It's still early, but I'm working on a service that I think will combine the best parts of mailing lists with the simplicity Facebook/Slack/etc. Even better, I think I can offer this service at no cost to smaller groups. If you'd like to help me test this idea, please visit Build Civitas, which is in very early beta.

Over the last few years, I've rather made a habit of leaving jobs. Whenever I do, I try to keep in touch by joining or creating an alumni group. It's so easy to drift off into new jobs and forget until years later the friends you made along the way. Having an alumni group has also helped me get new jobs, which is pleasant.

It's surprisingly hard to find a platform for these sorts of groups, however. A quick summary with pros and cons:

  • Facebook—Since nearly everyone already has a Facebook account and since Facebook Groups are free, it's not hard to get started. Unfortunately the Facebook algorithm doesn't always show new activity to group members. Also, some people don't have or want a Facebook account.
  • Slack—If you already use Slack, setting up a new (free) workspace seems ideal. Unfortunately the free version is somewhat limited (90-day history is brutal) and nobody is going to pay per user to upgrade an alumni Slack.
  • Discord—Perfect for people who already use Discord. Everyone else will forget it exists after a couple of weeks.
  • LinkedIn—You will join and connect with all your former co-workers. But you'll never form a real community since everyone is there to get a new job. Maybe there are great alumni networks on LinkedIn, but I haven't seen them.
  • Email—The old ways can be the best ways. Everyone has an email address, checks it regularly and so email remains the best way to contact former co-workers. It's a lot like LinkedIn in terms of not being great for building a community, however. Email plus something else (regular Zoom meetups, for instance) has produced the best results in my experience.
  • Group text—Similar to email except people change phone numbers and there's always that one guy with an Android who makes your texts green.

I'd love to try an alumni group on Discourse, which would be ideal except it's either expensive or fairly technical or both. For all it's great points, Discourse is pretty much a non-starter for alumni groups.

Tree from the National Gallery of Art

Groups of former co-workers is just one variation of what I call pop-up online communities. These frequently form around some physical group organizing their activities online:

  • PTA
  • book discussion
  • choir
  • church
  • scouting
  • family
  • neighborhood

Mailing lists and text chains usually work just fine, though there are always challenges with adding and removing people as the group's composition changes. Facebook, Slack and Discord do a better job of managing members. Again, Discourse would be great too, if it were easier for the average person to get a server running.

This week I helped set up a mailing list on Discourse. If you know the levers to pull, it's an easy task. But knowing which lever takes more experience than most people care to obtain. It occurs to me that I've been working with Discourse for years and setting up a workable system for pop-up communities doesn't seem difficult for me. In fact, I'm setting up mailing list for my mom's writing using Discourse.