Where do online communities come from?
Communities are born in order to satisfy someone’s need for information, support, recreation, or relationship. For example, a group of people who share the same medical diagnosis may decide to create an online community so they can support one another through their illness.
The first stage is creation. Once the parent organization chooses a technological platform to use, the people can start to communicate with each other. After a time, these founding members start to invite other people to participate.
The second stage is growth. During this time frame, a distinct culture and identity start to form among the members of the community. Members start to use a shared vocabulary, and common rules start to develop. Roles will develop within the community; members take on specific roles like leader, lurker, or follower. According to researchers, this growth stage is the same in both online and physical communities.
The third stage is maturity. Generally, due to size and longevity of the community, a need emerges for more formal and standard rules of behavior. In addition, subgroups start to form. It is during this stage that deeper, lasting relationships between members begins to develop.
Throughout this cycle, new members join and old members leave. The community is constantly changing as new experiences are shared. Sometimes a mature community grows too large to sustain a sense of unity and belonging.
This final stage is change. When communities grow too large to sustain meaningful cohesion, one possibility would be fragmentation. Each sub-community starts again at the creation stage. Another option is a change of focus where the new community shares a common history with the original but has a new purpose. For example, a support group could evolve into a fundraising group. A third option is that the community can die through natural attrition.
Online communities have a defined life cycle, and community managers need to facilitate the natural progression of a community’s life, no matter what stage that community is in.