A victim of it's own popularity, or just a control freak who lost control?
January 26, 2002 8:01 AM   Subscribe

A victim of it's own popularity, or just a control freak who lost control? Not sure how much overlap there is between MeFi and Hissyfit, but the SysOp over there, WingChun (a notoriously strict moderator), decided that she was just too overwealmed by the whole thing, and for a variety of reasons, pulled the plug. What are the implications for other online communities?
posted by crunchland (17 comments total)
Uh, no implications.
posted by fleener at 8:11 AM on January 26, 2002

These things come and go. I've never seen Hissyfit before now, so I won't be missing much. If Matt ever closes MeFi, life goes on. That just leaves a hole to be filled with something else.
posted by bschoate at 8:13 AM on January 26, 2002

That's an interesting take -- I run an online community. I inherited it 5 years ago from a guy who just didn't want to hassle with the technical and personal issues running an online community involves. He was going to pull the plug, but I felt that there were too many people who relied on it to just abandon it. This happened back in the dial-up BBS days, when there were fewer alternatives. But maybe with the internet, the pressure is off, and the void is more easily filled.
posted by crunchland at 8:25 AM on January 26, 2002

As noted, this is nothing really new. Any forum that grows beyond the energy of one person to keep things in line is probably a goner in the long run anyway. The delegation of authority can go a long way to extending that lifetime. Other solutions such as membership by invitation or application can have value, but they're not generally popular.
posted by dhartung at 8:28 AM on January 26, 2002

> Uh, no implications.

None? I see at least one, namely that the more closely held control (not to mention actual ownership) of a given site is, the more likely it is that the site may just up and disappear when the moderator's/owner's mood or outside circumstances dictate. So much for "community."

Mefi itself has flirted with the Great Disappearing Act in the past, as I was reminded just a day or so ago when I couldn't find the site by name and had to resort to Another of my favorite sites, Robotwisdom, appears to be hanging by a thread due to Real Life(tm) coming down hard on Jorn. Even mighty /. could go 404 without warning if the company they're now owned by hits the wall in a big way -- and such stormclouds were indeed gathering not long ago.

The implication distills from the substance easily: if you want an online "community" with the power to outlast the person or small group that initially hosts it, you need decentralized hosting and you can't have tightly held moderatorship or ownership. The community blog's closest relatives are in fact the local-dialing-area BBSs of the eighties, where everybody knew everybody else and one saw the same names attached to posts every day (as here) with only a relatively slow accretion of new users after the initial rush and, not infrequently, a "sorry, no new registrations" notice on the most popular ones.

That's not a promising bunch of ancestors if you want community continuity over the long term, since these BBSs are as long gone as pterodactyls. For more promising models, think Usenet, the beast that will not die despite all those Imminint Death predictions; or think of some as-yet-unwritten p2p arrangement where the "site," if you can call it that, is distributed over all the users' systems. Any centrally served site is potentially a Napster -- today overflowing with noise and vigor, tomorrow where is it?
posted by jfuller at 8:53 AM on January 26, 2002

So I guess this means, "Nobody WingChung tonight?"
posted by MrBaliHai at 9:00 AM on January 26, 2002

I loved Hissyfit, and was a frequent reader for the past couple of years. It was a fun place with a lot of hilarious, intelligent people and I'll miss it. But Wing and Glark's Fametracker and Mighty Big TV are keeping their forums, and there's a lot of Hissyfit crossover there, so it's not like snarky commentary has disappeared from the internet completely.

I don't think there are any implications for other forums. I'm certain that Wing could have kept the Hissyfit forum running for ages if she'd wanted to. The place was starting to be overrun by trolls and dinks -- which I think is a problem with any large "anything goes" type of discussion forum and needed someone with a firm hand to control it all. It was a time and bandwidth sucker that they couldn't afford anymore. I can understand and respect that. And maybe, just maybe, I'll get more done at work now without Hissyfit distracting me away.
posted by kittyb at 9:07 AM on January 26, 2002

It seems unfair to come down on Wing Chung - the beauty of the web is, you build exactly what you want to build, people flock, or don't flock, and when it stops being fun, you get to stop.

I look at really big boards, with huge numbers of posters, and I think how much it sucks to moderate that sort of thing - all those strangers coming in and having fun and making connections with one another on your dime, while you spend your free time dealing with assholes who want to argue their American Free Speech rights as they pertain to your board, or post racist and other hate speeches, etc, instead of having fun yourself.

There is a lifecycle to them - I can't say this is what happened at Hissyfit, but this is what has happened at pretty much every other board I ever knew:

1. Start the board. Small number of posters. You form relationships of a sort with all of them. Like hanging out with a big group of friends, and you don't mind spending the money to host your new pals' chat.

2. Board takes off - you don't know all the members - your hosting bill becomes larger, and you don't have time to post much, yourself.

3. Board becomes a phenomenon - all your old friends drift off, and you hardly recognize anyone. Trolls take up all your time, and the bills get higher. Suddenly, owning the board is more stress than your real job.

4. Posters begin to resent board owner. "She never posts here" becomes a mantra, along with "Does she think she is too good for us?" Board owner posts at/has more fun at other forums more than she does her own. Small group of instigators break off and form their own, smaller board somewhere else. Others stay and bitch and bitch and bitch.

5. Moderator can't remember why this ever seemed like a good idea. Credit card maxed out with hosting. Board is removed, and all those people who didn't pay for the service, gave moderator a hard time, or complained publically mourn loss of board, while privately cutting moderator to shreds behind her back.

6. Someone wakes up and says, "Hey - I bet I could run a great board!" Cycle begins anew.
posted by kristin at 9:27 AM on January 26, 2002


Sorry, I see your point, but I don't agree with your conclusions. You are aware enough of Usenet, but you're denying the lessons learned from actually attending and watching the life cycle of discussion groups there (versus the 'post nekkid pictures' ones, to clarify my point)...

This has been my experience, at least: During the first phase of Usenet groups, the posts were on-topic and relatively civil; but it seems like as popularity and attendance hit a certain level, the signal Vs noise ratio dropped through the cellar. That started a deathspiral; the more bandwidth that was wasted on flamewars, idiot posts, and spam, the more the intelligent and on-topic posters migrated from the group. This left less opportunity for intellectual discourse, and smacked the signal level even further into the ground. Popularity guaranteed eventual uselessness: something the folks here at MeFi have been fretting about for some time now, on a regular cycle.

Eventually, somebody or somebodys started a new newsgroup (or groups) to try to recapture the initial worth of the community, but the break in continuity - along with the other options available online - allowed the core group to fracture and dissolve across the four corners of the 'net.

Anarchy is anarchy; it does not, by definition, construct. Without some form of moderation, you open any group project to 'the widening gyre', in which the center cannot hold. That's my view, anyway.
posted by Perigee at 9:32 AM on January 26, 2002

Seems like most every ambitious endeavor comes with its peaks and lows. The people who pursue it need something to keep them going, even during the lows -- a vision, an ambition.

On the web, there still seems to be a ceiling. Longer life doesn't seem to create greater value; things seem to reach a peak relatively early on and then taper off (maybe because of the point made above about small communities growing too large). The returns diminish.

Of course, some things persist because they require relatively little maintenance. Some personal blogs are things the writers would write anyway; the longest-lived all seem to be done for personal reasons, not public ones. But the projects that require a lot of effort all seem to hit a wall at some point -- they become too much work for too little return.

MeFi seems to be doing well because mathowie still seems to gain some personal satisfaction from it. And maybe the success of TextAds has helped push the wall back, by contributing financially, and by proving successful as a concept (it's pretty cool that he thought to sell them, and he certainly started an interesting trend).

I hope he makes a killing off the t-shirts....
posted by mattpfeff at 9:54 AM on January 26, 2002

Of course, you can avoid all of this by using a 'self-moderation' system like scoop or any of the slashcode clones. I can't imagine ever wanting to run a site and manualy removing posts and such. yeesh.
posted by delmoi at 10:41 AM on January 26, 2002

This is interesting to me, as I am a member of a small, but rabid posting community known as the "Pitchforkmedia (PFM) Nomads." Our posting community numbers around 150. We had a bbs (Yabb1), it consumed too much bw, the editor of Pitchforkmedia set up a new one on EZboard to compensate, this failed miserably (it wasn't Yabb), so we...became nomads. We moved from Yabb board to Yabb board, trying not to crash people's boards, and have now set up our own via X-Entertainment. Twas an interesting journey. We made many friends, a few enemies, broke a few hearts, lost members to the wonders of SurfXchange, and so on.

Anyhow, I feel bad for the folks over at Hissy. We're fortunate to have "one of our own" as a mod, so it's essentially a community-run moderator position. It may become something of an elected seat at some point...


posted by kphaley454 at 11:22 AM on January 26, 2002

> You are aware enough of Usenet, but you're denying the
> lessons learned from actually attending and watching
> the life cycle of discussion groups there

Perhaps it's selective-experience myopia. The newsgroup I've followed longest (though I haven't posted anything recently) is rec.arts.books, whose actual charter, as opposed to its official one, is "the newsgroup where bookish people talk about whatever they like." I just now checked r.a.b. on both Google Groups and my local news server (in case one or the other is filtering garbage posts.) I see the same 500-odd most recent messages on both, flame wars no worse that they were two or five years ago, only a handful of make-money-fast posts and no pr0n spam at all. The same is true of a more recent interest, comp.unix.solaris (I'm about to start a new job that will involve babysitting a number of sparcs.) I don't see anything there that isn't about Solaris. Both of these groups seem much better manicured than my own email, where sending crap to the bit bucket is as daily a task as emptying the cat box.

But perhaps r.a.b. is particularly civilized, and comp.unix.* particularly focused (or particularly well populated with people who know how to use cancelbots.) I admit -- indeed proclaim -- that I never had any impulse to read anything in soc.* or talk.* and almost nothing in alt.*

There remains the notion of a p2p-based community-blog-sort-of-thing where each user would have some moderating responsibility (e.g. by zapping stuff he or she is not willing to propagate) and would have to contribute some hardware support (e.g. by providing storage space and bandwidth for propagating the rest) in return for being able to use the system as a whole. Such a system would not be much affected if any given user/contributor went on a long or permanent vacation.
posted by jfuller at 11:33 AM on January 26, 2002

A mayor doesn't attempt to run a city on his/her own, administrating everything and acting as the firefighter, police officer, tax collector, with little or no outside help. A thriving community has many leaders, with differing levels of authority, and different responsibilities. If you're dealing with an online community that isn't self-policing, the real-life community model should be looked at as the ideal -- even dictators have their deputies, after all.

I'm a frequent poster on a forum with tens of thousands of members. There are more than a hundred moderators, with shifts scheduled for their duties. No single person's personality is imprinted on the board, no single person can heavy-handedly ban a poster at their whim unless explicit rules are broken, and the likelyhood of the board owner saying "This is all about me, this is all on my shoulders, and I'm tired, so I'm pulling the plug." is minimal. The board owner recognises that the community has transcended him alone, it's about everyone there, and he has a responsibility to everyone there.

That said, if someone chooses to involve themselves in an autocratic community, then they should expect that one day soon they're going to get the same message that came down from Wing at Hissyfit -- the center just cannot hold but for so long, and when the center chooses to isolate itself from the kind of support it could have, and deserves to have, it will eventually fall. C'est la vie.
posted by Dreama at 11:44 AM on January 26, 2002

I'd be interested to see a community weblog where the voting emphasis was on entry and exit rights rather than the merit of individual threads or comments. If you want to join you get to post to a "playpen" until you're voted in or out by a quorum of existing members. If you break sufficient rules, your ejection gets voted on by a larger quorum.

It would be interesting, because there would be no karma thing to turn into a competition, and yet it would be a community of people, posting within a rule set, without a single person having to bear the entire burden of enforcing it. Hopefully it would be more scaleable.

The rules and boundaries would be important in setting the focus, obviously. You might or might not also want a way of democratically altering them.

And I still want there to be mefi. Warts and all.
posted by walrus at 1:20 PM on January 26, 2002

Why would the owner of a website have a responsibility to the people that avail themselves of services offered free of charge on that website - especially when those owners aren't being paid for their services in any way?

And, if I own a forum, why am I obligated to keep it running forever in order to please thousands of people I don't know and will likely never meet?

The mayor analogy doesn't work - because the mayor is paid very well for the job of keeping a city running smoothly, and provided with well trained officials, each in their specific fields, and all well compensated, in order to assist with the running of the city. Also, the mayor has a limit to their term - they know at some point, it will be over. The forum owner? Pays for the hosting, pays the licensing for any software, devotes countless unpaid hours to designing and maintaining the forum, and has, at best, instead of highly educated and trained experts, a few sycophantic strangers with usernames like MiSTeeGrrl69 and MissAnnThropic kissing their ass in hopes that they will be given some moderating duties - which they equate with being a more important board user, or a power thing .

I don't know why anybody runs a forum, frankly - I cannot imagine a more thankless hassle.
posted by kristin at 1:25 PM on January 26, 2002

I've been lurking at Fametracker and Hissyfit for years, MBTV too sometimes in spite of little interest in TV. The Wing Chung sphere of influence consists of sites full of great writing & an intelligent, fun snarkiness to the forums. I didn't know she was said to be a police-state enforcer or whatever, but whatever she's been doing right seems to have been working. I thought the forums at all three sites always looked remarkably civil, Moreso than MeFi's. Wing & co. must do an assload of work and if the Hissyfit forums aren't working anymore, the owners have the right to retire them.

Successful communities will migrate well when there's a need to do so (think the Yahoo group for Kaycee scoobys and rubberneckers that popped up when all that went down---the traffic was killing MeFi, remember?). kittyb's point about the Fametracker and MBTV forums remaining open is a good one. The Hissyfit people will end up over there and Wing, Glark, etc. will have to do troll contol & doublepost cleanup on one less site. all sounds perfectly reasonable to me.
posted by Sapphireblue at 4:42 PM on January 26, 2002

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