Despite the growing backlash against traditional social media, there’s still a strong desire for connection and community online. While the launch of Threads has gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks, there’s been a broader trend of moving away from large social networks and towards smaller, more private communities over the past several years.
I witnessed the benefits of these small, private communities firsthand when I was a product manager at Patreon. Many creators offered access to private Discord servers as a benefit to their patrons (paying subscribers). These Discord servers became thriving communities and were strong retention drivers for the creators’ patronage. While patrons may have joined over a shared interest in a particular creator (podcaster, writer, etc.), the Discord servers grew well beyond that initial interest and included channels for everything from various off-topic discussions to photos of pets and family vacations. There was even a phrase among patrons: “Come for the creator, stay for the Discord!”
What was it that made these communities thrive in positivity, often with little-to-no engagement from the creators themselves? It came down to two factors: smaller size and increased privacy. The smaller size allowed community members to have meaningful conversations and form stronger connections, while the increase in privacy helped to filter out the trolls and negativity often seen in more public social platforms.
Is there an ideal size for online communities? One starting point to consider is Dunbar’s number, which proposes that the largest number of meaningful relationships a person can maintain is 150. But we may want to go even smaller; according to Discord’s then CMO, “about 90% of [Discord] servers have less than 15 people, and that makes it more intimate.” This observation partially inspired the size limitation for VSCO Spaces, where up to 15 users can collaborate in a shared photo gallery. At VSCO, I once again witnessed firsthand how smaller, more private communities led to much more positive interactions among group members. The increased accountability of the small groups helped to keep spaces positive, and content violations were surprisingly rare.
Several other startups are focusing on small groups in their approach to community. Locket allows users to invite up to 20 friends to share photos that will display in a widget on their home screen. Locket’s founder wants the app to become “the best way for people to stay in contact with those 10 to 15 people that matter the most.” Hipstamatic was recently resurrected, allowing users to follow up to 99 people, with only 9 being selected as “close friends.” And after Clubhouse’s rapid rise and fall during the pandemic, co-founder Paul Davison tweeted about the company’s intention to go smaller moving forward, stating “The best social experiences are not open to everyone. They are small and curated. This is what creates intimacy, trust and friendship.”
But it’s not just startups going smaller. In a 2022 interview with The Information, an Instagram director of product management noted, “The big shift we see right now with teens that we’re very focused on is this desire to share more privately.” Meta has released features in both Instagram and WhatsApp to experiment with smaller social groups. On Instagram, they’ve added Collaborative Collections, allowing users to share posts in groups of up to 250 people (similar to VSCO spaces or Pinterest boards). On WhatsApp, they’ve added Communities, allowing users to organize their group chats into formalized communities with more features and administrative controls. TechCrunch claims the feature is intended to tap into “users’ growing desire to join private communities outside of larger social platforms, like Facebook.”
The other key factor in keeping these communities positive is the increase in privacy. This is typically accomplished through an invite-only admission process, a paywall, or a combination of the two. When the moderator of a community has direct control over who can access it, a significant amount of negativity is prevented from ever forming in the first place. The paywall provides a useful layer of friction that naturally filters for members who genuinely want to be there enough that they’re willing to pay for access. At the same time, it does a great job of filtering out folks who would otherwise join just to cause problems. Why bother jumping through all those hoops (and bringing your credit card into the equation) to be a jerk in a paid community when you can do that for free somewhere else?
In the case of the Patreon + Discord example above, the servers were set to private (invite-only) and the Patreon subscription served as the paywall. Creators could even choose to limit Discord access to certain tiers (subscription levels), further restricting the community to only their most ardent supporters. With VSCO Spaces, we implemented an invite-plus-approval process for joining a space and put the paywall at space creation. This meant that space owners would need to manually approve every user who wanted to join their space, and only paid members could create spaces. Meta has also begun experimenting with Patreon-like paywall features, with both Instagram and Facebook adding subscription tools for creators to offer exclusive content to their biggest fans.
For added privacy, WhatsApp Communities are never searchable nor discoverable (meaning uninvited users won’t stumble upon your group). This is important given the phone number-based nature of the product. As the Head of WhatsApp notes, “When you’re interacting with people on WhatsApp, there’s a necessary comfort with exchanging your phone number with them. So that points towards communities where you know these people in real life.” The Locket app also requires users to sign up with their phone number and is built around the idea that users are only connecting with their closest friends and family. The lack of anonymity in these products requires an element of trust among users and adds a level of accountability to the groups.
The shift towards smaller, more private communities reveals a growing desire for intimate and trustworthy spaces online. I expect this trend to continue, as users looking for authentic connections prioritize quality over quantity. In the long run, there will likely be a place for both large and small communities, each serving different use cases: large social sites are great for broadcast communications (one-to-many), while small, private groups allow for meaningful conversations among trusted peers.
Whether you are building a community from scratch or adding social features to an existing product, consider how size and privacy will impact the user experience. These two parameters greatly influence how group members interact with each other in a social space. Smaller size allows for intimacy and trust, while increased privacy helps maintain positivity. The ideal approach will depend on your product and use case, but applying thoughtful constraints to capacity and access sets the foundation for thriving communities.