Avoid ELOs and other ranking algorithms.
  6. Have a vetting process with a zero-tolerance policy for bad apples

Problems with Chores in Communities


Coliving groups default to assigning chores to get things done. There's several problems with this.

"Perfection is merely adequate, imperfection is disappointment"
When the dishes get done and people take out the trash, people's reaction is a shrug. When the chores don't get done people get mad.

People do what they're assigned to do, and nothing more
Once you've done the dishes, you've "done your part" and won't take out the trash. That's somebody else's chore.

Lack of gratitude
Suppose a friend came to your house and took out your trash when you weren't looking. How would you feel? Probably pretty damn grateful.

But if someone you live with does the dishes because they were assigned to, you wouldn't feel any gratitude. I did my job and they did theirs.

Chores frame action as repaying a debt, not an act of generosity

The Brag Sheet, An Alternative to Chores

One way to frame community contributions as an act of generosity, instead of repaying a debt, is to implement a "Brag Sheet".

How does it work? When you see something that could be done to make the community better, you just do it. Then you post that you did it.

You brag (in a public Slack channel).


  1. Allows people to be grateful for all of the nice things that are being done for them
  2. Lets people get credit and recognition for doing things (Slack react emojis!)
  3. Ingrains a social norm that people contribute without being asked