I spent some time with Cornelius Willis today talking about bootstrapping developer communities. Cornelius used to be at SourceLabs and is now CMO at Pluggd, a very cool video search company. (He demo'd the system for me and I was blown away. Searching for keywords in a video - based on speech-to-text technology with some secret sauce thrown in - is genius.)
Cornelius said something that I found brilliant. In terms of developing community, Cornelius suggested that
You have the make the community visible to itself.
In other words, a developer is much more likely to stay with a community if she actually feels like she's not alone. Things like Digg let you see votes, as well as the process for tallying them. You know you're not alone in Digg. You know that your vote counts, and that you're visible in voting.
What does this mean? It's easier to see what it means in the Web 2.0 world because, as Cornelius said, development really hasn't adopted this yet. Here's an easy way to see Cornelius' point: my LinkedIn page.
These people in my network aren't doing anything overt to notify me of what they're doing. The system tracks it and reveals the community's activity to me. I read the LinkedIn network updates - every single one of them. Because I'm genuinely interested to see where people are going, and what they're doing.
One of the primary factors in a community's staying power is the ability of the participants to actually participate meaningfully with others in that community. This seems obvious, but it's surprising at how few companies actually get this right. Most "communities" bowl alone. You go into a project's forum to consume an application or information, and then you leave to go do your real work. For a community to succeed, the "real work" needs to happen on-site, in the community. It's not something you access and then leave to be productive. The productivity has to come while in the midst of the community.
The start of this is, as Cornelius suggested, by exposing the community to itself. Public voting. Rating articles. Participation. All the time.