All online communities run the risk of losing relevance over time leading to collapse.

All online communities run the risk of experiencing a catastrophic event leading to collapse.

All online communities have the potential to recover.

Like civilizations, societies, communities, villages, and groups in physical spaces, online communities are subject to forces, often more nuanced than their physical counterparts, that can lead to decline, collapse, and dissolution. 

In this article, I will cover some common patterns of community collapse, their probable causes, and how they should affect your actions as a professional charged with managing an online community program. I’ll also cover the remedies that you can use to try and recover from these scenarios.

A Caveat About Methodology

As an upfront caveat, the following patterns are derived from the observations about online community behaviors in communities I’ve worked with since 2013. There are distinct limitations to the application of sociological, biological, or anthropological research to online communities for a number of reasons:

  1. Online communities are influenced by the complexities of technology, cultural diversity, and individual personalities, making them difficult to model accurately with traditional sociological theories.
  2. Digital platforms for online communities evolve quickly, which means that online behaviors tend to outstrip the pace of sociological research, resulting in outdated or irrelevant findings.
  3. Moreso than with in-person communities, anonymity and fluid identity in online spaces challenges sociological assumptions about stable social roles and relationships.
  4. The predominance and valuation of quantitative data in online communities can outweigh the qualitative aspects like sentiment and context, which are crucial to sociological analysis.
  5. Online community study requires an interdisciplinary approach combining sociology, computer science and data analysis, but this creates methodological and epistemological challenges to applying sociological research.

The dynamics of online community decline is an emergent area, rich with opportunities for research to validate the forces at play that can lead to community growth or dissolution.

Patterns of online community decline

The following patterns of collapse draw upon a variety of sources, including Ugo Bardi’s Before the Collapse (2020), Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000), and Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations (1962), and have been applied to online communities.

The Hubbert Curve, better known as a bell curve, is a scenario where the community declines gradually after having reached a peak of activity and engagement. Hubbert collapses can occur at any time in a community’s history after it has achieved some level of success. 

If you’re curious, Hubbert was a petroleum engineer who famously predicted the peak and decay of the availability of fossil fuels in North America (see the video of Hubbert explaining the concept).

Seneca Curve, something Malcolm Gladwell would call the “tipping point,” is a sharp drop where the community suddenly goes dead. Seneca collapses are usually the result of a catastrophic, precipitating event. Seneca Curves can be precipitated by ‘Black Swans’ (never anticipated, highly disruptive events) and ‘Gray Rhinos’ (obvious, disruptive events for which we nevertheless fail to prepare adequately).

Cascading Failure Models in online communities can begin as a Hubbert Curve, but due to a failure of some element of the community, it leads to a series of progressively worse events causing the demise of the space. For example, what begins as a failure to moderate misinformation, leads to a departure of top contributors, an influx of more bad messaging, low trust and more negative interactions amongst members, and ultimately, a collapsed community.

It’s worth noting that in the above patterns, it would be rare indeed for a community’s collapse to be over a single cause. It is usually a combination of factors which leads to a decline, since thriving communities tend to be resilient and regenerative.

Why do collapses occur?

According to Bardi, collapses tend to be characterized often by an unsustainable “overshoot.” The extremely successful growth of the community you’ve been patting yourself on the back about? It can inadvertently create an inability for you to scale culture or give sufficient attention to all of your members, resulting in a precipitous exit and decline of the community space.

Your original, founding members can end up feeling alienated and your new members can feel active resistance from the “old guard,” perceiving them as stubborn and resistant to change at best. In a worst-case scenario, both groups may just decide to pack it in and leave.

Collapse may also occur for highly emotional reasons: willful ignorance, gullibility, distraction, disengagement, biases, inappropriate or unworkable approaches, or a false sense of security (Bardi 2020). The source of these emotional failures may be on the part of one or more parties: community’s most active members, poor community management, or poor organizational leadership. These may result in immediate or slower deterioration of communal structures.

Finally online communities may collapse for technological reasons: platform enshittification, hacking, a mismatch between the community format (chat, forum, social feeds, desktop, mobile, etc.) and member preferences, competition with more attractive platforms (a perception, for example, that TikTok is a cooler place to hang out than Facebook), and disruption (distrust in AI has ruined my trust that I’m talking with other humans).

How do you measure collapse?

Recognizing the signs of collapse early enough is the key to heading them off. Although this is not a comprehensive list, here are some common leading indicators of online community decline.

  • Logins decrease
  • Time spent on the community lessens
  • Registrations slow down or stop
  • New conversations decrease or stagnate
  • Members stop participating in longstanding community rituals and traditions
  • Contention and distrust increases as evidenced by in-fighting or cliques, purity tests, and posts requiring more moderation

Be watchful of less obvious signs of decline as well. If you’re scanning your online community and get a sense of apathy, malaise, and distrust, it’s time to try and turn around perceptions through direct intervention.

Recovery Strategies for Community Collapse Scenarios

Can communities experiencing collapse scenarios be turned around? 

Here’s a set of strategies categorized by the nature of the issues they address:

Recognizing and Diagnosing the Problem

Metric Analysis: Regularly review community engagement metrics to identify declines in participation, engagement rates, and new member retention.

Feedback Loops: Establish channels for feedback, including surveys, one-on-one interviews, and exit interviews for departing members, to understand their concerns and reasons for disengagement.

Technology and Platform Issues

Platform Usability Enhancements: Make sure the community platform is user-friendly for all member demographics, possibly by offering tutorials or simpler interfaces for less tech-savvy members.

Technical Improvements: Address any technical flaws that hobble the user experience, such as bugs, slow loading times, or poor mobile responsiveness.

Demographic and Cultural Issues

Inclusive Design: Tailor the community platform and activities to accommodate the preferences of different demographic groups, including adapting to their preferred social media platforms.

Cultural Alignment: Work towards aligning the community’s culture with positive, inclusive values and addressing any organizational policies or attitudes that undermine trust in the community.

Leadership and Organizational Dynamics

Leadership Engagement: Engage with organizational leaders to advocate for the community’s value, emphasizing the importance of transparency and member-centric policies.

Cross-Departmental Collaboration: Foster collaboration with departments like product management, customer support, customer experience, or HR to ensure a unified approach towards community engagement and to address any department-specific attitudes that may affect the community negatively.

Additional Strategies for Revitalization

Community Champions: Identify and empower active community members to become champions or ambassadors who can help out with moderating discussions, generating content, and engaging other members. Additionally, having a close relationship with your champions should act as an early warning system provided you speak with them regularly and learn about developing problems.

Innovative Content and Events: Introduce fresh content, interactive events, and unique engagement opportunities tailored to member interests to rekindle enthusiasm.

Recognition and Rewards: Implement a system of recognition and rewards to appreciate active members and encourage participation and regularly review it to keep the rewards fresh and relevant.

Adaptation and Evolution: It can be sorely tempting to keep the community’s original purpose as it was designed. But be open to evolving the community’s focus or activities based on changing member needs, interests, and external trends to keep the community relevant.

Growth Marketing: Revisit the community’s growth strategy. How have you traditionally invited new members to the community? Has that source dried up or slowed down? Since the perception of community decline can result in longtime members losing interest and going away, ensuring that fresh cohorts of wide-eyed new members are always arriving can make a real difference in turning around an ailing community.

Strategic Partnerships: Form partnerships with other organizations, influencers, or brands that can bring new energy and members into the community.


There are no guarantees, of course. 

Organizing the approach to revitalizing a collapsing community involves understanding the root causes, whether they are technological, demographic, cultural, or organizational. 

Addressing these challenges requires a combination of strategic improvements, active engagement with community members and leaders, and the introduction of new elements to reinvigorate the community. It also requires humility, a recognition that it’s not necessarily about you or how you’ve managed the community, and will, the desire and courage to build an organizational consensus about what must change and to then enact that change transparently and cooperatively with your community’s key members and stakeholders.

Community collapse isn’t inevitable, but it does require far sight and the resolve to enact the changes necessary to save it.