When I worked at reddit, people always asked who we thought were our competitors. I usually responded that our biggest competitor was everyday life, homework, Netflix, people’s families, work, and the outside world (shout out to /r/outside). It was a glib and convenient answer to avoid discussing any other companies, but part of me was serious. All consumer businesses compete with (gestures wildly) everything for the limited hours in the day. This is especially true for businesses, where the community provides much of the value. The value of any community comes from the collective potential of social bonds. Like any relationship, these social bonds decay over time unless we nourish them. When contributing members of a community reallocate their time to another activity, it doesn’t just deteriorate their experience; it affects the entire ecosystem. The network effects that make communities powerful when they are growing can also make them vulnerable to the slow erosion of time.
All of our communities will die. Even the most active super user stops engaging on a long enough timeline. If your work involves online users, then you know retention is hard and churn is an unforgiving puzzle to solve. Short term problems demand urgency, but retention is always the biggest challenge and most important metric. There are other fatal problems for communities, but retention is like heart disease. It might not be the scariest fate out there, but statistically, it’s probably going to be what kills you. I’ve always hungered for a less abstract term. The dull Latinate term "retention" just doesn’t do it for me. I’m too laid back, I need a more concrete and tangible enemy to motivate the right response. I need to see it.
For a while, I tried referring to the relentless enemy as Entropy. If you believe online communities are living, breathing ecosystems, then you accept that like all natural systems communities will decay and seek entropy. Entropy is more grand than “retention” but it’s still a bit too abstract. Then I remembered the villain from the 1984 classic, The NeverEnding Story. In this movie based on a German Children’s Book, the main villain of the story is the Nothing. The Nothing is a terrifying, destructive cloud that consumes everything in its path. A growing storm of despair and non existence. This was one of those movies they made us watch in elementary school when the teacher was out. It was heavy stuff for a children’s story, and the images of The Nothing disturbed me in ways most movie big baddies couldn’t. The feeling of The Nothing devouring everything in its path was just the mental image I needed to think about retention in the right way.
The erosion of social bonds and interconnecting roots within the community isn’t just a gradual decline, it’s the work of an active and cunning adversary. I discussed this metaphor of The Nothing publicly, and while it works for me, I quickly realized the movie was a dated reference and the terror of The Nothing wasn’t a potent memory for younger generations. Recently, I was talking about Community with Tom Osman from Makerpad, and we discussed entropy, and when my reference to the Nothing fell flat, he mentioned The Heat Death of The Universe. I’m a proud Liberal Arts major, and I don’t really understand Thermodynamics, but I’ve visited the Heath Death rabbit hole (how could you not with a name like that).
“Despite the name, the heat death of the universe isn't a fiery inferno. Instead, it's the death of all differences in heat. This may not sound scary, but the heat death is far worse than being burnt to a crisp. That's because nearly everything in everyday life requires some kind of temperature difference, either directly or indirectly,” says Adam Becker in BBC Earth. The Heat Death is an almost perfect metaphor. An intense name for when all potential disintegrates into a cold, homogeneous, and unworkable blankness.
There are countless variables that go into one community member's decision to log back in or not, and countless more variables that go into the dynamics of an emergent pattern or project. Our day-to-day work as community managers and leaders happens at the human scale, but it’s important to always be preparing for the abstract yet real existential threat that eats away at all groups and systems. Whether you envision it as retention or churn or entropy or The Nothing or the Heat Death of the Universe, it’s out there steadily chipping away at all the hard won connections and shared experiences. It’s never enough to maintain in the community realm. If you’re not constantly building in new communal stories and adding new hope and excitement, your community won’t survive long. Even if you do all those things exceptionally well, it might not be enough.
Sometimes when an active member of a community I manage goes silent or stops engaging, the loss feels personal. They rarely defect to a competitor, or have a specific moment that pushes them away. They just “get busy” and come back less and less frequently. Those losses needle some deep fears. “Will they ever come back?” “Is this the beginning of a downward trend?” “Did we make a mistake?” “Are we going to attract and empower new active users?” “Are we, am I still relevant?” “Is it too late?”
Individual super users come and go, but each time one flickers out, I worry. It’s like the forces of entropy and decay just racked up another point. Just stole another soul. Perhaps this is all too melodramatic, but I don’t want to become complacent. Retention should inspire the same urgency as any direct competitor or rival. Like Charles Barkley says, Father Time and decay are undefeated.