The first three factors (fuel, air, heat) comprise the Fire Triangle.
Combine those with the chain reaction that releases more energy that grows the fire and you get the Fire Tetrahedron (image from Wikipedia).
1. A fire needs Fuel
If you’ve ever seen the “fire triangle”, you’ll see a fire needs 3 things to get or stay lit: Fuel, Air, and Heat. If you don’t have enough fuel, a fire will burn out and die, even if it’s hot and there’s a good air supply.
In an online community, fuel is people. You need to have some people in a community for it to exist. Too few people online at any time, and the community won’t be a community, just like a fire would just be a couple of burning sticks.
2. A fire needs Air
If a fire doesn’t have enough oxygen, it will cough out and die, even if you have loads of fuel and heat.
In an online community, air is content. A community needs ideas and creativity to stay alive, and to grow. The hotter a fire gets, the more air it draws in, and the bigger a community gets, the more ideas will trigger off further ideas, stimulating new ideas, etc. etc.
3. A fire needs Heat
Finally, of course you can’t even start a fire without Heat. You have to start a fire with a bit of heat from a match or lighter. If the fire catches, it will start to generate its own heat from energy locked in the fuel. But if a fire gets too cold, if the energy being released is insufficient, it dies out.
For an online community, heat is the energy you put in initially to create a buzz, stimulate ideas etc. If you don’t put enough energy into a community, it will never gain momentum. This is exactly what the team here at Scratchmedia are doing right now, feeding energy into the forum in the form of time and ideas, to get the fire going.
4. A fire needs to start Small (to make it easy)
This is really key.
If you’re starting a fire, you get some paper, some kindling, some thin sticks, some big sticks, and maybe even logs etc. You can’t set fire to a thick log, no matter how many matches you light against it.
For a communiity to get going, it also needs to start easy, and build from there. If you’re creating a forum like this one, or groups on something like Ning, you shouldn’t start with only advanced topics. You need to start with an open, organised, but non-challenging set of topics that lets everyone feel free to contribute.
5. A fire needs to start Compact
This is really key.
When you’ve got your various-sized fuel rods, you pile them up in the right way (vertically, so that heat from the base hits fuel above), and in a fairly compact pile that’s close enough for the heat generated to be useful, not so tight that air can’t get round. If you kicked them all over the yard, and tried to light them, you’ll get nowhere, as there’s no centre, no compact hot core.
An online community also needs to start compact. If we set up these forums with 10 categories and 100 forums, the place would feel totally empty, because the fuel (people) would be too spread out. Put 10 people into 100 forums, and they’ll all feel cold and lonely. Put them in 6 forums, and you might get a fire!
Communities have to start small. You wouldn’t invite 10 people to a party in a large house, then spread them all around in different rooms! You get them all round the kitchen table with a beer, and get a vibe going.
6. A fire can Grow – once it’s generating enough heat!
Once your fire has reached a certain point, it starts giving off a lot more energy than it’s using to burn stuff. This is a tipping point, where you can start adding more and bigger fuel to get the fire bigger.
The same goes for a community. Once there’s a critical mass of energy (ideas/communication) going on in your hot core, you can grow the community, by adding more forums, groups, categories…
The key here is – don’t grow it too soon, start small, get it hot, then go from there.