4 things I learnt from the Rise of Virtual Communities

Sarah Drinkwater
5 min readJun 15, 2023

Quick takeaways from Amber Atherton’s June 12 London launch, hosted by me at Common Magic and Protein.

Whatever age you are, it’s likely that, at some point, you’ve been part of a virtual world.

Maybe your work demands Discord; maybe you grew up on Club Penguin; maybe you’re a seasoned old timer who experienced the WELL; maybe you organise your year around FWB Fest.

Amber Atherton has gathered together a great group of founders, instigators and participants in these virtual worlds as a set of interviews for her new book the Rise of Virtual Communities, and on June 12th, I partnered with my friends at Protein to interview her in front of a crowd of founders, builders, investors and creatives at her London launch.

Shoutout to the audience for joining us on one of the sweatiest Monday nights in London history

It was such a fun conversation; two long-term community builders and obsessives going deep on both the book and what we see in the wider world. Here are four takeaways from the evening for those that couldn’t make it:

  1. Virtual worlds + communities ≠ social networks

Communities, at heart, are about utility (“this is useful to me”) and belonging (“this speaks to some part of my identity, need, goal or mission”). In a venture-backable context, these two together can help ensure companies are resilient; utility means customers are more willing to pay, belonging means the participants are more likely to get something from this community that they can’t elsewhere and so more likely to stay.

Often, we conflate communities and social networks but they aren’t the same thing. This piece doesn’t have enough space to cover if Twitter in 2023 offers true utility or belonging, but, while there’s utility in providing digital public squares where large groups of people can be thrown together, it’s hard to feel a sense of true belonging across such difference. Belonging in the context of Twitter tends to look like distinct sub-communities such as Black Twitter.

2. History both repeats and rhymes

So many of the interviews in the book had similar lessons. Two that especially stood out:

  • Even with a flood of new members, only a tiny per cent stay in virtual worlds (and in worlds with tiered membership models, this group generate 99% of the revenue). Nearly always, it’s because they’ve made a friend or met one person that anchors them to this space. The lesson; obsess about onboarding.
  • IRL — whether actual in-person like FWB Fest or digital group convenings like Club Penguin’s famous monthly parties — matter. Both are rituals to build new networks, deepen existing ones and create a moment in time that attendees can look back on. Minting memories as digital mementos is framed as a POAP (proof of attendance protocol) in web3 but… that’s also the Club Penguin anniversary party hats.

3. Virtual worlds that start now have to think smartly about safety for younger users

The audience had some good, thoughtful questions about young children, tweens, teens and the internet. Several of the interviews in the book were on platforms Club Penguin and Habbo Hotel which were most popular with a young demographic (some of the interaction on Club Penguin was designed to be simple enough that a six year old could use it).

And a core similarity amongst nearly every founder interviewed — for those born post 1980 — is that they, like me, were Extremely Online as children (sorry to my brothers and sister who I was constantly elbowing out of the way to play Rogue and do even more IRC’ing).

But we know so much more now; about bad actors, about bad tools, about how damaging certain destinations or behaviours online can be. So what’s the answer?

Our conclusion at the event was multi-sided; we need policy (obviously) to set the guardrails clearly from above, we need good common standards in the industry, we need digital literacy to be more prominent in the education system but, at heart, we also need safe spaces online of kids to play, both with their friends from school but also with other peers.

Imagination should not be a luxury restricted to adults.

4. “Everything new starts looking like a toy”

The book has maybe a dozen examples. A few are games. A few founders explicitly say what they built wasn’t and isn’t a game. But even the worlds that are clearly not games, such as Reddit, have game-like aspects that ensure participants can, at heart, interact in a playful way.

And this is critical. Virtual worlds exist as places to connect and potentially test out roles, positions and opinions they might not want (or safely be able) to express in the real world.

So much happens by accident. Let it. You can’t control a world; you co-design it. It’s an incredibly good sign if, after you set up the original architecture, others (who don’t work for you) take it further than you ever imagined.

And this goes for governance, too. We held this conversation on the same day Reddit went dark; when over 2 billion subscribers were locked out of hundreds of sub-Reddits because their moderators elected to close the rooms in protest at Reddit disabling API access to many of the accessibility and moderation tools that mods find critical.

This community of moderators, mostly unpaid, are a critical piece of the smooth-functioning of Reddit and this extraordinary stand-off wouldn’t have happened if the mods felt heard.

The leaders of virtual spaces have to remember people come for each other first, and the space or product next, in that order.


Given Amber and I both now invest, we discussed interesting trends in the virtual world space. I’m interested in how the architecture and lessons of virtual world building can be applied outside of consumer, such as creating collaborative space for future of work tools; she’s interested in membership communities such as Chief who have managed to balance both strong recurring revenue growth and genuine utility and belonging in the community.

At Common Magic, I invest in products with community at their core in Europe and the US, ideally in the first round.

Order Amber’s book here.

Thanks to Protein for hosting and Josh Orbit for sponsoring (and jumping on the Eurostar to join us, proving IRL does matter)



Sarah Drinkwater

Solo GP Common Magic, investing in products with community at their core. Into communities, the best uses of technologies, London, looks and books.