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civility doesn’t scale

Jimmy Wales (of Wikipedia) spoke at the Long Now Foundation last Friday night. I missed it, but in their coverage of what he said, both Peter and Jeff featured a bit that I certainly reacted to.

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.

That same group figured out how to turn their pet familiars into suicide bombers.

“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.

Categories: community
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