The internet is an infinite resource of knowledge, with billions of pages about every subject imaginable. But its greatest strength is connecting people to that information—and to each other.
Think of your favorite site—the URL that you reflexively check whenever you're bored. Odds are, it's a community packed with constantly updated content: top new stories, photos from friends, and viral videos that you'll smirk at now and forget five minutes later.
These networks make the internet feel alive. Yeah, they can be distracting. But they also act as communities where you can trade advice, talk to likeminded people, sharpen your skills, and make new friends.
Whether you're a designer, maker, coder, or just a curious reader, here are the very best places to connect with and learn from your peers online.
The Best Online Communities
Social News Sites
Newspaper editors used to serve as the gatekeepers for what they (and by extensions, the community) considered "news." Online, though, things are a bit more democratic. Sites like Reddit (and originally, Digg) turned the internet into a vote-driven culture, where anyone can upvote something they like and downvote the things they don't. The most popular items end up on the self-described "front page of the internet."
Reddit's great for cat videos, memes, and GIFs, and some topic pages, called subreddits, contain quality links and discussions. But for the most part, if you're trying to hone your skills and build a business, you'll want a Reddit-inspired site that's focused on links and discussions that you'll learn from.
Each of these sites includes a voting system and comments, but they also bring a focused community that'll help you build your skills.
for general tech news and discussions
I'll go out on a limb and guess that you've at least heard of Hacker News. (Some of you likely even spend more time on the site than you'd like to admit.)
Simply put, Hacker News is one of the most prominent news sites for tech and startups. It's a great first stop if you just want to find out what the web development community is up to—and landing an app or blog post on the front page is a big deal.
Well-known Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham created the site in 2007 for two main reasons. First, he was interested in building an application on Arc, a subset of the Lisp programming language. Second, he wanted a place online where current and future Y Combinator founders could exchange ideas. Hacker News scratched an itch where Reddit fell short.
"Reddit used to have a good concentration of startup-related links, but that was because so many of Reddit's initial users were connected in some way to Y Combinator," Graham explained in the Hacker News launch post. "Now that Reddit is so much more popular, the top links tend to be images, or videos, or political news."
Apparently, Paul wasn't the only one with that itch. Hacker News now boasts over 1.6 million page views and 100,000 unique visitors on any given weekday. Getting a link on the front page of Hacker News could mean a lot for your business. For example, a blog post from Pieter Levels about boostrapping a startup in Thailand for six months was ranked #1 on Hacker News for most of a day, sending over 25,000 visitors to his site.
The content on Hacker News varies from day to day, but Dan Gackle—moderator and head of the Hacker News community—still aims to serve the original purpose of the site.
"The purpose of Hacker News is to gratify intellectual curiosity—or more specifically, the intellectual curiosity of good hackers (i.e. creative programmers) who are interested in everything. That includes computing and startups but also many other things—science, art, literature, history, geography, you name it," Gackle says.
for the latest and greatest apps and products
New apps and products are launched literally every day. Finding the best ones (or sharing your amazing app with the world) takes time—lots of it. If you're always on the hunt for the best apps, you'll feel right at home on Product Hunt.
Before it was a prime product news hub for venture capitalists, makers, marketers, and tech enthusiasts, Product Hunt was a simple email list that founder Ryan Hoover threw together in a matter of minutes (20, to be precise).
It took off with VCs and founders: After two weeks, more than 170 people were subscribed to the list, and soon Product Hunt evolved into a full-fledged website.
Now it's a startup of its own, after being accepted into the Y Combinator accelerator in the second half of 2014. In March 2015—less than two years after getting started—they hit their millionth upvote. And it's not just a website anymore: Product Hunt is a full-on community. They hold in-person meetups with hundreds of attendees, and act as a launchpad for newcomers in the tech space. Let's just say that if you hit #1 on Product Hunt, you should prepare for a huge uptick in traffic.
At its core though, Product Hunt is still about discovering cool products from around the world. Their homepage features a daily leaderboard, and offers community members the chance to upvote or interact directly with founders and others through comments. It's even spun off some fun companion sites like MakerSuccess, a community sharing stories of their own launches on Product Hunt.
for programming news and discussions
Programming isn't a topic you'll see discussed much at traditional media outlets (except in the case of large-scale cyber attacks). And it's hard to keep up with the best blog posts about your favorite niche topics. Thankfully, Versioning helps you sift through engineering-focused articles to find the good stuff.
A brainchild of SitePoint's Ophelie Lechat and Adam Roberts, Versioning started off as a simple email list in TinyLetter, an email newsletter app. Lechat and Roberts were both avid readers of popular newsletters like NextDraft and Today In Tabs, but they noticed one demographic that was underserved by email newsletters—developers.
Thus, a new project was born. The first issue of Versioning was sent to more than 5,000 readers and it's continued to grow ever since. Versioning now offers both a daily newsletter and a forum described on the site as a "social news site for kind web folk."
Both formats share the same goal, though: Keeping developers in-the-know. "Versioning is aimed at busy developers, designers and web people who want to keep up-to-date with the wider web world without having to spend half their day clicking through feeds or browser tabs," Roberts says.
On that front, the forum delivers: it provides an area for developers to discuss projects, ideas, and trends with one another. Forum submissions might make it into the newsletter, too.
Versioning contributor Chris Perry loves the sense of community on the forums. "I think Versioning is the best newsletter of its type out there and worthy of support," he says. "I like the people at SitePoint; they're helpful, friendly and talk about things with a great deal of passion." He added that the Versioning leaderboard also brings a bit of competitive spirit to the discussions.
I'm a week into the Versioning newsletter myself, and it definitely delivers on its promise. The perfect combination of news, paired with fun design and writing make it stand out in my inbox.
For example, on the site, articles also featured in the Versioning newsletter are denoted by an icon of Roberts' face, an extra the Versioning team weren't sure would go over well.
"The reaction to using the icon of my face to show posts chosen for the newsletter has been really positive," Roberts says. "We weren't sure whether that would be something people would enjoy, and there were also concerns about how it would come across, but the feedback has been great."
for design news, inspiration, and discussions
Maybe you're one of those people who frets over the perfect color combinations. Maybe you use "em" and "px" more than "in" and "cm." Or maybe you need feedback on your latest groundbreaking design. If that sounds like you, Designer News will feel like home.
Launched in December 2012, Designer News (referred to as DN) is—as its name implies—a news site for designers. In April 2015, however, Designer News was in trouble. Its parent company, LayerVault, was closing down, leaving many worried that their favorite community would suffer a similar fate.
Enter the hero of our story—Andrew Wilkinson.
An avid reader of the site since its inception, Wilkinson bought Designer News from LayerVault and kept the lights on. The community has continued to grow (they're close to 7,000 members) and DN maintains its status as an online mecca for web designers.
The front page showcases top links, videos, and discussions, which can be upvoted by community members. There's also an area for readers to view the most recent stories and discussions, plus a job board for anyone looking for work.
As you might expect, the whole experience looks and feels beautiful. One of my favorite aspects of the site is the specific badges that denote conversation topics. You can quickly scroll through the list and find discussions pertaining to site design, typography, CSS, or Apple for example.
The Designer News community doesn't just exist at DesignerNews.co, either. Members of the community have built numerous extensions to help improve the experience or bring DN to your mobile devices. There's DN Paper, an iPhone and iPad app; Designer News Statistics, a collection of stats on the community; and Infinite Scroll, a Chrome extension that enables infinite scrolling on Designer News, to name a few.
Previously, Designer News was invite-only to ensure the content and discussions were top notch. Now, it's open to anyone who fills out the registration form. New users can leave comments immediately, but will only gain full permissions like submitting links after a week (as a spam-prevention measure). Be warned, though: DN does have a liberal banning policy, and offers up some general guidelines for members: "be nice, be thoughtful, and post good stuff."
for marketing news, ideas, and discussions
Growing a base of users to support your new product or company is no small task. How do you decide whether to spend money on Google Ads or Facebook advertising? When creating your onboarding emails, how do you track success or even know what to include?
GrowthHackers is the place where you can get answers to these questions and many more, as well as peek at the playbook of fast-growing companies with serious marketing chops.
GrowthHackers founder Sean Ellis was searching for a place where he could discuss growing companies and customer bases. Sean already had a bit of experience in the field of growth hacking (he was involved with Dropbox, Lookout, Eventbrite, and others), but there wasn't a community that fit the bill. So, like any other entrepreneur, he built one.
Within weeks, GrowthHackers was gaining traction, and community members were contributing as well. Now, the thriving community is over 150,000 users strong.
Alongside a Reddit-style homepage featuring user-submitted articles and discussions, GrowthHackers also offers numerous growth studies on companies like Tinder and Spotify. It's your one-stop-shop for growth marketing ideas.
A year ago, Ellis asked the GrowthHackers community why they found the site helpful. The two most popular replies: the quality of the content, and the ability to connect with industry experts. Despite their tremendous growth, the GrowthHackers team has been able to keep the value of their community high.
for inbound marketing focused news and discussions
If you're building an online business, you're focused on one thing: finding customers for your product. But that rabbit hole can get pretty deep: With all the marketing channels you have to choose from, how do you know which one will perform best?
Inbound.org is the place where you can find out how to market your business to the masses.
Founded by HubSpot co-founder Dharmesh Shah and Moz founder Rand Fishkin, Inbound.org is aimed at serving anyone involved with digital marketing. According to content and community manager Mary Green, the platform hopes "to give marketers a place to find each other, find great content for their industry, and find work."
The "find each other" part is pretty well taken care of: Since launch, Inbound.org's community has grown to over 139,000 members.
But to make sure the community remains friendly and helpful, Inbound.org has a simple question that contributors should ask themselves before commenting or posting: "Does it make the community better?"
The team also provides some quick steps to becoming a top member, which include activities like writing a guest post or leading conversations. As Green points out, putting in the effort to stand out as a top member and help others can really pay off.
"We've had people who have found work just by being active in the community," she says. "Those who stand out as obviously knowledgeable have been contacted by others to write blogs, take positions, etc. We get job applicants and postings everyday."
Fantastic conversation, networking opportunities, and a helpful atmosphere continue to make Inbound.org a top resource for digital marketers.
Q&A Forums and Networks
Yahoo! Answers may come up often in search results, but you can do better than that when you have a programming or marketing question. In fact, a more specific Google Search will likely point you directly to Stack Overflow or one of its spin-off sites, where experts answer questions and upvote replies so you'll feel confident the top answer is the right one.
Instead of shouting your next question into the wind on social networks, here are sites where you should ask your question—or discover it's already been answered.
for answers to programming questions
Type a question into Google, and you'll usually get an answer. That's the magic of the web. But what if you're asking a technical question like "How do I resolve ambiguous mapping error when using spring oath provider?" How do you know that the answer you get in a quick search is the right answer? You go to Stack Overflow, of course.
Stack Overflow creators Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood built the site in 2008 because search engines were failing at answering specific, technical questions. And so, they built a site for "expert Q&A; where you can ask an expert and the expert can give you a true and correct answer," in Spolsky's words.
From the outset, Stack Overflow did a few things differently. First, they added upvoting, which helped to find the best answer possible for a given question. Second, they implemented badges, points, and reputation scores to help users build credibility. Answer enough questions well, and you'll join the top users ranking with badges to show that others trust their answers. Stack Overflow credentials can even offer a resume boost when applying for a programming job.
Have questions about another topic—say, Grammar, History, or Math? Stack Exchange—the software behind Stack Overflow—powers dozens of other communities, each with their own experts and answers about your favorite topics.
for questions about anything
What is it like to live in space?
Why do we sleep?
What is it like to work with Elon Musk?
You can find answers for those questions and just about anything you can imagine on Quora, an online community set on surfacing "the best answer to any question." Co-founders Adam D'Angelo and Charlie Cheever started Quora to help people share information, the unique knowledge that's stuck in our heads.
"When you think about it, you would say that probably 90% of the information that people have is still in their heads, not on the internet. So we're trying to get that information out of people's heads, so it's not on sources that are hard to access on the internet, and get it into a really useful format to make a valuable database," they explained in an interview with Techcrunch.
It's fun for random questions, but can be incredibly useful for startup founders and entrepreneurs—or anyone looking for opinions from experts. Things like finding a co-founder, negotiating equity, and raising funding are all completely foreign until you're dealing with them in the moment. Quora is the perfect way to give yourself a crash course in these topics and more from people that know what they're talking about. For example, a quick search for "startup advice" surfaced a thread with 227 answers including one from Pandora co-founder Tim Westergren.
The beauty of Quora lies in the give and take philosophy. When you create your profile, you're asked which topics you know most about, and then are encouraged to share information on relevant questions. Answer the questions you know about, then get your questions answered, and everyone learns together.
for answers from your professional network
What if the five people you admired most on Twitter were available to answer any question you had? What if you could reach experts in your field, people are running Fortune 500 companies and the products you admire? You can do both on Quibb.
Founder Sandi MacPherson noticed a trend among users on other social platforms, particularly Twitter. "People were mostly following other professionals they respected, and most people were sharing news relevant to their profession," she says in a TechCrunch interview. MacPherson decided to build a platform that would encourage discussions around those articles, and make it easier to connect with other industry experts.
It's a bit exclusive, though. Quibb's tagline is "We're members-only and accept 43% of member applications." Compared to many other online communities that will accept most applications, that stands out. That doesn't mean its community is small, though; their "About" page claims members from over 27,000 startups. It might be a tad more difficult to get your own account, but it also ensures the answers you get will be authoritative.
Anyone can login and read the front page of posts, which offers a Reddit-esque feel. To get the full experience (with comments and the option to contribute to discussions or start your own), you'll need an account. The application process asks questions like if you've ever worked at a Fortune 500 company or made notable contributions to your industry or field. Answering "yes" to more of these questions promises to bump your application towards the top of the list.
Since your application is built off of an online profile, Quibb can tailor content to your interests, and the strict standards mean you'll be interacting with other influencers in your field. Here's Erin Griffith from Pando discussing her first impressions:
"Not only was I immediately shown links and discussions that were relevant to my job, I was quickly able to interact with high profile people from my field who were already there. Influencers, if you will. Because Quibb is built around Twitter contacts, I'm constantly getting updates from people I follow and admire. There is recognition and credibility from the getgo."
for questions about starting and running a company
Starting a company is easier than it has ever been. There are a wealth of resources available to help entrepreneurs connect with potential customers, create their product, and even raise capital. According to FounderDating co-founder Jessica Alter, one aspect still isn't so easy. "The people side of entrepreneurship, finding and accessing the right people … that is still very difficult," says Alter. That's where FounderDating comes into play.
Referred to as the LinkedIn for entrepreneurs, the online community connects like-minded individuals—only here, it'll introduce you to people you don't know yet. Looking for a co-founder for your latest venture, or want to be an advisor for a new startup? When signing up for FounderDating, everyone is asked what relationships they're looking for to create more meaningful relationships.
FounderDating has already led to many meaningful connections. A few years ago when the community was just getting started, Jessica was out to dinner when the guy next to her thanked her for starting the community and explained that his company (spurred on by FounderDating) had just raised a $10 million Series A round. Success stories like these capture the essence of what FounderDating is all about.
for questions about marketing
Getting your business on the front page of Google results for your industry might make or break your business—and getting to the first slot is the digital equivalent of winning the lottery. The only question is, How do you get there? The Moz community just might be your best shot.
It all started largely as an accident, according to senior community manager Erica McGillivray, when Moz founder Rand Fishkin started a blog at SEOmoz.org to write about search engine optimization. Soon, he had attracted a following of others interested in the topic. Today the Moz community is 600,000 strong, with a Q&A forum, in-person events (including their main event, MozCon), blogs, and more.
It's another community where, like Stack Overflow, you can join as a beginner and become an expert helping others. SEO and marketing consultant Marie Haynes was an absolute beginner when she joined the Moz community, but was still welcomed with open arms. "The atmosphere is welcoming and I did not feel embarrassed to ask simple questions," said Haynes. Fast forward a few years and she's answering questions herself, which in turn fuels her business. "I find that my answers in the Q&A quite often turn into good leads for me. These leads are not usually tire kicking leads, but genuine small business owners who are ready to hire someone who can help them."
Samuel Scott has a similar story about how the Moz Community has helped to jumpstart his career. He posted a comment with thoughts on the PR side of SEO, which led to him authoring to a Moz post, then giving a talk at SMX West, which led to many other speaking opportunities. Alongside the obvious career benefits, Samuel lists three reasons he feels the Moz Community is unlike any other:
- The guides, Q&A sections, and various resources are the best in the business for digital marketing. - Everyone in the community is polite and respectful, even when they disagree. -"The gamification system that rewards top contributors pushes everyone to share their best material.
Anyone interested in marketing and SEO can join the Moz community. An account gets you access to webinars and the Q&A forum, along with a multitude of other resources. Moz even offers a reward system which gives away things like a free ticket to MozCon to top community members!
Want an answer now, or need to talk in real-time with anyone who's interested in your favorite topics? Group IRC chat rooms have been around for ages, and Slack has recently revived team chat as one of the most popular ways to make connections online. There's no waiting around for answers or wondering if your post will be upvoted; you get an answer now.
There's a Slack group for everything—or you could start your own. Here are a couple active Slack groups to help you get started, then check Slack List to find other Slack groups specifically about your favorite interests.
Want to make your Slack groups more interactive? Learn how to build your own Slack Bots with Zapier to start projects, lookup data, play games, and more right inside Slack.
for chat about SEO and marketing
If you frequently use words like "exit strategy" and "MVP," or are interested in building your user-base, Online Geniuses is for you.
Before there were Slack groups, Online Geniuses was a Skype community where internet marketers could talk business and strategies, and share personal stories. Soon, the community grew to over 100 members, and founder David Markovich began looking for a different platform for the group, leading him to Slack. Now, Online Geniuses receives dozens to hundreds of applications a day and is often mentioned in large publications like Forbes.
The 1,700-strong community lets members ask questions and chat about internet marketing. It also regularly runs Reddit-style AMA's (Ask Me Anything) question-and-answer meetings with industry leaders like Moz founder Rand Fishkin and Kissmetrics founder Hiten Shah.
To keep spam low and the quality of the community high, Online Geniuses doesn't accept everyone that applies. However, anyone is welcome to apply. According to Markovich, the only rule is to help one another. "You can ask whatever you want. The only thing you have to do is be active. If you ask a question, you'll get an answer, but if you know the answer to a question, we expect you to give an answer."
Community member and support engineer David Berger is active in eight different online communities, but says that Online Geniuses still stands above the rest. "This has been one of the most responsive and interactive Slack communities I'm a part of," says Berger.
for chat about startups in your area
Silicon Valley, the hotbed of startup activity and venture capital, is synonymous with tech. Intuitively, though, you know deep down that Silicon Valley isn't the only place you can start a business—it just gets all of the attention. Founded X is on a mission to shine a light on startups all across the globe.
The Founded X Slack community didn't start as a community at all. At first, it was just a simple website to showcase great startups in the Netherlands. That website, FoundedInHolland.com, turned out to be quite the hit, receiving over 100 applications in just one day from companies throughout the Netherlands wanting to be showcased on the site. Soon, emails were pouring in from other countries as well, including Norway, Bangladesh, and South Africa. And Founded X, a global community promoting startups and innovation, was born.
Founded X now boasts a large network of nearly 2,000 startups across 30 countries. While the community mainly exists in the form of a Slack group (with over 800 members), there are also impromptu meetups that spring up around the world.
Rahim Md. Earteza, an entrepreneur in Bangladesh and the community manager of Founded X, highlighted two reasons why the platform is so special. "Before Founded X, much of the startup talk centered around Silicon Valley. This community shines a light on all of the fantastic startups from all over the world," he says.
Earteza was already a part of the startup scene in Bangladesh, but there wasn't a single hub or resource listing out all of the awesome startups in the area. Founded in Bangladesh is now that hub, allowing Earteza and others to connect with the local startups.
Anyone can join the Founded X group with a quick application, and if you're interested in starting your own "FoundedIn" site to showcase startups in your own country, that's possible too. In fact, everything to start the site (front-end code, logo, a custom CMS, and more) are provided for free if you request the starting kit, as long as you share any improvements you make with the rest of the community.
That's only a small sampling of the best online communities—there's thousands more. Hacker News, Quora, and Stack Overflow may be the most well-known, but there are forums, subreddits, Slack groups, and more about every topic imaginable. Plenty are just for fun, but there's a wealth of others where you can learn more about building and marketing your projects, and connect with like-minded individuals.
Of course, you'll have to pick a few to focus on. No one has time to join all the groups. For me, after creating quite a few profiles while researching this article, I'll be sticking with Versioning and dabbling with Growth Hackers.
What about you? We'd love to hear about your favorite online communities, forums, and chat groups!
Credits: Crowd photo courtesy Dan Slee