How Online Communities work: How do online communities evolve? (Community Life-Cycle Model)

large__135465558Over the past few decades, the community life cycle has been developed by many academics. According to them, online communities evolve following distinctive life cycle stages. The main idea is that any online community system “must evolve through the same consistent and logical process without ignoring any step” (Ahituv and Neumann 254). The latter authors emphasize that the nature of the community life cycle is “not linear but in practice an iterative process” (255). In online communities, the needs of members will evolve along the way throughout the life cycle stages. Therefore, it is “crucial that management clearly understand this life cycle and adjust their strategies in each stage” (Kling Courthright 221). By fulfilling these changing needs in each stage, long-term participation and engagement among community members will be encouraged.

According to Andrews, online communities evolve by following three stages: “starting the online community, encouraging early online interaction, and moving to a self-sustained interactive environment” (60). Alicia Iriberri carried out an extensive research on this topic and came up with the following five stages: “inception, creation, growth, maturity, and death” (7). Rob Howard, dedicated an article on the website Mashable about understanding the community life cycle. He described the following four stages: “on-board, established, mature, mitosis”. More recently, Richard Millington wrote on his blog that he has refined Howard’s life cycle with his one, consisting of the following four stages: “inception, establishment, maturity and mitosis”.

After comparing the life cycles described above and some others, I came to the conclusion that they are all quite similar. Therefore, it is interesting to observe that the more recent studies on this topic introduced a new stage, called mitosis, in which an online community breaks into smaller, focused communities. I found it strange that the stage “death” was only mentioned in a couple of studies on this issue. In my opinion, this stage should definitely be included in the community life cycle, since there are quite some examples of communities that “died”: failed miserably, because of a lack of community member engagement.

I designed a model (see the figure below) that clearly illustrates the community life cycle according to my theory. This figure will hopefully help non-profits in getting a better understanding about how their possible online community will evolve over the years.  In my opinion, online communities evolve following the distinctive life cycle stages below:

Stage 1: Inception

The community life cycle starts at inception. In this stage, the idea of an online community has emerged because people (members or organizations) have a certain need. Depending on this type of need, these interested individuals or the organization begins to form a “vision for a community where people can disperse information, communicate and interact” (Wegner et al. 22).  Once the vision is clear, the technological elements (the platform, the tools, the format, the design etc.) are selected and gradually incorporated.

These elements are dependent on the needs and preferences of both the creators and the potential community members. In this stage, community members do not really participate yet and rely mostly on the input of the founders.

Stage 2: Establishment

In this stage, the technological components are in place and “community members begin to interact and spread the word for other members to join” (Malhotra et al. 88). Gradually, when enough members join the community, a culture and identity starts to develop. Sometimes it happens that common vocabulary is used and that members take on different roles in the community. Some members actively lead discussions provide support and add content. Others “just seek support, read messages but do not actively contribute. Some offer information while others just use this information” (Nonnecke and Preece 17). The different roles that people play in online communities will be discussed in more detail in the next paragraph. Although members start to create and maintain value within the community at this stage, some still rely on the input of the founders. The elements mentioned above are common in both online and offline (physical) communities and often initiate the growth of the online community.

Stage 3: Maturity

In this stage, the community has strengthened and stronger relationships among members begin to emerge. Members have clear roles and take full ownerships and responsibility for content. The community has become “self-sustaining and there will be little to no supervision needed by the founders” (Howard). A lot of communities thrive in this stage for a long time. Others change direction or add new tools and features to keep members interested and encourage them to keep participating/engaging.

Stage 4: Death (optional)

In this stage, the community slowly but surely dies. The good news is that only few communities will reach this stage.  As said before, many online communities stay in the maturity phase for a long period. In this stage, momentum and member interest are lost completely. There is “no or very little participation of members, no sense of community, a lack of quality content, unorganized contributions and transient membership” (Jarvenpaa and Knoll 29).

Although I placed the death stage in between the maturity and mitosis phase in my figure, death can also be reached during the establishment phase. Although community initiators can have a great vision for a community, in the end the members will influence whether the community will be a successful, vibrant one. It would be a waste of resources to reach this stage. Therefore, I want to stress the importance of understanding the phases in the community life cycle and the different tasks that it will require from community managers in each stage. In section 5.4 it will be explained how to foster and sustain engagement in an online community, in other words: how to avoid reaching this stage.

Stage 5: Mitosis

According to Millington, “the mitosis phase begins when the community is almost entirely self-sustaining and ends when it has broken into smaller, more focused, online communities. Not all communities progress to this phase. Many online communities are fine in the maturity stage”. Still, it is a very important phase, as many community managers let their community grow too active and big.  At the mitosis phase, the amount of participating members begins to decrease. Most activity in the community will be initiated by a small number of ever-more dedicated members, which have over time already developed relationships with each other. Core community participants can become disenfranchised with new members who do not share the same values as them. “For newcomers, it will be difficult to find their place within the online community” (Millington). Core community members will start to “seek more focus as they gravitate towards specific topics and relationships” (Howard). Over the long-term, this could cause drastic participation inequality ratios. Subtly breaking of the community into smaller, groups can be the solution. The initial community can be broken down according to demographical, habitual and/or psychographical factors. Note that “each new group will start at the establishment stage again and will require promotion and support to become self-sustaining” (Millington).

 Model: The Online Community Life-Cycle


(Unfortunately I wasn’t able to insert a larger version of this model into this post. If you click on the model, a somewhat larger version will appear)

I hope this post was inspiring, if you are curious what roles community members play in an online community, read my next post:)

Until next time,

Anne-Sophie Gaspersz

Photo credit: ChrisL_AK via photopin cc

Photography: Chris Lott

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