I’ve been thinking a lot about how online communities work in recent times, trying to get a handle on what makes them thrive and flourish. As I try and revive Beyond3D’s publishing side and make it sustainable, it’s natural that my focus has turned to the site’s discussion forums: it’s the biggest producer of revenue that the site has, yet it’s very poorly monetised, so it’s the easiest thing for me to focus on nurturing and growing in the future.

I think there are several key reasons why the forums have continued to evolve over the years, despite the main site not doing anything substantial for quite a long time now. When I think about online communities in all of their other various forms these days, I think some of the core qualities of the Beyond3D forums are mirrored in other examples of successful online community, or, in the case of the broken or those that haven’t survived, were mostly absent or left unattended. I’ll try and write it all down as I see it. But first, a brief history lesson.

Beyond3D was started a long time ago, and actually under a different name: Dimension3D. Lost to the mists of time, and lost well before I became aware of its incarnation as Beyond3D, it was only a discussion forum and no secondary publishing happened. Even when the site published graphics analysis on a regular basis, especially in the Dave Baumann era right before I got involved as a writer, the forums were the selling point of a visit to the site.

So not to knock anything that anyone — and there’s a reasonably illustrious set of authors that have written content for Beyond3D — wrote, but what we wrote was never the main reason for a visit, and I don’t intend it to be the main reason for a visit in the future, even if I start publishing there again. That content was sometimes the hook, but the line and the sinker has always been the discussion and community resident on the forums.

I think the main answer to the question of why is a pretty straightforward one: moderation.

Beyond3D’s forums have always been actively moderated, with the end goal that participation in almost any thread in the more technical areas will result in an education for both readers and writers. The magic trick is the moderators are often people without actual moderator powers. We’ve always had a team that’s able to edit, delete and move posts and threads, to remove contributions that actively damage the signal-to-noise ratio of a thread. But those guys are usually completely invisible to the forum populace, to the point where a lot of forum goers might not actually know who the actual moderation team is.

If I look at the moderation log now, where I can see everything that each person with moderation ability has done, the moderation activity, including in the parts of the forums where the discussion is more subjective than objective, is really just smoothing off a tiny handful of rough edges. Most moderation is actually done by the posters themselves, before they press submit. You see, the community at Beyond3D requires its fellow participants to think before they hit submit. It does that somewhat because of the subject matter; 3D graphics is a complex topic and the forums have discussion of the entirety of the topic, from GPU architecture all the way up to how industries that make use of the technology are growing and evolving.

It also requires you to think because the folks that post there are often not just on the periphery of the industry because they’re enthusiastic about the subject and want to come and learn, a point I’ll get back to, but because some of them are active in the industry and help to build it on a daily basis, and have done for a very long time (another point I’ll get back to!). You can’t wade into a thread where the participants are subject matter experts and the content is often objective, all guns blazing. Contribution to threads on Beyond3D, for the most part anyway, requires a specific approach. Those that don’t think first, and do so repeatedly, have always been asked to leave.

So the moderation there has come from the active moderators when there’s a necessity for it, but by far the most active moderation activity comes from those that want to post, before they ever do. That’s been key to the success. I strongly believe that if Beyond3D didn’t encourage that kind of posting atmosphere, where quality of post definitely beats quantity, and where the posters that are able to combine both have thrived and have stuck around for a very long time to help nurture the place over time, it would be a wasteland today. Not being scared to give people the boot is key, too.

Being a passive or active participant in the community has always a great way to educate yourself if you’re interested in 3D graphics. I’ve seen that trait elsewhere online a great many times: people will passively read in large numbers, and actively contribute much less, but in enough volume to sustain a community, if they can get something out of it that they can take into their lives, either personally or professionally.

The number of small, niche, specialist communities that have been around online for a very long time is testament to that fact. In among the large, noisy, chaotic communities online are myriad smaller, focused, lower traffic places, which despite their size are still a fantastic return on your investment when you read or contribute. That’s because those communities fill themselves with teachers.

Human beings are great in that we’re instinctively setup to not be selfish (or at least that’s my great hope!). While knowledge is certainly power, that doesn’t stop us wanting to disseminate that knowledge far and wide. Online communities tend to thrive when there’s something new to share and discuss, that advances everyone’s thinking or enjoyment of a subject. That doesn’t mean great communities online are solely intellectual — far from it actually: some of the greatest online communities you can find are completely devoted to doing nothing but sharing pictures of cats! — but it does mean they want to share whatever it is that’s new that they’ve found, with other people. Knowledge takes infinite forms, not just those that genuinely tax the brain.

So I class teachers not just in the traditional sense, but as any community leader that actively contributes to share new knowledge they’ve acquired. Beyond3D is packed to the rafters with those people, and it’s a key reason why the community is so great there. If you start a community around people that want to actively share everything they know about a particular subject or idea, then that community will find it hard to fail.

That leads me on to another of Beyond3D’s strengths, which I’ve also seen mirrored in other similar communities online: those that contribute are also those that build the things the community wants to discuss. From the very earliest days of the Beyond3D, it has always been a place for those making a living working deep in the 3D graphics industry. The community has, at almost all points in the history as I’ve been involved with it, been made up of a broad spectrum of people directly invested in the success of the subject matter. GPU architects and researchers, driver engineers, application developers, visual effects folks, gamers, DirectX architects….the list is vast.

We’ve never outed those folks, though. Many have contributed under pseudonyms or assumed identities in order to talk about things somewhat freely. That’s been important: anyone who wants to make it known that they’re affiliated with a certain company or interested party has never been under any obligation to do so. If you want to stay hidden, you can feel very free. That’s also caused us problems, with shills and paid promoters, but in general the idea that your posting person is entirely your own, and can be almost completely anonymous, is important, not just to Beyond3D but also to other communities I’ve seen grow and thrive. In fact, some of the best threads I’ve ever seen, not just at Beyond3D, have been discussions about a particular thing and the person or persons who built that thing have shown up to offer new wisdom or information.

Beyond3D has never held those people up too much, though, which I think is also very important. Posts from those folks might have some tiny amount of extra weight, but the person behind a post is nowhere near as important as its content. Once you become established there with a body of posts and a posting personality that people can recognise, who you are or what you do for a living almost doesn’t matter. It’s the consistent quality of posts that adds the real weight to any online community.

I think there’s a game-like aspect to the combination of post quality and longevity of impact of a great posting history that has led Beyond3D to grow. The reward from seeing a great discussion happen that you’re part of, where you can click on your contribution to a thread and know that everything you wrote helped the discussion move on and take shape, is addictive. It’s the effort-reward cycle that so many great games exploit in order to get you playing them for very long periods of time. Where the effort you have to put in is high, yet it never quite feels like a grind. Great communities have you level up on every post you make. If I look at the body of the most prolific contributors to Beyond3D, and their posting history over a long period of time, the trend is just to ever increasing quality, despite the ever increasing quantity.

Coming back to the idea that you should show bad contributors the door, actively in many cases because they’ll always try and come back in my experience, I’ve found that the best experience there has been one where we’ve given a poster a holiday from the forums (and we actively call it that in many cases) and asked them to rethink how they contribute. A few of our best posters today are those who’ve been asked to have a think about how they operate in the atmosphere the forums have, and the expectations about how we believe they should contribute.

That sometimes leads to great friction, but that doesn’t matter. The signal-to-noise ratio is at stake and it only takes a small handful of disruptive folks to really upset the way of things. If I was to start a new online community today, I would never be afraid to make sure it stayed the course with how I wanted the discussion to happen. You need an active moderation team to buy into that with you, but then it should quickly settle in to the equilibrium I mentioned earlier, where the moderation happens at the user level before they post, because of the expectation on quality you put in front of everyone as they contribute.

Lastly, one of the things that’s helped Beyond3D as time has gone by, although I’ve not done enough to take advantage of it in my time as steward, is that we’ve done well to listen to users and what they want out of the place, and we’ve not been afraid to nurture new areas of discussion that might not have been a central tenet of the community in the beginning, but that the world changing around us has now brought into focus.

The best communities adapt to their complete context of not just the users, but the thing the community exists to share and enjoy. That could be 3D graphics, but it could just as easily be anything. It’s rare that community stays the same, no matter what it organises itself around. Knowing when and how to adapt to the changes seems to be a common trait for success. Perversely maybe, I think some of the best examples of that online today are the communities where chaos reigns a lot more than the nice, small, orderly places I’m used to taking part in, and the change can happen rapidly, and often under the drive of the few, rather than the many, with the many simply following suit.

My number one goal with the Beyond3D community in the next few years is to make sure we’ve adapted properly to the changes in our industry, to align the discussion properly and make sure there’s still a big body of things to discuss, the way the community has organised itself and likes to discuss it.

In summary, my feelings are summed up like this, at least just now while I try and reason about it as best I can:

  • Moderation is critical, but make it come from every user, not just a chosen few.
  • Having key members in the community that are focused on education with their contribution is a great way to provide a stable base to build on.
  • Involve insiders if the topic permits, but never out them on anything but their own terms.
  • Make sure the effort-reward cycle is the right side of grind.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask bad community members to leave.
  • Make sure you adapt to the changes in the community, not just the people but the thing you’ve come together to share.