For most of you who have been part of any communities, online and offline, you recognize that the above diagram as being a pretty rough estimation of the 'levels' of intimacy people who touch a community site/product on any level have. Of course, there are all sorts of gradations in between and people tend to oscillate between these levels, but here it is. One of the things that drives me nutty about the current use of the word, 'community' is that it has started to stand in for every hit one has to their site. As you see on the diagram, the casual visitors are not the ones invested in it.
So why are so many sites who purport to be striving for community implementing quantity-enhancing features like anonymous commenting? Now, I understand the need for Onramps, but Onramps and barriers to entry are not the same thing. Onramps/offramps are the ways that you assist your customer/contributors with ways to create content and then share content. It's basically a data booster.
Barriers to entry, like site sign-up, for instance, aren't always necessary. Google doesn't make you sign up to search. But they do make you sign up to use anything else. Yahoo! doesn't make you sign up to search or browse, either, but I don't know any other Yahoo! properties that will allow you to post your own content without having that Yahoo!ID. There are definite benefits and drawbacks to this, of course. The drawbacks are that, if you don't have an account, you have to go through the process of setting one up. Before you are ready to 'commit' yourself somewhere, you may not want to do that. The benefits, though, are numerous for both the company and yourself.
I know having Google p0wn me, I get a great deal in return. I get better search results. I get to unite my gApps to interoperate beautifully. Sure, they use my patterns to try and sell me stuff, but the more I use it, the more relevant those ads become. And I usually ignore them anyway. Don't get me wrong. I am a bit concerned about the amount of data Google has on me, but my choice is clear...I can avoid them. Yahoo!, too. They own the social part of me and for that, I get a history of my social interaction. If I was a developer, I could take the data APIs and create cool maps of my interactions.
But these barriers also help me feel a little safer from stuff like SPAM (which I hate). The more complex the sign up, the safer I feel. I know when I stumble around Facebook, I'll find 99% people because of their barriers to entry. And because they add other barriers (co-friending, etc), it feels like a closer knit community.
I don't know if there has been a study done, but I'd expect that the closer knit communities have higher barriers to entry. I had to have a phone conversation to get on The Well! It made it feel way more substantial.
Of course, there is a happy medium. You don't want to make people jump through so many hoops that they give up, either, but the trend towards sites that you never have to sign up to participate in the community in just feel...well...like they are striving for maximum quantity over actual quality.
Tell me, if someone isn't willing to sign up to a simple webform to participate in a discussion, are they really your audience? And, as casual passers by, why would you design features that reward them and not your passionate team members who are contributing heavily?
Maybe I'm totally wrong, but whenever I go to a site that tells me I don't have to sign up to comment, edit, create something, etc., it feels impersonal to me. It reminds me of the old media model where you broadcast to many to catch a few (vs. new media where you help create amazing experiences for a few who go out and tell many):
Personally, I feel that it just sets the wrong sentiment from the beginning. If you truly want to create a long term, sustainable community, you have to realize that this takes time and patience and effort with everyone who does sign up.
And, from Citizen Agency 'wisdom' it breaks one of the core rules of community fostering: it puts quantity ahead of quality.