How online communities develop and evolve

Has anyone written a book or a paper about how online communities evolve over time? Despite best intentions, there always seems to be some undesirable traits or qualities that appear given enough time. For example, StackOverflow has all the ingredients for a great community managed ‘developers helping developers’ Q&A site, and yet among new developers it’s considered a toxic and unwelcoming community. Why is this, and why does this happen?

Organizational policy and culture can either enable or hinder desired outcomes

Let’s say you make a bold statement like “we need to encourage more innovation!” – that’s an inspirational goal and encourages your people to look for more effective solutions to problems, great! Let’s also say this organization has an established culture that can be described as “we must succeed at all costs, failure is not an option”. Ok, in some circumstances that would also make sense.

The trouble is, this already established culture does not support innovation at all, in fact it prevents any attempt to try something new that may or may not be a possible improvement. In order to innovate you have to accept that not every idea will be successful, that’s what innovation is all about. You pursue different ideas, some seemingly wild and improbable, but at some point out of experimentation you find ideas that are better, more effective, more efficient, than previous solutions. Not all ideas result in successful outcomes, in fact most will completely fail.

Sometimes it’s not enough to decide that you need to change your desired outcomes, you need to change your culture and policies that enable or support the outcomes you’re looking for. In fact, changing your culture so that it encourages the outcomes you’re looking for will often result in the desired outcome occurring by itself organically.