20 January 2011 ~ 0 Comments

How to avoid Eternal September and assimilate newbies into your community

What is Eternal September?

Eternal September is an expression that stems from a comment sent to the Usenet group alt.folklore.computers by Dave Fischer in 1994, which referenced “the September that never ended” in 1993.

Because Usenet started life as a University tool for communication, its main users were students. Once a year in September, new students in the USA would start their education and gain access to Usenet, in the process having to acclimatise to common organic behavioural rules and codes of conduct.

As the influx was proportionally low, it was a reasonably painless process to go through for existing Usenet users as new users settled in. But in September 1993 that all changed, as AOL gave its customers the ability to access Usenet.

This massive horde of new, often non-technical webizens washed over Usenet in such numbers that the existing communities couldn’t teach them social norms quick enough. Many argued that this event initiated a decline in quality and purpose of discussions taking place in newsgroups of Usenet.

[pullquote]“It’s moot now. September 1993 will go down in net.history as the September that never ended.” – Dave Fischer, 26/01/1994, alt.folklore.computers[/pullquote]

How does Eternal September apply now?

So why are we talking about something that happened all the way back in 1993?

Well, ever since that date, new users have been constantly discovering the web and as a knock on effect, the popularity of online communities and more recently Social Media grows steadily. September thus became Eternal as the cycle repeats itself.

Whether it’s people signing up to Facebook, joining forums, commenting on a blog, or subscribing to RSS feeds, there’s a steady stream of new people who need to have the basics of socialising online explained to them, and the tools demonstrated, over and over again.

That person who mass forwards the pointless chain email to everyone on their address book? Rest assured there will be another person after that who will have to be steered in the direction of proper netiquette.

A bit like TV series episodes that use up the first five minutes to explain to new or occasional viewers what’s happened so far, as long as the medium continues to evolve there will be neophytes trying to keep up with the changes and needing education. Until some form of maturity occurs, we will be stuck in September.

How is this relevant to your community? You will no doubt have habitual members or people who have been involved for a while. They probably are the ones who, over time, implicitly set up and enforced the sometimes written, but often unwritten code of conduct for your community. As new members join up, it’s sometimes difficult for your veterans to bother or be positive towards constantly having to make the effort to assimilate the newbies.

How can Eternal September be addressed?

There are a few ways to avoid irritation (or too much of it, anyway) on the part of your online community’s regular members when you reach a level of growth which brings new faces on a regular basis.

  • Promoting a positive attitude from veterans towards newbies: Eternal September is accentuated if your veterans generally have a negative view of new members, or view them with suspicion. This can turn into a negative loop if you’re not careful, with undesirable behaviour from newbies reinforcing older members’ prejudice. Setting up a voluntary group of greeters who show newbies the ropes, or doing it yourself, can go a long way to turn this negative view into at worst a neutral one, if not positive.
  • Allowing older members to create sub-groups: A way of diluting the impact newbies may have on your existing membership, is to provide your veterans with the ability to create sub-communities. Older members can then set up groups targeted to their specific interests, and maintain smaller social circles. They can then retreat into these if they feel that the quality of the larger main community spaces is not up to their personal standards.
  • Providing a community history: Write up a detailed history of the going-on of your community. You could involve community members and encourage them to document their group’s evolution. Reading this should help new members understand where your community came from and make them more aware of the need to take existing social groups into account when participating.
  • Charging people to participate: This is an option that often fails as it requires a community people deem valuable enough to be worth paying for. By charging to participate, for example with a recurring monthly or yearly fee, you will limit the number of new members swelling your community, and encourage people to take the time to read the posting guides to get the most out of their purchase.
  • Create clear guidelines of behaviour and enforce them: I’ve covered the importance of setting an example to follow as a Community Manager in previous articles, but you must back this up with clear written guidelines of behaviour or rules of use. If people don’t know what is expected of them they will behave erratically, which will encourage new members to do the same.

Have you come across this situation in the community you manage? I’d love to hear how you approach assimilating newbies effectively!

[photo by romulusnr]

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