I didn’t get what I was looking for from this interview, but I think what I learned is even better.

I called up Kevin Fischer and Ed Weissman because they’re two of the top users of a site that was sending Mixergy a lot of traffic, and I wanted to learn how to get more. The site is Y Combinator’s social news site, Hacker News.

As I talked to them, I felt that they loved Hacker News so much that asking them how I can get traffic from the site would feel dirty. So I switch direction. I asked them questions to learn how you & I can build such passionate communities in our businesses. Here’s what I learned.

Being different

I’m not including pictures of Ed & Kevin in this post. Everyone I’ve ever interviewed wanted their picture on Mixergy. They didn’t. If you go to Hacker News, you’ll notice that members can’t add their pictures to the profiles. Virtually every other site encourages its users to post pictures. This site doesn’t.

Paul Graham, Y Combinators’ founder, explains why there are no pictures: “I think it’s better if people make their own portraits with their ideas.”

But I think there’s a bigger message here about how communities are built. Communities seem to need to be different from the rest of the world as a way of attracting their audience. Seth Godin talks more about that in this Tribes presentation.

Working alone/together

As more people work independently, talking with peers online seems to be a bigger need. Ed told me something that I’m increasingly hearing from others, “I literally sit from 12-16 hours a day 5-7 a week programming in a cubicle alone…. These people are my peers, so it’s almost like a virtual water cooler.”

Meeting in person

Even though most of their conversations happen online, Ed, Kevin and other Hacker News members have met in person at a Y Combinator event. It seems that in-person meetings help built tighter connections for online communities.

Sanjay Sabnani, who runs some of the biggest online forums, told me that he often brings his online members together for in person events at his house.

Getting Bribes Rewards

Online community organizers talk about their communities as if they were hippie communes where members participate because they only care about a greater good. But in the interviews that I’ve done, I’ve noticed that there’s a good deal of quid pro quo.

At Hacker News, the top members are invited to Y Combinator’s Startup School. AJ Vaynerchuk said he gives people who join the PleaseDress.Me community free tshirts. Ethan Bauley of M90 said that his agency encourages clients to give active members products. And at the Mixergy Viral Forum, Jason Nazar of docstoc did an experiment to show us how giving away a document can grow a Twitter community.

I’m not criticizing any of these tactics. I think we need to understand how communities are really built so we can grow ours intelligently.

Why else do people join online communities? Add your ideas in the comments or email them to me.