When I first started the SheNomads Slack channel, it was to mentor people who wanted to learn Rails. Now it’s a thriving community with channels based on tech, travel, and remote work.
And I can happily say that some of my online friends have turned into real life ones that I travel with.
I’ve also made friends with other community organizers. We share tips on things like how to enforce a code of conduct, and how to stay organized while managing an online community.
Many of us seem to be running into the same problems. We all help each other out, but every now and then a community that I was really excited to see win has to close.
Organizers get burnt out, or their communities fail to grow in an authentic way, or both. Seeing someone put so much love, time, and care into something just to see it end sucks.
And I’ve noticed a pattern.
A lot of these problems are stemming from the “everything should be free” culture.
Even if you can make a profit early on (we did with the job board, retreats, sponsors and coding classes), free communities can still have issues. So, I’m only going to join paid communities moving forward, and I encourage you to do the same.
Here are 9 reasons why I’m no longer joining free online communities:
1. Free communities attract spammers.
You have a pointless survey you’d like me to fill out, which provides no benefit to me or anyone else in this group? Great! You have a pyramid scheme that you swear isn’t a pyramid scheme that everyone in the group needs to know about? Amazing! Spammers create more work for organizers while creating an inauthentic experience for community members.
2. Paid members engage in authentic conversations because they really want to be there.
If I join a community and the majority of its members are only there once every few months, it makes it harder to do so. So many times I’ve seen someone start an interesting conversation, and then vanish. And then I stop showing up too.
3. I want to join online communities that are growing and evolving.
Without funds, an online community cannot grow. It eventually becomes stagnant or depends on funding from companies who want to tap into that user base. And that eventually starts to become spammy.
4. I want to see community organizers win.
I’ve seen so many that start off with a great community, and get burnt out. The people who take the time to organize safe, authentic spaces for us deserve better.
5. I don’t want to join communities that take funds from companies that treat underrepresented people in tech like garbage.
Weeding out the bad money takes a lot of time, which means more work. I’ve also noticed that communities that have a code of conduct, yet take funds from questionable tech companies have trouble enforcing a code of conduct. That’s not good for anyone.
6. Community organizers should not have to work for free.
It takes time to grow a safe online space that provides some benefit to its members. You have to figure out who they are, what they want, what they don’t want, and how to keep them safe. It takes the time to put together a good code of conduct. It takes even more to enforce it. We expect all of these things: authenticity, entertainment, safety, benefit… and organizers should be compensated for it.
7. Community organizers shouldn’t have to rely on bonus content platforms to offset the cost of their time.
Now, if I’m paying for content, I’m paying for content. If I’m in a community, there should be some form of payment for that alone. Community organizers shouldn’t have to provide bonus content in order to keep a community going.
8. I don’t want to join a community just to be the ‘product’.
Often time spaces are free because organizers want to figure out how to later sell you products. Or, they want to sell your information to other companies that want to sell you products.
9. We are all in too many stagnant online communities.
Between Slack groups and Facebook groups, I’m already in too many groups. Many of them suffer from the problems I’ve listed above, and many I was added to without my permission. I’d like to shift my time to the communities that are evolving without burning out their organizers, and living off funds from toxic tech companies. Even if they are smaller, those are the communities I picture evolving into something I want to be a part of in the future.
10. From what I’ve seen, free online communities fail at being inclusive compared to paid online communities.
I’m not saying that by default paid communities are any more inclusive. Some of them are awful. But I am saying that I’ve found more inclusivity in paid communities.I think this ties in with number 5. Some community organizers are willing to take money from companies that have historically been awful to underrepresented people in tech. Then why am I in that community? Is it really a safe space? What happens when it’s time to enforce that code of conduct? What happens when the conversation focuses on cis straight white women and excludes the rest of us?