Internet_weird_insideA couple of months ago I wrote a post called “Networking is for losers” in which I offer some ideas for building relationships. One of the points I brought up was that the people who you probably want to meet aren’t found at open networking events, but does this premise still hold true if there is a thriving local tech community? Unfortunately, the natural dynamics of community decay almost always outweigh the benefits of a strong local tech scene. The end result is only a marginal improvement in the average quality of the people you’re likely to meet at an open event.

I’m actually a little sad about this, because I think the community organizers have good intentions. But open communities are always doomed because of their own success. The first problem is that all open systems degrade as people on the fringes seek to take advantage of the community. For example, when BarCamp first started in Los Angeles, it was a great community movement full of technology related talks. Two BarCamps later as its popularity grew, people were giving talks about selling real estate and multi-level marketing. Despite the organizers best efforts, BarCamp in LA has all but died.

The same dynamic can be seen in online communities. When MySpace started, it was this great place for people to express themselves and share. Three years later it was essentially destroyed by porn spam. For Ivy League students, I’ll bet Facebook was a higher quality community in 2004 when it was a closed system then it is today with smankers flooding the newsfeed with pictures of inspirational quotes. The fact that online open systems degrade is so well documented that Facebook, Quora, and many other sites have recognized that preventing this abuse is the secret to their success, and they devote significant resources to combating it. This problem also exists in real world communities, but there’s no “Facebook police” in the real world to kick people out.

The second problem with open communities is people graduate out of them, leaving the community forever stuck at the entry level. Allow me to explain: When a person first enters a community, everyone they meet is new, and every event they attend will likely result in a quality meeting. But as that person advances in their career and gets to know a significant portion of the community, the value of going to events declines.  Eventually, said person derives so little value from the community that they graduate out, perhaps returning only as a presenter, while the core of the community is filled in with new entrants looking to learn and climb the ladder.

I’ve seen this exact scenario play out in the “Silicon Beach” community in Los Angeles where I live. The current community started to coalesce around 2007-2008. During that time it was not uncommon to find people like angel investor Paige Craig and now Wittlebee CEO Sean Percival just hanging out at local mixers.

As their careers and circle of friends progressed, Paige and Sean were seen at fewer and fewer open events. Eventually, they could only be found at private gatherings or as presenters at the open events while the general community filled in with a new wave of people just getting started. I’m not implying that Paige and Sean are snobs in any way. They are friends of mine and both of them are always willing to lend a hand to an up and coming entrepreneur. But their relationship to the Silicon Beach community is a perfect illustration of people graduating out.

While a strong local community can do a lot to bring back speakers, create a nice social environment, and perhaps keep a few senior level people engaged, it will inevitably suffer from the twin forces of open system degradation and the graduating out of more accomplished people. In many ways, a thriving community is like a high school with a good reputation and open enrollment. When people hear about it, they all pile in flooding the classrooms and degrading the learning. Meanwhile the “students” who put the high school on the map, graduate and go on to college leaving the high school overcrowded with wide-eyed freshman trying to follow in their foot steps.

If you’re still out there going to random events, here’s one last thing to consider. If you’re a “freshman” and new to the scene or the industry, great, it should open a few doors for you. But just like high school, if you find yourself going to the same parties with a new class of freshman after four or five years, you might want to start doing some homework.

[Image by Hallie Bateman]