Why organizational culture matters for online communities

Leaders and scholars of online communities tend of think of community growth as the aggregate effect of inexperienced individuals arriving one-by-one. However, there is increasing evidence that growth in many online communities today involves newcomers arriving in groups with previous experience together in other communities. This difference has deep implications for how we think about the process of integrating newcomers. Instead of focusing only on individual socialization into the group culture, we must also understand how to manage mergers of existing groups with distinct cultures. Unfortunately, online community mergers have, to our knowledge, never been studied systematically.

To better understand mergers, I spent six months in 2017 conducting ethnographic participant observation in two World of Warcraft raid guilds planning and undergoing mergers. The results—visible in the attendance plot below—shows that the top merger led to a thriving and sustainable community while the bottom merger led to failure and the eventual dissolution of the group. Why did one merger succeed while the other failed? What can managers of other communities learn from these examples?

In my new paper that will be published in the Proceedings of of the ACM Conference on Computer-supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW) and that I will present in New Jersey next month, my coauthors and I try to answer these questions.

Raid team attendance before and after merging. Guilds were given pseudonyms to protect the identity of the research subjects.

In my research setting, World of Warcraft (WoW), players form organized groups called “guilds” to take on the game’s toughest bosses in virtual dungeons that are called “raids.” Raids can be extremely challenging, and they require a large number of players to be successful. Below is a video demonstrating the kind of communication and coordination needed to be successful as a raid team in WoW.

Because participation in a raid guild requires time, discipline, and emotional investment, raid guilds are constantly losing members and recruiting new ones to resupply their ranks. One common strategy for doing so is arranging formal mergers. My study involved following two such groups as they completed mergers. To collect data for my study, I joined both groups, attended and recorded all activities, took copious field notes, and spent hours interviewing leaders.

Although I did not anticipate the divergent outcomes shown in the figure above when I began, I analyzed my data with an eye toward identifying themes that might point to reasons for the success of one merger and the failure of the other. The answers that emerged from my analysis suggest that the key differences that led one merger to be successful and the other to fail revolved around differences in the ways that the two mergers managed organizational culture. This basic insight is supported by a body of research about organizational culture in firms but seem to have not made it onto the radar of most members or scholars of online communities. My coauthors and I think more attention to the role that organizational culture plays in online communities is essential.

We found evidence of cultural incompatibility in both mergers and it seems likely that some degree of cultural clashes is inevitable in any merger. The most important result of our analysis are three observations we drew about specific things that the successful merger did to effectively manage organizational culture. Drawn from our analysis, these themes point to concrete things that other communities facing mergers—either formal or informal—can do.

A recent, random example of a guild merger recruitment post found on the WoW forums.

First, when planning mergers, groups can strategically select other groups with similar organizational culture. The successful merger in our study involved a carefully planned process of advertising for a potential merger on forums, testing out group compatibility by participating in “trial” raid activities with potential guilds, and selecting the guild that most closely matched their own group’s culture. In our settings, this process helped prevent conflict from emerging and ensured that there was enough common ground to resolve it when it did.

Second, leaders can plan intentional opportunities to socialize members of the merged or acquired group. The leaders of the successful merger held community-wide social events in the game to help new members learn their community’s norms. They spelled out these norms in a visible list of rules. They even included the new members in both the brainstorming and voting process of changing the guild’s name to reflect that they were a single, new, cohesive unit. The leaders of the failed merger lacked any explicitly stated community rules, and opportunities for socializing the members of the new group were virtually absent. Newcomers from the merged group would only learn community norms when they broke one of the unstated social codes.

The guild leaders in the successful merger documented every successful high end raid boss achievement in a community-wide “Hall of Fame” journal. A screenshot is taken with every guild member who contributed to the achievement and uploaded to a “Hall of Fame” page.

Third and finally, our study suggested that social activities can be used to cultivate solidarity between the two merged groups, leading to increased retention of new members. We found that the successful guild merger organized an additional night of activity that was socially-oriented. In doing so, they provided a setting where solidarity between new and existing members can cultivate and motivate their members to stick around and keep playing with each other — even when it gets frustrating.

Our results suggest that by preparing in advance, ensuring some degree of cultural compatibility, and providing opportunities to socialize newcomers and cultivate solidarity, the potential for conflict resulting from mergers can be mitigated. While mergers between firms often occur to make more money or consolidate resources, the experience of the failed merger in our study shows that mergers between online communities put their entire communities at stake. We hope our work can be used by leaders in online communities to successfully manage potential conflict resulting from merging or acquiring members of other groups in a wide range of settings.

Much more detail is available our paper which will be published open access and which is currently available as a preprint.


Both this blog post and  the paper it is based on are collaborative work by Charles Kiene from the University of Washington, Aaron Shaw from Northwestern University, and Benjamin Mako Hill from the University of Washington. We are also thrilled to mention that the paper received a Best Paper Honorable Mention award at CSCW 2018!

Testing Our Theories About Surviving an “Eternal September”

Graph of subscribers and moderators over time in /r/NoSleep. The image is taken from our 2016 CHI paper.

Last year at CHI 2016, we published a qualitative study examining the effects of a large influx of newcomers to the /r/nosleep online community in Reddit. Our study began with the observation that most research on sustained waves of newcomers focuses on the destructive effect of newcomers and frequently invokes Usenet’s infamous “Eternal September.” Our qualitative study argued that the /r/nosleep community managed its surge of newcomers gracefully through strategic preparation by moderators, technological systems to reign in on norm violations, and a shared sense of protecting the community’s immersive environment among participants.

We are thrilled that, less a year after the publication of our study, Zhiyuan “Jerry” Lin and a group of researchers at Stanford have published a quantitative test of our study’s findings! Lin analyzed 45 million comments and upvote patterns from 10 Reddit communities that a massive inundation of newcomers like the one we studied on /r/nosleep. Lin’s group found that these communities retained their quality despite a slight dip in its initial growth period.

Our team discussed doing a quantitative study like Lin’s at some length and our paper ends with a lament that our findings merely reflected, “propositions for testing in future work.” Lin’s study provides exactly such a test! Lin et al.’s results suggest that our qualitative findings generalize and that sustained influx of newcomers need not doom a community to a descent into an “Eternal September.” Through strong moderation and the use of a voting system, the subreddits analyzed by Lin appear to retain their identities despite the surge of new users.

There are always limits to research projects work—quantitative and qualitative. We think the Lin’s paper compliments ours beautifully, we are excited that Lin built on our work, and we’re thrilled that our propositions seem to have held up!

This blog post was written with Benjamin Mako Hill. Our paper about /r/nosleep, written with Mako Hill and Andrés Monroy-Hernández, was published in the Proceedings of CHI 2016 and is released as open access. Lin’s paper was published in the Proceedings of ICWSM 2017 and is also available online.

Surviving an “Eternal September:” How an Online Community Managed a Surge of Newcomers

Attracting newcomers is among the most widely studied problems in online community research. However, with all the attention paid to challenge of getting new users, much less research has studied the flip side of that coin: large influxes of newcomers can pose major problems as well!

The most widely known example of problems caused by an influx of newcomers into an online community occurred in Usenet. Every September, new university students connecting to the Internet for the first time would wreak havoc in the Usenet discussion forums. When AOL connected its users to the Usenet in 1994, it disrupted the community for so long that it became widely known as “The September that never ended.

Our study considered a similar influx in NoSleep—an online community within Reddit where writers share original horror stories and readers comment and vote on them. With strict rules requiring that all members of the community suspend disbelief, NoSleep thrives off the fact that readers experience an immersive storytelling environment. Breaking the rules is as easy as questioning the truth of someone’s story. Socializing newcomers represents a major challenge for NoSleep.

Number of subscribers and moderators on /r/NoSleep over time.

On May 7th, 2014, NoSleep became a “default subreddit”—i.e., every new user to Reddit automatically joined NoSleep. After gradually accumulating roughly 240,000 members from 2010 to 2014, the NoSleep community grew to over 2 million subscribers in a year. That said, NoSleep appeared to largely hold things together. This reflects the major question that motivated our study: How did NoSleep withstand such a massive influx of newcomers without enduring their own Eternal September?

To answer this question, we interviewed a number of NoSleep participants, writers, moderators, and admins. After transcribing, coding, and analyzing the results, we proposed that NoSleep survived because of three inter-connected systems that helped protect the community’s norms and overall immersive environment.

First, there was a strong and organized team of moderators who enforced the rules no matter what. They recruited new moderators knowing the community’s population was going to surge. They utilized a private subreddit for NoSleep’s staff. They were able to socialize and educate new moderators effectively. Although issuing sanctions against community members was often difficult, our interviewees explained that NoSleep’s moderators were deeply committed and largely uncompromising.

That commitment resonates within the second system that protected NoSleep: regulation by normal community members. From our interviews, we found that the participants felt a shared sense of community that motivated them both to socialize newcomers themselves as well as to report inappropriate comments and downvote people who violate the community’s norms.

Finally, we found that the technological systems protected the community as well. For instance, post-throttling was instituted to limit the frequency at which a writer could post their stories. Additionally, Reddit’s “Automoderator”, a programmable AI bot, was used to issue sanctions against obvious norm violators while running in the background. Participants also pointed to the tools available to them—the report feature and voting system in particular—to explain how easy it was for them to report and regulate the community’s disruptors.

This blog post was written with Benjamin Mako Hill. The paper and work this post describes is collaborative work with Benjamin Mako Hill and Andrés Monroy-Hernández. The paper was published in the Proceedings of CHI 2016 and is released as open access so anyone can read the entire paper here. A version of this blogpost was posted on Benjamin Mako Hill’s blog Copyrighteous.