The searchability of online communities

Published 2023-01-09
Curating resources for digital product creators and mapping the world of online community tools.

In today's digital age, it's easy to rely on search engines like Google to find the information we need. But as David Spinks pointed out in his podcast, "Master's of Community," "Communities provide what Google can't". This got me thinking about the unique value of digital communities as curated social networks and the search capabilities they possess.

As a relatively new member of online communities, I have been extremely surprised by the capabilities they possess. I historically never really participated in Facebook groups or paid much attention to my WhatsApp groups. But when I became interested in the world of indie makers and solopreneurship I found myself drawn to paid communities on platforms like Slack and Circle. While I haven't yet ventured into Discord, Mighty Networks, or Reddit, I imagine it's only a matter of time.

One thing that has struck me about these communities is the sheer amount of resources and information available within them. In fact, I've heard that there is enough content on the internet to fill 5 million libraries of Congress. My own communities have at times overwhelmed me with the vast amount of information they contain. But unlike a traditional library, there is no Dewey decimal system to help organize and categorize all of this information.

To help tackle this problem, I've started researching tools that can assist community builders in turning their platforms of choice into digital encyclopedias. For example, Gist AI offers a summary of slack channels so that users don't have to sift through hundreds of messages to find what they're looking for. Algolia, on the other hand, creates search bars that allow users to explore and search for content within a website. They've even integrated with Discourse, so communities on this platform can be leveraged as search engines.

Another tool, Gummy Search, is specifically geared toward Reddit and helps users conduct audience research by searching for pain points, potential solutions, content ideas, and sales leads. And finally, there's Unleash, which is on a mission to be the one tool you need to search for anything on your cloud, computer, and beyond. It already integrates with Discord, Slack, and Notion.

A prime example of the social network turning search engine phenomenon is Tik Tok. Gen Z is leveraging Tik Tok's algorithm, which personalizes which videos are shown to them based on their interactions with content, in order to find information curated to their tastes. That tailoring is coupled with a sense that real people on the app are synthesizing and delivering information, rather than faceless websites, and appears way more personal. My point is not to promote Tik Tok as a meaningful or healthy space to gather information, but rather to display the power that networks can have on search.

Nextdoor is another example of a platform looking to leverage the value of search within a community. Nextdoor claims, "It's where communities come together to greet newcomers, exchange recommendations, and read the latest local news. Where neighbors support local businesses and get updates from public agencies. Where neighbors borrow tools and sell couches. It's how to get the most out of everything nearby." While Nextdoor is focused on IRL (In Real Life) communities, it further supports the argument that the first place people look to find answers to questions is not always Google.

Some digital communities possess similar capabilities. Figma, Notion, and Github have leveraged community to the nth degree and now community members can search for answers, guidebooks, templates, tutorials, courses, and experts for these platforms. But these communities are just platform specific. Topic-specific and role-focused communities can be leveraged way more for information gathering. The Product School community on Slack is a great example of this. The community is designed for product managers, developers, and designers and covers all things relating to product building. Instead of searching Google for "top PLG-focused companies" or "tools to support product design", just search this group's content.

However, it is imperative that community builders optimize with the right tools, discussion channels, and guidelines in order for communities to function as valuable search engines. Also, member engagement is just as important. Based on this I am not so sure communities will replace Google the way everyone is saying ChatGPT will, but they may be as effective as Wikipedia one day.

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