Monday, May 29, 2006

Optimal size for online communities?

I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes for effective online communities. We know that one of the primary determinants of success is group size. This is something we need to seriously consider when forming classes (especially the online variety), discussion groups, organizational teams... Christopher Allen who writes the Life With Alacrity blog has an interesting posting on a recently completed analysis of guild size in the online game World of Warcraft. I'm not a game player, but I do find the social and psychological aspects of gaming quite interesting. There is much to be learned from studying them:
This all leads me to hypothesize that the optimal size for active group members for creative and technical groups -- as opposed to exclusively survival-oriented groups, such as villages -- hovers somewhere between 25-80, but is best around 45-50. Anything more than this and the group has to spend too much time "grooming" to keep group cohesion, rather then focusing on why the people want to spend the effort on that group in the first place -- say to deliver a software product, learn a technology, promote a meme, or have fun playing a game. Anything less than this and you risk losing critical mass because you don't have requisite variety.
I suspect that many of us are trying to make groups work that are too small. In voluntary groups, the most important place for members to spend their time might be in recruiting and retaining members. Having too few members is the kiss-of-death. If you don't have enough members to start with you're going to be swimming upstream. Having too many is a good problem -- just fork into new groups.

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