Another online discussion forum experiences growing pains.
June 27, 2000 10:01 PM   Subscribe

Another online discussion forum experiences growing pains. Lance writes: "glassdog.CLUB is a good example of what can go wrong in an online community." And so he's pulling the plug. Perhaps killing something while it's still young is the only way to keep it from growing old and dying miserably?
posted by ericost (26 comments total)
He is quite right though, look at the state of this forum which has started out as a seemingly innocent request, and has quickly devolved. BTW, the content might be offensive to some, so exercise caution.
posted by stx23 at 4:45 AM on June 28, 2000

Okay, forums keep going downhill, and everyone (understandably) gets upset and bitches. I think it's time to figure out WHY these forums fail and to try to fix the problems.

One way to do this is to study forums that work and try to see what makes them different. One poster on glassdog brought up The Well and suggested that it works because it is a pay site. His theory is that if you pay for something, you have more of a stake in its upkeep.

I've been part of a forum at for several years, and it's been a constant pleasure (in spite of the fact that the BBS software there totally sucks). The members are courteous and helpful and fun. Perhaps that forum works because not too many people know about it, it's moderated, and it covers only one specific topic (the graphic app Xara).

I've said before that I think forums will always go bad when they have too many members. I think there are some creative ways that members can be split up into smaller groups (without eliminating anyone who wants to participate). Small groups can be a community. "A Large Community" is an oxymoron.
posted by grumblebee at 5:07 AM on June 28, 2000

"It's hard to run a discussion forum that grows to the point where you feel like a stranger on your own site, or when you see a flame war get out of hand and you feel bad for building the site in the first place, or when you only know 5% of the users by name."
Is this how you feel Matt? I'm worried now, make me not worried.....
posted by Markb at 5:09 AM on June 28, 2000

Considering how many members there are here, MeFi seems to work pretty well. Of course, I wasn't here in the "old days," so I can't compare now to then. Sounds like it was better once. Still, I find a lot of useful content here every day. I've gotten to know a lot of people. I've taken part in many interesting discussions. And I've had a pretty easy time avoiding flame wars.

When I first discovered this site, I was thrown by the speed at which threads disappear (or at least wind up WAY down on the page, as new ones are added to the top). I thought this was a big disadvantage.

But now I think it keeps things from devolving. Flame wars can start, but pretty soon they become yesterday's news. Of course, there's a trade-off here. It's also possible for an in-depth discussion to become prematurely stunted because people get tired of scrolling to find it.
posted by grumblebee at 5:18 AM on June 28, 2000

I've been a long time member of Brainstorms, Howard Rheingold's online community. The level of conversation is *very* high and there are some very interesting people on there.

In one conference, called Life Online, we are presently discussing Amy Jo Kim's new book on online community building called: Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities.

Some of you might be interested in either of these sources.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 6:05 AM on June 28, 2000

Well at least this time no one can say I had anything to do with an online forum deteriorating. I had nothing to do with glassdog.CLUB. I've been a bad boy in the past regarding forums run by people like Lance or Alexis. Not by design. Just natural personality conflicts. I don't know when to be considerate of others and keep my opinions to myself. So I have made a point to avoid repeating such history. On rare occasion I'm able to figure out where I'm not wanted.

So at any rate, IT WASN'T MY FAULT! =) I wasn't there nobody saw me you can't prove anything.

...thank you. We now return you to your regularly scheduled MetaFilter forum, which I think is going very well but everyone else seems to think is falling apart because of all the riff-raff. I think you MeFi old-timers should kick out everyone and save yourselves the inevitable trouble you're going to have farther down the line. Nothing wrong with being elitist. It insures security and personal comfort.

Shall I hobble into the corner and rust or just fall apart where I'm standing?
posted by ZachsMind at 6:29 AM on June 28, 2000

Grumblebee, you may well have hit on exactly the point:

Your Xara forum works *precisely because* the BBS software sucks, I'd say. Barriers to entry are a *good* thing. Call me an elitist; I don't give a shit. There *are* riff-raff (and I used to play Brad; trust me on this one :-) and the work necessary to overcome crappy software leaves them by the road nicely.

If there's no responsibility involved, anyone can play. And that is *not* a good thing.

No one wants to say this in public, because it sounds so uneglatarian. You know something? Tough shit. Mouthy morons are mouthy morons. I don't owe them anything.
posted by baylink at 7:18 AM on June 28, 2000

I think UBB forums and other such discussion groups would be much better if people put the same research into building them as they do to their design work. No one suggests that anyone with a copy of dreamweaver and photoshop is suddenly a pro designer - why would it be otherwise with online forums?

The fact is there is a significant, long-standing body of literature about online community-building going back well over ten years. It's not as simple as getting the software going on a site - it is a complicated thing. But it can be done well. The number of people engaged every day in discussion groups, conferencing, etc. (and I ain't talking Usenet here - I'm talking WWW (or sometimes picospan-based) conferencing (the Well, Cafe Utne, the River, etc.) dwarfs the number of people who, say, make weblogs.

It isn't magic. It takes moderators or hosts. It takes registration. It takes focused topics to discuss. It takes intelligent, generous people to seed the discussions. It takes good software - and UBB is NOT good quality forum software in any way. Motet - that's professional software for forums. WebCrossing is good. Caucus is excellent.

And above all, just as it takes a skilled, talented person to design a professional website, it takes a skilled and talented person to lead well-run web conferences. Why would anyone assume otherwise?
posted by mikel at 7:52 AM on June 28, 2000

Interesting point, baylink. We work so hard to make our tools easy to use that we sometimes forget that there are sometimes benefits to struggling. I remember once reading a review of Terry Gilliam’s newer big-budget films which compared them to early low-budget efforts like MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, in which, you may recall, they used coconuts instead of horses. This great bit of nonsense was put into the film because they couldn’t afford horses.

As for limiting membership in forums, It does SOUND egalitarian, but it isn't--unless you want to take egalitarian to crazy extremes. I am totally for equal opportunity, but I don't let ANYONE be my friend and come over to my house for dinner.

The great thing about the web is that it allows anyone (who has access and a tiny bit of knowledge) to express their thoughts to the world. It's becoming incredibly easy to set up a discussion forum. On Yahoo and Excite (and dozens of other places), you can do it for free--even if you don't have your own URL. I'm all for this.

And I'm also all for INDIVIDUAL forums being moderated, invitation only, private, etc. If you don't like one forum's rules, join another one or start your own.

This egalitarian stuff reminds me of arguments I used to have in college, when I was briefly afflilated with the campus zine. I argued that they should have a stricter editorial policy. 99% of what they were publishing was crap, because they basically published anything that was submitted. When I suggested that they turn some stuff down, I was chastised for being elitist. But no one would suggest (I hope) that The New Yorker magazine should just publish anything that was submitted to them.

Having said all this, I would also argue (without fear of contradicting myself), that there is a place for forums like metafilter--on which anyone can post. There should be ALL kinds of forums, inclusive ones, exclusive ones, etc.
posted by grumblebee at 8:03 AM on June 28, 2000

>and UBB is NOT good quality forum software in any
>way. Motet - that's professional software for forums.
>WebCrossing is good. Caucus is excellent.

Interesting, mikel. What makes good conference/forum software good?

posted by grumblebee at 8:05 AM on June 28, 2000

You people are missing a point that solistrato has made before;

(paraphrase)The web lets anyone speak up and be considered in the same light as some 'expert.' some schmo named 'goofymoron's review of a movie is sometimes look upon as on par with Siskle's reviews. Siskle, who's does it for a living, for years, has gotten honored, etc.(/paraphrase)

And there are more schmos out there than Siskles.

But, now you come to a point; do you censor the schmo? And who makes the determination that the schmo should be censored? Is it because they disagree with who ever has the power, or for some more valid reason like stalking people?

The software as a barrier to entry doesn't matter. You can have completely brilliant technical people who are just fucking pricks. You just are shutting out the nobel lauriett (sp) in poetry who just manages to figure out AOL.

From what I have figured out over the years, from BBSing i the 80's to watching the feeding frenzies here, it's groupthink and ego.

How many threads pound out to over 100 posts because everyone just has to say 'oh, I agree with so and so that you are wrong.' or 'Hey, we should all just ignore this.' and then 'Yeah, we should ignore this. Because he's a moron.'

How many are mutual patting on the back to the extent of virtual mutual masterbation because everyone's comment is simply a clone of what everyone else has said instead of something original or some critical type thinking?

How many tough topics pass on by without a comment? Doesn't anyone care that Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers suicide-bombed a food relief ship for the civilians trapped by the conflict in the north of the island nation? No, everyone's too busy blasting murray kester about NPD on a thread that had nothing to do with NPD.

I'll stop now before this becomes a novel.
posted by rich at 8:37 AM on June 28, 2000

>How many threads pound out to over 100 posts
>because everyone just has to say 'oh, I agree with so
>and so that you are wrong.' ... How many are mutual
>patting on the back ... instead of something original or
>some critical type thinking? How many tough topics
>pass on by without a comment?

In other words, online conversation is exactly the same as offline conversation.
posted by grumblebee at 8:56 AM on June 28, 2000

Mikel, I agree with you. The underlying importance of technology is the social constructs it promotes. Tech for it's own sake is, well, you know (except when I feel in the mood for a toy, now and then).

Tech is really good when it adds some ability to develop our social side: how we interact, communicate, or pass on valuable information.

Grumblebee, what makes a conferencing software good is its ability to promote and reinforce our desire to interact. If it allows us to follow a conversation more cogently, closer to the face-to-face standard we are all familiar with, then it's good. If it allows us to easily respond with words, images, or whatever, then it's good.

As for the notion of egalitarianism, who said that's always the goal? Sometimes being inclusive is important. Sometimes finding someone who can quickly answer your question or someone who "knows" what you're talking about is also important. It's not a black and white world. As we can see here, there are lots of shades of gray.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 9:03 AM on June 28, 2000

Well, there are a number of things.

But first of all, I should back up one step and say that my post up there wasn't intended as a slam against Lance or anyone in particular - just a general statement that it's not just a casual thing some people do, to put up a discussion group. There are large, long-standing, well-attended communities on the net that actually live up to the name, "community" - and people who haven't participated in them often overlook them. And thus try to reinvent a wheel that is quite well known.

Also note that I think that the software used for MeFi, though limited in a way, is excellent for *this* application. I like it far more than UBB, that's for sure.

Anyhow - good forum software...

The first thing is "what is it to be used for"? If you're trying to build community, it is clear that linear, non-threaded discussions are superior. There is a good body of research on this - it's not new, it's not a novel idea. For tech support stuff, hierarchical tree structures are better, in general. UBB works at this level - to an extent.

Good forums software must know your context. It must be able to present to you only items you haven't read (but with the choice to go over old stuff, of course). It must also give you a hotlist or favourites list, and tell you on that page how many unread posts there are in each topic, when the last activity was, etc.

It must scale well - good forums software can handle thousands of users, or tens of thousands. I should include space for bios or self-introductions. It should have an internal link system (ie for linking to a particular range of posts).

Hmmm. Sorry - I keep flipping between filling in this post and the work I'm trying to do! So I may have to come back to it later. The best source: David Wooley's Conferencing Software for the Web.
posted by mikel at 9:05 AM on June 28, 2000

Thank you Grumblebee. Allow me to rephrase your last comment with a slightly different twist, so as not to sound like a "me too" post:

Online conversations should be exactly like offline conversation, although there are people who believe it can be perfected by regulation and censorship.
posted by ZachsMind at 9:08 AM on June 28, 2000

Rich, there are dozens of sites that contradict what you're saying. In which there are discussions that have carried on for years, in different forms, with vital, interesting content added every day.

Disclosure: I've been involved in the web community circuit for years, as a founding host at Cafe Utne (we won a Webby this year!) and several other sites.
posted by mikel at 9:09 AM on June 28, 2000

I've learned a lot of lessons about forums as a result of putting up glassdog.CLUB, most of which have been hit on by others in this thread, but the big one that comes to mind is this: Online discussion forums take a lot of time to manage and need a lot of care to maintain.

One person simply can't manage that many people and their singular and group motivations. People post for all number of reasons besides the one you thought they were posting for. Some people need an outlet to be heard and will simply fill that space with noise in order to fulfill that desire. Other people believe that the only good discussions are the ones where everyone gets along, which usually lead to a lot of very happy but ultimately dull discussions.

I'm sure that the forums were worth saving, but I just don't have the time to devote to them. And although there were volunteers to moderate, the interest had already drained from the place. I couldn't ask someone else to devote more time to it than I was willing or able to give.

I'm sure the loss of one set of discussion forums on a vanity site is hardly a trend of anything more than evolution. You try things out - some things work, some things don't. This could have, but it was a much larger undertaking than I anticipated. I thought that if everyone had an equal voice in a process, the process would form of itself and grow better with more voices, like a chorus.

But without someone waving the baton, you end up with a lot of noise.
posted by honkzilla at 9:59 AM on June 28, 2000

Honkzilla's comment brings up a fascinating issue: I would agree that a public forum without a manager is a recipe for chaos (which can be, but isn't necessarily, a pejorative word).

The question is, does the manager have to be a human? To me, it seems like the easiest solution IS to find a human manager with enough time an energy. But are there other possibilities? Without turning to some sort of artificial intelligence that doesn't yet exist (and which, if it DID exist, would be essentially a human anyway), is there a way of constructing an application which would present the community with clear rules and contain a robotic method of enforcing these rules? Is it possible that such a system could lead to a non-chaotic community?

If a human hand is the only answer, is it better to have just one human hand or several?

For instance, I am a steadfast atheist and my best friend is a devout Christian. We have been thinking about starting some sort of forum in which we could discuss issues of faith (and lack of it) with other interested parties. We are thinking of co-moderating it.

As we are very close friends--and have been for over a decade--we have total respect for each other. At the same time, we each think the other is completely WRONG about the reality of God.

The untested question is: can we moderate a discussion with a just the right amount of tension. As honkzilla implied, too much conflict can lead to flaming and hurt feelings. Not enough can lead to boredom. How do you find and maintain the perfect mix?
posted by grumblebee at 10:21 AM on June 28, 2000

I've been on & off the WELL for the past 7 years, so it's been interesting to see it referenced here. For the most part, I'd define it as a community that works, although dustups and flaming are fairly common. To my mind, there are three factors that have helped keep it that way:

* Barriers to entry - Cost, tech knowledge (until a few years ago, you had to dial in direct or telnet, and know or learn some UNIX commands to get around)

* Moderation - Every forum has a host who has the power to delete posts, freeze topics, etc. Many hosts choose not to use all the powers they have, and many forums have a firm "hands-off" attitude in their culture, but each one does have someone who's ultimately "in charge" and can help shift the course of the conversation.

* Offline community - Until just recently, there used to be a monthly gathering for all WELL folks who wanted to come. I have yet to make it to one myself, but my suspicion is that regular face-to-face contact helps reduce the kinds of misunderstandings that seem to happen so much in text-based communication. Whether that's workable in a community that starts out geographically scattered, I don't know.
posted by raku at 10:36 AM on June 28, 2000

It just occurred to me that there are dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of these discussions about BBSes going bad. The discussion usually takes the form of pining for the "golden age" in which there were many fewer members.

But haven't you all had these EXACT same discussions about real life social groups? Maybe some of you are lucky enough to have kept the same group of friends all your life, but I'm not.

I had a great group of friends in high school and a great group in college. I still keep up with one or two people from these groups, but the groups themselves don't exist anyore. I remember, when it was clear these groups were going south, we had the same sort of nostalgic discussions.

Maybe social groups (of any kind) are ephemeral.

This means that if (or when) metafilter declines, the answer to the problem will be to create the new metafilter—the metafilter of the future.


I agree with most of your points, raku. But I had the exact opposite experience in the 80s (very early BBS community at Indiana University). The “golden age” was when the group was totally online, totally virtual. Then we all started meeting each other in real life, dating, etc. And that was the beginning of the end.

Which is not to say you are wrong. Every group has its own dynamic.
posted by grumblebee at 10:47 AM on June 28, 2000

Other people believe that the only good discussions are the ones where everyone gets along, which usually lead to a lot of very happy but ultimately dull discussions

While I agree with most of Lance's points about BBS's...this one I'll have to disagree with.

Happy people = dull discussions?

I don't think so.

Is it envogue to think that civility towards your fellow netizens is a bad thing? It strikes me as funny that some people have this feeling on the net that they have to be an asshole when presenting a differing opinion on a topic in order to make the discussion more exiting for themselves or others. Usually all I see is a guy being an asshole and his opinion drawn mute because of his behavior.

People can and do have thought-provoking discussions of differing views and opinions with respect and civility towards each other. It does happen, I've seen it, and I've been a part of it. It saddens me to continue seeing rationalizations for inexcusable behavior when participating in a group discussion and what's worse is when people start rationalizing that rude, vendictive, and abrasive behavior is required to have a thought enlightning "non-dull" conversation.

Try this real world time you get invited to a party, show up sloppy drunk, pick a fight with one of the guest, spill beer on the furniture, piss all over the family dog, and try to explain why you feel that AL Gore is the best choice for a presidential candidate. More than likely no one will give a fuck about your opinion and I sorely doubt you'll ever be invited back.
posted by dangerman at 11:20 AM on June 28, 2000

Even moderated forums have problems. Just look at /. and that bunch of shitheels. Proving that moderators have agendas, hundreds of posts enable a moderator to further those agendas.

As far as this place, dangerman's board, or others... it's much more civilized, IMHO. At least there is interaction between posts.
posted by Dean_Paxton at 12:27 PM on June 28, 2000

dm: While I agree that you can have a good forum without HOSTILITY, but the image honk evoked for me was of those people who don't want any *disagreement* or difference of opinion. Lets face it, if everyone completely agrees, there is no point in talking. If it's just a straight up love fest, I might come by occasionally for a little affirmation, but I'd be boredboredbored if it were my only interaction.

I think the key is moderation - and by that I don't mean "all things in moderation" but rather moderator(s). I don't think lance will take offense to my suggestion that he's not much of a bulletin board participation guy in the first place, and it was commented on more than once that he was an absentee host on GD.CLUB (mostly by people in the "Screening Room" who felt he ought to be doing portfolio review - style critiques for everyone who posted a URL). If you have an open invitation to a party, and then don't watch to make sure they don't break up the furniture, they WILL break up the furniture. He had forum moderators, but for the most part, I don't think they ever acted on their roles.

Even Matt has been a bit more hands off here since going to Pyra - although he might disagree, since I know he spends a ton of hours working on it, but he's definitely less visible than "The Golden Era of MeFi" when he posted more than half of the front page articles. The difference here (and based upon the rampant navel-gazing, I'm close to alone in this theory) is that MeFi has adapted and grown to meet the changes, where GD.CLUB just got anarchic.

There are other discussion groups (I'm not naming names, dm) where the size of the group is smaller, there are active mods, and the host is highly visible - so they stay more courteous, even when there are disagreements, different viewpoints, and even the occasional dustup. Whether they will respond to growth like MeFi, GD, or something else is yet to be seen... The only thing I don't think they can do is stay the same. YMMV, but I have been a poster to MeFi, GD, and those other smaller unnamed bulletin boards for quite a while, so I've had the opportunity to observe their life cycles.
posted by CrazyUncleJoe at 12:29 PM on June 28, 2000

I completely agree with you CuJoe...whoop...there I go being dull again.

posted by dangerman at 12:38 PM on June 28, 2000

Is it just me, or does anyone else think there have been more posts about The Problem With MetaFilter than there have been problems with MetaFilter? It's growing, and changing, but maybe I haven't been around long enough to see those things as Problems. Also, I think Matt's "ton of hours working on it" have simply been in developing the underlying technology rather than active participation in the discussion.
posted by harmful at 12:49 PM on June 28, 2000

stx23 - What was the forum you referred to about? I couldn't find it on the site, but the url and your post made me curious.
posted by birgitte at 4:31 PM on June 28, 2000

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