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How I Lost A Stable Online Community

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Ever since I learned to crawl my way around the web world I've been building and coding any idea that comes to my mind. Mainly websites for the most part. Websites will always have a special place to me over other kinds of software because it is so accessible and it can bring people together from all corners. The first major website that I build took me around 6 months, and was built roughly 3 years ago. It was a fansite for a very popular metal band. It contained news, reviews, videos, merchandise and more importantly, user profiles. Users could log in for free and add each other as friends and send each other messages. I spent a fair amount of time after launch marketing the website on social media sites, and it quickly paid off. Users from all over the world were creating accounts, and things were looking up..at first.

The Humble But Awesome Beginnings

Because every story must have one. I launched the website on my birthday, coincidentally. And it was an amazing present. All the hard word I had put in to this website, was now public for anyone to see. Waking up the next day to 20 new user accounts was..no words. It was motivation to continue and reach out to more people. I wrote more and more content, and jumped on the social sites and talked to the fans, and they responded. I talked to every and any member that sent me a message, and why not. They found the time to become a part of my site, so the least I could do was thank them in person. Many of them found it weird that this websites owner was talking to them daily, but that's how I roll people. Everything was going great that year. The band had a new album out and their tour was just beginning, so I had plenty of content for the fans to read. A member of the band even shared my review of his album and got me an influx of new users. Again, no words.

After that year, the band went back to their normal lives, and I went back to focusing on another website idea while occasionally writing some news here and there. But surprisingly the fans remained and talked among themselves. There was a problem though. Without daily news, there was very little they could do on the website, aside from send each other messages and wait a day for a response. There wasn't anyway for them to know who was new to the site, and they had to approve each other as friends in order for them to send each other messages. That wasn't the real problem. The problem was that it was a 1 to 1 connection between users. They could only interact with each other one at a time, which makes for a terrible social gathering experience.

My Departure

As the band kept more and more out of the media, there was less and less news to write about. That's kind of the nature of these niche sites. As such, I found myself visiting the site less and less and forgetting to reply to messages, and even forgot I had a "suggestion box" on the website. The hardcore fans were still commenting and sending each other messages and even sending in suggestions and sending me news links to post. At this point however, I was well into another project and had little to no time to work on any of this. A problem when working solo. New ideas are born, and there is only so much time unfortunately. Thinking about it now, the site shouldn't have needed me to further itself. It had plenty of people logging on daily that could have done a much better job at creating the content that they themselves wanted to see.

The Tragic End

Eventually, as I left, so did the fans. No more comments, no more messages, no more suggestions. I didn't build a community, I just assembled a loyal group of people that wanted a community. I didn't build the tools to let that happen and have it grow organically. The website sits there collecting dust, getting a few views per day, but no interactions, no feedback, just a silent shell of something great it once was. But that is how we learn. We fall down, we get back up and we continue to run. When I first launched the site I had no users, as such I didn't really know how to make the website react to them. After I got users, I didn't know how to keep them. After I lost the users, I learned why they left.

Hopeful Comeback

So lessons were learned, and I am ready to give this a try once again. This year, the band is coming back, and so am I. I have a new design in mind, that's simpler, cleaner and more about the users than it is about me writing. The news is important, but it can also be found in a dozen other places and that's not what will set the website apart. The new idea is a community run fan site with several auto-moderation rules in place, with me last on that queue. Some of the user suggestions I ignored will be making a comeback, and more importantly, and toughest of all really, I will be removing the barriers that existed between the users. Everyone on the site is there for one reason, to share their admiration for the band and as such there's no need to break them off into their own little subsets of "friends". It's definitely an exciting project and it makes me glad that I do what I do. It's a constant learning experience and not just with technology.

Walter G. is a software engineer, startup co-founder, former CTO of several tech companies and currently teaches programming for a coding bootcamp. He has been blogging for the past 5 years and is an avid BMX rider, bio-hacker and performance enthusiast.

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