Nik Spyratos @TheCapeGreek

Thought on communities, lifestyle design and "tribes"

19 April 2022

I love online communities. Hundreds and thousands of minds coming together to discuss, collaborate, learn, and joke. Yet there's a ceiling to the value and impact of communities for individuals.

I've been in online communities for about 14 years. Not quite the grizzled IRC veteran but still part of the evolution of online communities. My first was the Sims 2 online forum back in 2008, then the Spore forums for a time, and several others since. And... I'm tired. I've seen the ups and downs of some groups for years. I've seen others wither. I've seen valued members leave due to conflicts. I've especially seen the burden that leadership can become.

The most active communities can also be some of the most valuable; most often if they stay in a niche. When you're new to a topic, they can be an essential lifeline or progress multiplier. I'd say I owe at least half of my career success and industry knowledge to the ZATech community. In ZATech I've had many opportunities and learned from others in all sorts of topics (tech and non-tech). I'm immensely grateful to that community as a whole.

After a while you might want "pay back" the debt of gratitude. This is often by giving the same value to others or becoming part of the moderators/organisers. I've done this by organising PHP Cape Town & PHP South Africa and giving free tech career advice.

Communities are usually free (monetarily or participatory), but they aren't free for the organisers. Online hosting costs, moderation, and stress. Balancing with competing interests (family, day job, education, etc.) also takes a toll. The management of this multitasking comes with its own energy cost. In the tech industry there's lots of talk with burnout around work, but less so around everything else surrounding work.

Another way to see it is as diminishing returns. What comes after you've hit a peak in a community? Once you're one of the "elders", most learning and the best ROI will likely come in your own time and experience. You might share new knowledge with others, but only other elders will understand the depth of it. At that level, I don't think the ordinary community model works anymore; you need something... smaller.

Perhaps this is the way it's supposed to be: a personal golden era in a group, after which you get tired, bored, or banned. As in life, the old guard steps down and the new kids on the block take over. The elders move on or retreat into ivory towers. That's likely where I'm at: looking for a change. I am a seeker after all, to those who know me. Does it have to be an ivory tower though? I'd like to look at an alternative model. It's by no means my own idea. The concept is a "tribe". To understand the tribe in this context, one should also understand "lifestyle design".

Lifestyle design is the idea of consciously planning & crafting how you want to live, at all level of detail you care for. Diet, appearance, location, career, income, social life, romantic life, mental health, and so on. Within lifestyle design, you're also afforded the ability to create your own in-groups for any purpose you see fit. This is what I believe to be the next evolution of community: a much smaller, focused in-group.

I'm not telling you to start a competing community. I'm telling you if you have diminishing returns, it's okay to pull back and re-assess. Splinter off with a small group of trusted people into a focused group with clear goals and participation. This group would be about sharing deep knowledge & resources, collaboration and trading skills.

I recommend keeping the size very small; about 5-10 people in the beginning at most. I've started one such group in a specific niche and as a rule we only allow others in that we've all met and vetted. It's easier to coordinate in a small group. Plus, by being exclusive, you can ensure that all members are active contributors. I think these groups also tap into a primal need for small in-groups, in contrast to the modern huge groups we find ourselves in.

Of course, not all have these sorts of networks across communities, so it's hard to make these groups. The alternative is to seek out existing ones, as then you don't need to build your own network or be the leader. The tradeoff usually is that they're invite only and can be tricky to get into unless you already know someone in them - a "gatekeeper".

As with everything, pick your poison.


If you enjoyed this, follow, subscribe, yadda yadda. I write stuff from time to time. My next post is titled "Myths of Belonging".