Space L Clottey

Why Your Online Community Won’t Work

Is it my place to tell people when I think they’re new experiences are doomed, based on my short and limited experiences of being alive?

No, not remotely.

Is it my place to possibly crush people’s spirits and cause things not to work in advance, if they trust me to be fully right about things?

Literally not at all.

But is it dishonest not to share your inhibitions with people’s ideas and say clearly the extent to which we believe how likely our inhibitions are likely to be valid in this case, potentially sparing them a lot of time working on something you think will fail?

Yes, keeping that would be dishonest. So here’s why your amazing idea for a thing + online community surrounding the thing won’t work.

Building an Online Community

The setup

Last march, I was reading a lot about communities, and tribes. Particularly what Naval Ravikant was always saying about the importance of tribes, and about the five chimps theory, where the type of person you are is highly dependant on the five people you hang out with more.

I also took seriously the concept of Dunbar’s Number, where the amount of people where everyone in the community can know everyone else was less than 150.

I was in a community already, the University of Bayes, but I thought that people had stopped being vulnerable and stopped sharing deep things because the community had tipped over Dunbar’s number a while back, at 500~ people at the time.

So I created a new Discord server, called Dunbar’s Hideout, the intent to be a close community of sharing where everyone else knew what everyone elses current struggles and stuff were. This was in Early 2021, during the second lockdowns.

I made an application form, and sent it out to my friends. The questions were:

And above those questions was my description of it at the time:

(Form isn’t too long, estimated filling time 7~ minutes)

Dunbar’s number is the number of people in a group who can have a meaningful relationship with everyone else in the group. It’s about 150. I think a lot of internet communities fail to get much more intimate than they could because they go far too over Dunbar’s Number, thus Dunbar’s Hideout will be an attempt to return back to the ancient tribe like community, bonding together as one ridiculously inter-connected tight tribe-giant.


This is a great video.

The key part of being in a tribe is everyone is close friends with each other. Friendship comes from repeated, iterated exposure. Vulnerability suffers when there’s thousands of silent onlookers, thus if you wish to join, please be sure that you will be able to participate a fair fair bit over the next few months at least. We want any newcomers to be familiar with who you are on the timescale of mere days, so that they can feel comfortable.

Dunbar’s Hideout will thrive only from feverrent group participation, so please, please only sign up if you’re sure that’s something you’ll be available to do. And a strong interest in self-improvement / learning would be a good thing to align on, if that’s something that appeals to you.

In Dunbar’s Hideout we will be able to trust each other fully! We will be able to bring our own problems to the limelight without feeling like we are taking the spotlight! To sit happily in a voice chat with no fear of who joins! To reveal dark secrets and grow stronger! To repel with a burning sensation inside you the armies of scientists who wish to ensnare you with addiction and stress while you are caught on your own, tribeless! We will thrive!

From ‘Nerds can be bees too’

> feeling like you’re really connected to other people, not just in a “they share my goals and seem okay” way but in a “these are my people, we form a tribe or a community or, while on horseback, a horde” way is one of life’s greatest pleasures and also a pretty important subgoal to anything that requires cooperation with other people.

The Payoff

What actually happened? I sent the form to a tonne of my friends, and some responded, and I added them in. Weirdly, it was the same people who I had had a book club with a year prior.

We organised a meeting time, and I made a tonne of channels where we posted into.

During the meetings, we decided to figure out what to talk about using the 2 petals and 1 thorn framework, of two good things that had happened and one bad thing.

Eventually one of the members couldn’t come for a unique reason multiple weeks in a row.

I wanted to slowly add people one by one so that everyone could be familiar with them, but I never got past a few people before it collapsed.

Now of course, when someone gives a unique reason for not being able to attend something multiples times in a row, in normal polite society this means “I don’t want to do it”. I did not realise this at the time. One fatal mistake here is that, at the beginning, I said in one of the intro messages “I really appreciate feedback. I don’t want to force anyone to do somethign to do “

I truly wish to avoid any coercion thus if you feel something’s gone terribly wrong feel very free to mention in tribe-meta with all the savegry you can muster so stuff can change if you still wish to stay, or feel very free to leave at any point. Tisn’t a prison, tis tribe 😌

The main thing I did wrong is that this wasn’t enough. It wasn’t nearly enough. People started not going to meetings/being late and I didn’t notice this and act on it soon enough. I think I thought that becuase I said feedback was okay, people would say it. Evntually I said

[Person 1] I notice you haven’t been able to come to a fair few, are you still invested?

And [Person 2] you’ve been late to the last couple in a row, are you? I don’t want the calls to feel like an obligation. I don’t much like the feeling of possibly coercing people into doing something they don’t wanna do.

Shall we cancel tribe experiment for the next 3 weeks, and possibly for after too?

I called it an experiment which was cringe, it was a way to allow everyone to save face and to back out of it, as opposed to just saying I had screwed up and apologising for somewhat wasting everyone’s time.

One of them said the calls had started to feel like an obligation, and that because they had started interacting with people irl again they didn’t need it so much.

What I learned

  1. When people have community irl, the need for online communities and calls goes way down
  2. Telling people that you accept feedback isn’t enough, you need to actively request it from them

Since doing the experiment, my valuations of creating online communities has gone down significantly. It feels like I’m always meeting people who are talking about creating communities out of nothing.

Usually I think they’ll fail because they aren’t centered around anything, and that people don’t like community for the sake of community, and that scheduled calls with no purpose are cringe.

But do I really think that? In writing this post and doing a proper look at what Dunbar’s Hideout actually was, and not the excaggerated hard to look at mess of cringe that it’s become in my head over the past year, was that really it’s problem?

I think for me the calls did start to feel like an obligation near the end, but I didn’t feel like I could remotely say that being the person who had spoken a tonne about it being amazing to begin with.

I think this is something I need to generally get stronger at and be more okay with: reneging even when I’m the one who initially suggested it, and not just going along with stuff that I’m meh on because the other person seems more than meh.

(I think this is “hell yes or no”. I think especially when I’ve gone past the point of thinking I’m likely to learn from it? I dunno, this would also lead to me ending meetings with people too early, before things get deep. I think I’m still at the stage where I’m learning what I want and it’s okay to not know and to just want to experiment with it).

I’m less certain about this, but I think mistake 3 is possibly:

  1. Don’t have communities for the sake of community

I think doing a book club is better. I seem to remember the calls being a tiny bit awkward and pointless feeling but I have no logs of that and hadn’t started journalling at the time.

I just think it’s almost really unnatural to meet for the purpose of talking, and that you should do something. Later on I joined one book club, then made the second one, for the purpose of this. But we fell to principle two, because after school started back up again we all lost the desire for it.

I think real life destroys principle three however, because hanging out in the same space together is really nice and feels more natural when in real life. But can still get boring if you’re not playing like a bored game or coworking or something. * The freeodm of knowing that your pomodoro break ends in 3 minutes or that when your walk starts to approach your house or something the talk has to end makes conversatiosn better. Video calls are kind of exhausting cos you’re staring at eachother and talking *is the point… going to boarding school and hanging out with people a lot more has made me realise that video calls are worse than hanging out irl.

So actually, I think I’ve walked down from thinking all online communities will probably suck. I think I’d have to fetch more data before concluding that. But if I were to make another online community, I’d keep these two things in mind.

  1. Oversaturation — people don’t need online communities nearly as much when they have fulfilling real life ones. If you expect people to be committing a fair bit to your online community while they’re already fulfilled, they won’t and you’ll be confused

  2. Feedback — if you’re not actively requesting and making it easy and actually socially acceptable for people to give you feedback, you’re not going to get it, and people may stop being invested and you’ll be confused why

Space L Clottey