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SXSW 2005 Notes: "How to Grow an Online Community" Panel
pokemon
unwiredben
Participants:
Craig Newmark, Craigslist
Matthew Haughey, MetaFilter
Molly Wright Steenson, Girlwonder.com


MS: Welcome, our panelists have build ways for new kinds of exchanges can happen online. Looking at models of participation, making money, what doesn't work, notion of trust, and future directions.

I have been on the web for 11 years, online for 13 years, founded online feminist communities, associate prof of online communities. Thinking about real world communities and technology mitigation.

Name is now "Molly Right Write Steenson" after being at SXSW eight times.

Matt is creative director for creative commons and MetaFilter.

CN: Remember that Craig's List is a platform for people to help each other out. I've been personally guided by the kind of values we learned from our parents and teachers. Remember the Golden Rule? Given recent electoral values, wondering how we'll return to those kind of ideas. Need to both talk about these ideas and follow through. Need to practice that kind of thing to grow community.

My title is Customer Service rep and founder. Put in 40 hours a week helping people, Craig's List is about 18 people, half customer service, half technology. Just started public discussion about apartment communities in New York that are unfaithful with promises. Try to enforce community values and make it better and more genuine.

We looking into other important areas: community is about who you know and who you trust. Looking for ways to improve community and make everyday lives easier.

Also act as spokesperson for site; I've got this George Constanza magic. Was talking to the ACLU, how do we protect people's rights when they do unpleasant and possibly criminal? How do we balance to prevent crime on our site? I'm not Batman, except for fun. Recently got Spiderman powers.

We've got problems with scams originating in eastern Europe and western Africa. Don't know what to do, but I'm a persistent nerd.

MH: Started MF in early 1999. Originally designed as multiuser system to make it easier to run. It exploded from there. It's fairly low tech,first gen web apps. People make it work, lots of it is social, the technology isn't the driver. It's just me, I just copied the flag this post feature from CL, so now I get a steady stream of complaints.

MS: Accidental community, it just happened. CL was must-do when moving to SanFran. Helped me sell condo in Chicago. How did this happen?

MH: It was an accident. I was fair and wanted to prove that I could do something for five years. Just wanted to stay out of the way of everyone. There are always issues of control and ownership, some people think Matt owns site, some just view him as bartender.

CN: Started with simple mailing list in 1995. Almost everything was driven by community, Added child care to site to help out single moms.

MS: Both of your sites are pretty simple and barebones. You called it first-gen web app. Yet, you managed to build something that works.

MH: It's all social. Just launched Ask Metafilter last year, everyone loves it, been very successful, Setup few rules, tried to create helpful environment. Spot the assholes and kick them out or ask them to stop.

CN: I do read MetaFilter, good example of citizen journalism. You don't need much fancy, people are smart, and they'll do good if you get out of the way. A journalist said the site has the visual appeal of a pipe wrench, we took it as a compliment. The site is kept simple so it won't get in the way.

MS: You touched on the idea of behavior, that people are mostly good. It's like a cocktail party; get out of the way of the guests, make sure fun stuff is happening, be a good host, but keep trouble small. What's the notion of modeling good behavior.

CN: We have sections for people to rave and rant. They know what they're getting into. People will admit they're on meds or substance abuse. People are generally reasonable, but with scaling, people will keep you busy. Sometimes even assholes or crazy people are right, no matter how irritated you are. You need to respond. Everyone has the chance for redemption.

MH: How do I promote good behavior on the site? There are no good tools; most people are reasonable, hard to recognize people doing the right thing. Everyone's enjoyment is tired to all people acting well, everyone sees all, so there's a social convention.

MS: In communities where people are boorish, community will make their own decisions, and boors will look like big dumb jerks (sometimes entertaining)

How about making money -- for hosting, to keep site going? What do you use the money for?

MH: It goes back to who-owns-what. Content is hard to pay for. People were pissed when CL started charging for job listings. Flickr is more of a product -- obvious value, justified 40/year. I've held off against advertising, but I had to take some to keep going. Money can make a labor of love better. I can spot early problems, but some things sneak up, usually unstable people.

MS: How did you deal with hosting?

MH: Got free hosting for the first few years through UCLA. Google has similar thing. Pyra also was good because of free ISP bandwidth. Friend had T1 after that that hosted. Bandwidth and hosting is big for publishers -- it's getting cheap to buy terabit of data and boxes. 500/month to run site right now with two boxes. Made it easy to donate $5 from new users.

CN: When we started to charge, we asked community about this, decided to charge people who would otherwise have more expensive options only.

I have stated that Molly's zine Maxi changed my life, Accounted for my affection for Sex and the City,

MS: We've been offline since 1999, but was geeky back then.

You've found a model that works, what kinds of failures have you had, what have you learned?

CN: Sometimes you get to do more technology for your own good. In 1999, we added anonymous email forwarding. We got feedback that people liked their own address, so we had to switch things quickly.

Volunteer only effort in 1998 failed quickly, had to make it a real company. Just went and hired people smarter than me.

MH: Last summer I made an attempt to steer site on a different track, but found inertia was a big deal. I started deleting things I didn't like, people like it at first, then people called me Hitler Matt.

I picked a co-moderator, a veteran user, who had less patience, and the tone of the site changed overnight. She was very strict on Ask MF section, and he took away her status.

To fix, he added a flagging feature so everyone could vote on moderation.

MS: Does flagging work for you?

CN: It works well for us, and while there was abuse in past, it's doing well now. We've got obsessives that want to find scammers, so we want to enable them with more power. The posters and flaggers are the people that really run the site.

MS: What has surprised you about your community growth?

MH: It's all been low-tech, it's big and social. We've had a few marriages. MF meetups have become bigger than the site.

MS: Metafilter wasn't about the site, it was about the content.

CN: Our site is basically classified ads and commerce. Yet, there is a social process in place. I realized that the site is like a flea market -- it's about commerce and socializing. I like it when people connect through missed connections or lost pets. Just got second kidney donation through site.

MS: You changed things that are bigger than yourself. CL is changing classified ads and changing business. Do you have thoughts about moving from online platform to life platform.

MH: I love that CL killed classified ads. Village Voice was freaked out by the loss of revenue stream. MF hasn't done a lot for real life, but it's given me lots of ideas for collaborative journalism. A bunch of passionate people who are good at Googling can tear a story apart. With a million eyes looking at a story, you can get a really good picture.

CN: Big area is citizen journalism, people are doing better jobs of reporting than conventional press. Amateur and professional will merge to make something better, I want to see something that I can trust and act upon. White House press core is suppressing stories through peer pressure, with exception of Helen Thomas. We on a tipping point for this, an overnight change that will affect jobs of journalists, editors, and PR. Those people need to pay attention.

MS: What's in the future?

MH: The web is maturing, social software has panned out, Friendster's for 20 year olds that want to get laid. I'm hearing about lots of little collaboration, like filters to find connections between friends.

MS: We're moving more into a flea market world, a forum world, even here in our cities. Adaptive design, mediated by technology, is affecting change in people and how they interact,

CN: Our biggest needs are sometimes just a recommendation for a good dry cleaner. Need more services to let people share their experiences.

MS: What would happen if people had similar mobile platforms that could enable this in far off places?

You've been talking about the move from customer service to civil libertarian. You're beginning to enable something bigger than markets -- actual social and political change. Matt, in your role with Creative Commons, you're opening up new ways to distribute content.

MH: CC is hitting a critical mass, everyone has cameras and are creators and it's easy to put them online. What do you do with them? CC plays a role in allowing use. People taking photos don't have commercial aspirations and like to allow use. Google is good for finding stuff, it's easier to put stuff together, and the legal framework of CC makes it easy.

CN: Our site says that everyone wants to get along. This is a US-centric thing, much more radical if you did it in Jereusalem. They are convinced that people don't want to get along. I try to keep out of politics here, I'm mostly fighting scams right now. I've got two guys in my head, the civil libertarian and the Jerry Orbach character, but I need a good writer.

Aud: What about legal liability?

CN: Federal law provides carriers with safe harbor and we've get insurance and a legal team that likes up, they also help the EFF.

Aud: Implicit with community is persistence of identity and frequency of use.

MH: MetaFilter has user accounts, CL has people that hang out all the time. People will make metrics out of everything and exposed metrics will cause competitions.

CL: We have to think about identity to help find people doing good or bad. Participation on the site builds online reputation. I've been reading a lot of scifi, and think that online rep will affect politics. Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow, wuffie.

MS: With the Well, there's identity associated real life.

Aud: There are online jerks, what tools do you use? Bans, emails?

MH: I ban really bad people and tell them why unless I don't feel like interacting. If you go too far, you can make your life a living hell. I tried a troll flag to make their comments disappear to everyone about them.

CN: We did a troll flag for one person a few years ago, but first I try reasoning with people. It works about half of the time. We have some blocks, but they can be worked around. Looking into fighting a major spammer for over a year, may be taking it into legal system soon. One pointed out to hosting service a persistent scraper, and the ISP finally took them down.

Aud: What about well meaning users who dominate a site and drive others away?

CN: Never had that problem.

MH: It's really hard. I've asked people to chill out. Sometimes offended users away.

MS: There's an issue there too. When I ran Netscape rock music forums, I engaged with some users, and talking to them can help steer energy to the right place.

MH: I sometimes have to remind people how to act in a big group.

Aud: Rather than stopping the bad, how do I reward the good?

CN: Have best of CL that helps.

MH: I highlight good posts on a side blog. Digg.com started with just good karma on things.

Aud: Any stories of people organizing to take on issues, each other, or the site runners?

CN: Cases were discussion boards where people do meetups and parties.

MH: I had a recent event where there was a massive online protest. I added tagging to make archives. People didn't take it seriously, a bunch of people got together and added "free-this-guy" tags on everything. Just a in-group against me.

Aud: Can MF be scaled back?

MH: I'll have a baby soon, will need to reduce involvement.

Aud: Dan Gilmore talked about citizen journalism. There's a hairline trigger. Should different standards apply to different types of community.

CN: They do apply. Some don't allow off topics, some embrace it. Women seeking men is strict, but women seeking women was looser.

Aud: On CL, there's a socialist barter culture. Is that something you promoted?

CN: The term socialist means a lot of things. I don't use it. However, if its just people giving each other a break, I like that. That's about as good as it gets.

MS: To wrapup, this has been really interesting. Very good people talking about their experiences. Most interesting is that social software isn't reliant on technology; the profound change doesn't require super tech, and more becomes possible.

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