FOO Discussion: Can we measure the health of communities?


FOO Camp Being that Chris and I have done some work with the good folks at O'Reilly this past year, we were lucky enough to be invited back to FOO Camp (this was Chris' first year). Chris seemed to be co-chairing every session (he has his hands in many things right now) and I got into a few of them myself. One of them, "Can we measure community health?" was a particularly excellent roundtable discussion and I wanted to share some of my notes here.

First off, FOO discussions don't really happen in a bubble. The themes discussed at FOO have been on the minds and lips of people all over our industry. What FOO Camp gives us is the chance to gather with people from far and wide and diverse communities and backgrounds to discuss this. David Crow, one of the stewards of the Toronto BarCamp community was my co-conspirator on the discussion (it was his suggestion as we drove up to Sebastapol). The brilliant Linda Stone was there to offer her wisdom. My good friend and amazing community leader, Kathy Sierra, was part of the discussion. Jono Bacon, manager of the worldwide community of Ubuntu, was there to tell his stories. Mitchell Baker attended and offered the Mozilla Foundation perspective (and blogged about how all over the place the discussion was...it certainly was!). I even pulled David Recordon and Chris in to see if OpenID would fit in the mix.

The challenge that we face when we sit down and talk about community is how deeply personal community is to each of us. We all have unique experiences of it and, for those of us who are part of tight communities, we feel emotionally connected to those experiences and the people we experience with. So we bring our nuances to the table. As Mitchell noted, we certainly didn't stay 'on topic' and definitely didn't come up with any definitive answer to how to measure the health of a community. And it is a topic that we are all thinking about and I've heard mentioned from many different people who work in this industry:

How do we measure the success of a community? (I call it 'health' because that is how I define success...it is more open to individual interpretation and denotes a different metric than size, which I don't think is a proper indicator of success.)

You see the crazy notes above that aren't really in any order, but for those of us who continued the conversation after our hour was up, we came up with these loose points:

  • Every community is unique. The indicators of health in the open source and international community of Ubuntu are quite different from the ones in the photography community of Flickr.
  • Furthermore, after a community grows to a certain point, it becomes a microcosm of multiple communities. You see within Flickr that many of the groups have become (or represent) individual communities that benefit from the platform of Flickr (and the larger community) to thrive (and vice versa).
  • The word 'community' happens when there are symbiotic relationships - people giving and receiving. The health of the community is maintained by balancing the two. This may be the closest to universal as we get. (feedback?)
  • Measuring a community should never be a metric of VALUE. Rather, it needs to reflect a metric of PERSONALITY, HEALTH and SERVICE (i.e. we discussed the observation of attrition and making sure we find ways, especially for newbie members, to reduce the number of those lost).
  • Another measurement to consider as potentially universal is the length of time between someone being a newbie and an expert and the ease of that process.
  • Metrics really are the way that we bridge the culture gap between community and the corporate. Some communities may never need to measure because they don't require funding, etc., but many communities do. If we, as having the interest of the community before the interest of the corporate, want to build those bridges, it is better for us to come up with metrics than for the corporations to impose theirs.
  • People belong to multiple communities and increase and decrease their activity and commitment to each over time. This ebbing and flowing should not be seen as a measure as much as an organic process. The better way to look at this is the ease of which you allow these cycles to occur and how well you work with other networks who do the same.

So, it is a start. Post discussion, I was asked to start jotting all of this down on a wiki that O'Reilly is compiling a book on Community...but I haven't received the link for it yet. I will post it here when I get it.

Feel free to add your anecdotes, arguments and general thoughts in the comments below.

5 Comments