[Updated at 11:30 PST 12/07/09]: Mike from Mule Design weighs in, and I like his sentiment.
[Original post]: Today on Twitter I made a dumb little joke about Dean taking down Favrd. I think the point I was trying to make was that, hey, there’s plenty enough of that going on with Twitter, but thanks for trying to reduce it. I never signed up for Favrd, but I was flattered the two or three times one of my tweets got some notice from it. I didn’t give the sudden closing of shop much thought beyond that.
Then I made the mistake of reading the comments on this post from Zeldman. Everyone’s entitled to their opinions, but jesuchristo I can’t believe some of the stuff I’m hearing from people I respect. Go read it. Your outrage may vary. All I can say is that community-building is for people with strong stomachs – individuals can be great, but invested groups of users very quickly find ways to be massive pains in the ass towards people who are just trying to make them happy.
Reading all of this, I decided I wanted to make a public statement to anyone out there who might be trying to make something cool for me and my friends to use. I tried to tweet it, but I was 60 characters over, so here goes:
Here’s my promise to you: if you build something, get fed up with the community of self-important assholes that use it, and decide to take it down, I’ll never publicly excoriate you for doing so. Cool?
Rather than compare someone to “an angry Hebrew God,” I feel that a suddenly-bereft former user has the following options:
a) Join another service
b) Offer to host it themselves
c) Roll their own
… and that seems like plenty options enough, even if just to keep things civil. Besides, it’s tacky to hurl biblical invective at a guy who’s obviously taken enough shit already.
I missed it until today, but Linden Labs made an official announcement of its September 6th discovery that “an intruder was able to access the Second Life database through the web servers.” What was compromised? “Second Life account names, real life names and contact information, along with encrypted account passwords and encrypted payment information.” (emphasis mine)
It was difficult for me to read the Linden announcement without thinking about Jason Fortuny’s “Craigslist Experiment” – and I found my perspective on the whole incident a bit skewed.
I was lead to a few questions: If you’re a Second Life GOR roleplayer, or involved in any kind of adult-oriented activity within SL, what are you more concerned about? Your financial data winding up in the hands of some Latvian credit card scammer? Or someone like Fortuny simply posting your Second Life account name alongside your actual name on Craigslist?
Services like Second Life and Craiglist allow users who are consenting adults to act like such. Bad Actors who seek to expose users’ identities, for profit or sociopathic entertainment, are potentially greater threats to these services than those whose goals are strictly financial. With the potential for the exposure of their dual identities, and with them their in-world behaviors, users of both Craigslist and Second Life face a crisis of confidence – both in the service and in the members of their community. That sudden deficit of faith is a threat to the utility (existence, even?) of these services.
Linden Labs can secure itself, let the crisis pass, and try to let users know it is safe to come back. It will have its work cut out, certainly, but the more difficult task may be in convincing users to have confidence in the privacy of their identities and behaviors. I’d posit that once user privacy is called into question, the potential for a chilling effect on behavior is quite real.
Nicholas Carr decides that imposing a few constraints to preserve civility equals the death of Wikipedia. I’m envious of Carr’s ability to turn a phrase; his comments on the death of ideals are stirring. But hyperbole like this leaves me cold:
Where once we had a commitment to open democracy, we now have a commitment to “making sure things are not excessively semi-protected.” Where once we had a commune, we now have a gated community, “policed” by “good editors.” So let’s pause and shed a tear for the old Wikipedia, the true Wikipedia. Rest in peace, dear child. You are now beyond the reach of vandals.
I’ve written before that I didn’t think you could maintain something as big as Wikipedia without some constraints. From my perspective, those constraints are necessary to prevent behavior that damages the veracity or NPOV nature of the contributed content.
Any user can still advance through a trial period towards full-fledge privileges by refraining from abuse – I’d argue this is the model that the community has been evolving towards (almost inevitably) since it was instantiated.
This is what Peter wrote in a email to our internal list:
Jimmy also stressed that the design of the community space was important. To demonstrate the flaws in typical thinking about designing for community, he riffed on what a restaurant designed with those principles would be like. You’d start with a “feature”, like wanting to serve steak; figure out an implication, such as, well, if you serve steaks, you need steak knives; worry about an edge case, so that, if you have steak knives, people could hurt each other; and devise a solution, which is to put diners in individual cages so they can’t stab one another.
Obviously it’s ludicrous, but it’s also how communities on the web are often handled — they assume that bad things will happen. The problem is, such an approach limits (or eliminates) the possibility of growing trust.
The problem is… uh, guys, have you been to a steak house recently?
I helped a friend design one, a couple years back. You can visit it, any time you like, on Nob Hill in San Francisco. It’s called C&L, my buddy Pete is the chef, and he makes his grandmother’s recipe for onion grits that will absolutely knock your socks off. [note: there's an auto-play audio file if you follow that link, and no, I didn't do the website]
And while, no, he didn’t decide to lock diners in cages to protect them from themselves and one another after being provided with sharp steak knives, he did have to ponder over the silver, and what steak knives he’d be using.
Do yourselves a favor. Go to Google Image search and type in “restaurant supply steak knives”. Two out of three of the top results have rounded tips on the blade. I can tell you, that’s pretty much standard issue at steak houses these days. They give you an oversized knife with a weird balance, a completely serrated edge and a rounded “point”. That’s gotta be the most harmless utensil every devised by a man who wanted to carve a chunk of animal and put it in his mouth. All in the name of reducing the “risk” of giving diners edged weaponry in easy reach after a few cocktails.
I could do more damage to you with a f*cking spoon than one of those things.
The point is, even steak house owners are afraid of their diners. [For good reason, mind you - red wine and beef drives some people over the edge] The point I want to make is that designing community online isn’t like other things. Wikipedia is marvelous. Love it to death, but I know what that community is good for. I will NEVER trust it on any issue I know is contentious. Try looking up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict some time. You’ll understand what I mean.
Considering edge cases and imposing constraints are an important part of defining what your community is all about. I have and continue to assist clients in building niche community sites. What happens when a user starts contributing content that doesn’t fit our niche, but gets a ton of views? How does the editorial process treat it? How do you tell a user, “no, that’s not what this community is *for*”?
We’re trying to work all of that out. And damn straight, we’ll give them useless knives if we think they might stab one another and make a mess out of the nice sandbox we’ve built them.
To paraphrase some buddhist friends I grew up with, a utopian society requires a utopian people. In his blog post, Jeff says: “People in communities behave in unexpected ways, but they do so in regular and understood intervals.” Oh really? You hear about that World of Warcraft guild that gathered in-game to mourn the real life passing of a friend? They were ambushed and slaughtered by another group of gamers.
“Regular and understood,” my ass. We aren’t a utopian people, and online communities need constraints, not brute force discussion and deliberation, in order to retain utility and civility as their populations grow.