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How Let’s Encrypt Uses Community to Provide Free Support To Over 40% of the World’s Internet

As part of our ongoing series of interviews with customers, our latest is with Sarah Gran, who manages everything about communications at Let’s Encrypt and Internet Security Research Group (ISRG), Let’s Encrypt’s parent company.

In this deep-dive, Sarah shares how Let’s Encrypt has been able to scale support for free to over 40% of the internet by leveraging the power of communities. The community being discussed here is their Discourse-powered community community.letsencrypt.org.

Let's Encrypt Logo

The raw answers have been edited to improve readability, which makes for a more cohesive story and narrative experience.

What is Let’s Encrypt?

Let’s Encrypt’s goal is to get the entire web completely encrypted. Before Let’s Encrypt issued our first certificate back in December 2015, only 39% of website page loads were encrypted. Now, five years and 2 billion certificates later, 81% of website page loads are encrypted. This is due in large part to our work in Let’s Encrypt.

Let’s Encrypt provides Domain Validation (DV) Transport Layer Security (TLS) certificates for free, in an open and automated way. We do this to reduce financial, technological, and educational barriers to secure communication over the Internet.

Why did you decide to build a community forum?

Clay Shirky once said that you’ll make more accurate predictions about the quality and longevity of services in a Web-driven world “if you ask yourself not what’s the business model, but rather do the people who like it take care of each other?”

We have seen this to be true within our community. Our community forum has proven to be a robust resource for information about Let’s Encrypt certificates. But more importantly, it is one of the kindest communities on the Web. We work really hard to make sure everyone feels welcome and the expectation of tone and demeanor permeates the discourse among our community members. We are incredibly proud of the community we’ve brought together.

How has your community been useful in achieving business goals?

Our community is an essential part of our operational model in two major ways. The community helps with:

  1. Troubleshooting and support
  2. Ideation and research

Troubleshooting and Support

Community members provide help to people looking to get or maintain Let’s Encrypt certificates, they help us troubleshoot problems. This has made it possible for Let’s Encrypt to become the world’s largest Certificate Authority (CA), serving over 46% of websites, without a paid support function. By not having a paid support offering, we are keeping costs manageable for us to operate viably as a nonprofit and we make it possible for anyone to get a certificate from us, regardless of their ability to pay.

Ideation and Research

Our community topics inform us of trends which help discover internet wide problems, and they provide valuable feedback on changes as we grow as a CA. Watching the community also ideate, develop, and build solutions to problems with various ACME client software is fascinating. Community members have been able to suggest changes that others can implement. Several ACME debugging tools have been developed that allow community members to assist and fix problems faster.

What apps and tools do you use in running your community?

Our team uses Discourse, Slack and Google Docs to help run our community. Using a combination of these three apps, we converse about and write draft topics and/or responses to discussions in our community.

Our Site Reliability Engineering and Communications teams monitor the community forum on Discourse for issues or topics that need attention. If any issue comes up, we’ll ping the relevant team member(s) in Slack to let them know. We use Google Docs to workshop replies.

This shared workflow and workspace also gives us extra benefits, like being able to get feedback on tone from a bigger team. We work hard on the tone of our responses because we understand the topic of TLS certificates can be complicated and nuanced and that can be intimidating.

If we want to make TLS certificates ubiquitous, we need to work with and welcome people of various experiences and skill sets. Using these apps and tools together makes this easier.

How do you use Discourse?

Discourse is used to run the community to help people who are trying to get or renew a TLS certificate from Let’s Encrypt. While the process of getting a TLS certificate is automated, there are often varying factors specific to a person or company’s setup for which they may need help from Let’s Encrypt. Using Discourse allows us to leverage our community members’ wide breadth of knowledge on our certificates to help people who need guidance.

We also use the community forum to disseminate important information about changes coming to how Let’s Encrypt works. We encourage all subscribers to log in to the forum and subscribe to our API Announcements topic in order to know about upcoming changes. We also have categories that allow people to provide input and feedback on our Issuance Policy and Issuance Tech, and to request new features. These categories give us a channel to discuss and understand our community’s needs.

We use stock Discourse, the one custom thing we have is the status.io banner that pops up when an incident or maintenance is going on.

How do you use Slack?

We use Slack for team communication. It allows us to quickly chat or notify relevant team members about posts in the community they need to work on or stay informed about.

It also helps us communicate about topics that need a watchful eye and make group judgement calls if it needs moderation.

How do you use Google Docs?

Google Docs come in handy when we want to respond to a question but need the input of several ISRG staff. We paste the question or topic from the forum and workshop a response together. This allows us to have the right expertise “in the room”.

We also use it as a way to provide the whole team an opportunity to review answers for technical correctness and general clearness for readers.

TL;DR Summary

Let’s Encrypt started their community in August 2015 to help strengthen and scale support for their subscribers. They knew that success would be defined more by how the people who like it take care of each other, and less by the business model as Clay Shirky once said. Six years later, this is still true for them as they now serve 46% of websites without a paid support function. Instead their community helps them scale this support in the kindest way possible.

We work really hard to make sure everyone feels welcome and the expectation of tone and demeanor permeates the discourse among our community members.