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Lessons learned from eternal September

A trip down memory lane

Internet early birds might remember Usenet, a set of forums that were the precursor to forums like we know them today - and if you do, you might remember eternal september.

Back in the early 90’s, Usenet was where communities on the internet came together. In those early days, Usenet was restricted to universities and colleges only, so every September, when the new college year started, there would be an influx of new users, causing friction and chaos on the forum as the new users bumped heads with the existing users. Every year, after a couple of weeks the majority of users had either fallen into step, following the unspoken norms of the community or simply left the forum because it wasn’t a good fit for them.

What happened?

In September 1993 ISP America Online started offering Usenet access to all its users, accompanied by a successful marketing campaign - resulting in a huge influx of users, completely overwhelming the existing forum culture. Not only that - but the onslaught of new users never stopped. After September 1993, more and more people got access to the internet, access to Usenet. For the OG forum users, it felt like that September never really ended - the new users generated an endless cycle of simple questions and out-of-tone posts, fatiguing the OG users, and finally alienating them. Some cynics still believe that the internet has never truly recovered!

There’s been many funny tributes - Just check out sdate - a little program telling us the date as if September 1993 never ended.

Why are you telling me this?

There’s a reason I’m bringing all of this up: after all, here at OrangeTrail we’ve worked on establishing some pretty large and productive communities within companies. Some of the communities we’ve worked with have as much as 100.000 users! What is so interesting about eternal September is what we learn about online communities, onboarding of new users onto them and managing how people behave online. Let’s break it down:

Lesson #1: Establishing behavior is easier than changing them

Changing the way a large group of people behaves online is incredibly difficult. People like to replicate behaviors that they see, and once a certain type of behavior (e.g. posting cat photos on a company platform) becomes prominent, a cycle is set in motion: people see it happening, replicate it, it becomes even more visible and so on…

That’s why it’s important that it’s clear what content should be posted on the platform and where, and to empower community managers before a big influx of users. When we organise platform launches for a client, we work with them to make sure that the right activities are happening on the platform from the very beginning. For example: if a user logs onto a new ESN and sees the CEO engaging in conversations, she will assume that this is where she can engage directly with company leadership. (More about why leadership should participate on ESN’s here).

Lesson #2: Conversation in a community will always happen at the lowest common denominator

When reading the anecdote above you may have wondered: why is the influx of new users so disruptive? One of the reasons was discussed above: users post the wrong content in the wrong places. This is part of the answer. However, there’s a second reason, and a community that grows quickly in size, can be frustrating for older community members: as more and more users join a community conversation become less specialised and more general.

Conversations in a community will always happen at the level at which they are accessible for everyone in the community, and it will be hard for the for people that have been there for a while, to achieve the depth of conversations they were used to before. But not all is lost - because our next lesson also is a solution for this issue, so read on!

Lesson #3: Define the niches that work for your community

Now of course, I’m not a cynic - I love the internet today, with all it’s flaws and charms. I happen not to think that September 1993 ruined the internet, not all is doomed and not all hope is lost.

While communities that reach mass popularity tend to alienate their userbase, one interesting effect we’ve seen is that users tend to organise themselves in niche-communities according to their interests. Enable this in your company by making sure that your ESN has separate spaces, groups or subcommunities in which users can have more detailed and engaging conversations.

Groups and communities where experts can discuss or where teams can do their work are good examples of this. By thinking about this in advance (here at OrangeTrail we follow a process we call content architecture, and you can read about it in our case) you can prevent fatigue and frustration in your community and keep your users happy, productive and returning to the platform every day.

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