Don't let "community everywhere" distract you

Last year Richard Millington, founder of FeverBee and an important figure in the community management profession, wrote an article called “The ‘Community Everywhere’ Era Has Arrived: Don’t Waste This Opportunity”.[1] His thesis is:

The platform-centric era of communities, with its clearly defined boundaries and neat lines of responsibilities, is rapidly coming to an end.

“Community everywhere” resonates for me. The global pandemic forced everyone to find safe places on the internet to meet their need for human connection. While Twitter and Facebook undoubtably benefitted, I’m not sure how many people really connect on these platforms. I personally found what I was looking for in a weekly board game group (using Tabletop Simulator) and a weekly Zoom meeting with family. My guess is that many people found little pockets of community online.

So how do we adapt to “community everywhere”? Here’s what Richard Millington suggests:

We shouldn’t be trying to drive all engagement to a single website, we should be trying to nurture and support the entire ecosystem regardless of where it takes place.

We’re managers of engagement ecosystems, not single platform channels.

This sounds smart. For all I know it is smart for companies deciding how to promote their brand. If you can’t count on people coming to you, better spread your bets across the board. And isn’t it better to be “people-focused” rather than “platform-focused”?

As you probably guessed from the title of this post, I don’t agree. At least part of our difference of opinion comes from a different understanding of where “community” fits into a company’s strategy. On it’s homepage, FeverBee announces:


I once wrote:

A community started by marketing will never become more than an outlet for marketing.

So yeah. We might disagree on what “community” means. From reading the article, I think he means something closer to “audience”[2] or “engaged customers”. That makes sense for people focused on brand communities, but the advice doesn’t transfer to other groups that are called “community”. Nicolas Chabanovsky, a former Stack Overflow community manager, put it like this:

In the case of the audience, organizers make most decisions on their own and are completely responsible for running the show, the people are passive. Community users are active, know what they need and rarely silently agree with imposed decisions from the outside. They are used to participating in decision making. Working with the community and the audience needs to be done differently because they are different types of people.

“Community everywhere” is one of those evocative yet vague phrases that evades concrete meaning. How can anyone object to meeting people where they are? At College Confidential we had (and will have) this discussion dozens of times . Our primary audience, high school students, isn’t interested in an old-fashioned forum. They are spending their time on Instagram or Reddit or TikTok. So why aren’t we spending more effort going to them?

The answer, at least for us, is that our forays outside of the forums never amounted to anything in the end. I don’t just mean we didn’t bring students to our platform. I mean students weren’t interested in College Confidential outside of our forums. It’s 100% this:

30 Rock Fellow Kids GIF by Peacock

When we stopped chasing an audience and started renewing our community, we converted our detractors. Or at least people started to understand what the community is all about:

[College Confidential] has its issues but I’ve found it a thousand times more helpful/relevant than Reddit as someone not trying to go to the top schools.

Students prefer to spend their free time on other platforms with looser rules.[3] But when it comes time to work on college applications, they seek out a place they know they’ll get useful information from experts who aren’t afraid to give honest answers. This community isn’t about selling energy drinks—it’s the draw itself.

  1. I first encountered Richard when he wrote “The Most Advanced Online Community On The Web (A breakdown Of StackOverflow’s Online Community)” in 2017. I left a comment on the article pointing out the space in “Stack Overflow”. He used Discourse as a comment engine and there was a small community using the forum. I notice that the forum is gone now. I also notice that the latest version of the article still lacks the space in “Stack Overflow”. ↩︎

  2. This word appears 13 times in the article, including in “If the audience doesn’t care if it’s a community, why should we?” ↩︎

  3. Or more accurately, rules that students have an easier time understanding and following. Boundaries seem restrictive when you don’t know why they exist. Many of the rules students struggle with on College Confidential enable teenagers and adults to interact in the same space. Reddit and other platforms have their own rules that are bewildering to people who don’t frequent those places. ↩︎

I was inspired to write this by reading Catherine Hackney’s post on LinkedIn. A key quote:

I prefer to think about it as :star:expanding your community sphere :star:. You don’t have to be everywhere, but you can expand your community and connect meaningfully with more members with your existing resources.