SitePoint Podcast #121: Online Community Roundtable Part 2 with Matthew Haughey and Sarah Hawk

Episode 121 of The SitePoint Podcast is now available! This week the panel is made up of regular host Patrick O’Keefe (@iFroggy) with guests Sarah Hawk (@ilovethehawk) and Matt Haughey (@mathowie). The panel discuss some more in depth areas and challenges facing those managing online communities.

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Interview Transcript

Patrick: Hello and welcome to another edition of the SitePoint Podcast. This is Patrick O’Keefe and I am joined once again by a panel of online community management veterans just as I was two weeks ago for episode 119 of the SitePoint Podcast. Once again I’m joined by Matt Haughey and Sarah Hawk. Matt, I’m going to ask you just to say hello again and tell us what you do.

Matt: Hello, I run MetaFilter.

Patrick: Nice. Is that the 140 character version? More like the 40 character version.

Matt: Yeah.

Patrick: So, Sarah, why don’t you do the same.

Sarah: Sure, my name is Sarah Hawk, as you mentioned, and I am the community manager for SitePoint.

Patrick: Right. So if you’re in the SitePoint Forums, Facebook page, Twitter profile, you know who Sarah is. Unfortunately we’re not joined by Venessa Paech this week as she had some meetings she had to attend to, so we’re going to miss her voice, but we’re going to soldier on and talk about some online community management topics and points of discussion and go around the table and just have a loose, comfortable talk about each of the issues. The first issue I wanted to bring up is the one of community metrics. Last show we talked about this briefly and said that we’d discuss it later, well, we didn’t; oops, but this week we are making up for that. And just adding any sort of metrics to a community, there was a quote of you, Matt, that was posted on Twitter by @stitchmedia that I read that I thought fit in well with this. Stitch Media said that you said, “Be concerned with anything that adds a metric to your site because people will want to game it.” Can you elaborate on that?

Matt: Sure, sure. I’ve seen this pop up in all sorts of ways on communities. If you have any sort of leader board, give people points for anything, if you have karma, I mean we’ve all seen this one.

Patrick: On the SitePoint Forums even (laughter), way back when.

Matt: As soon as you give people a number they go, oh, that’s interesting, my number is lower or higher than this other person I know of, I am going to try and adjust mine. Then you run down this path of chasing points, what’d they used to call it in Slashdot, karma whoring; you just post what the audience loves knowing that you’d get all the votes in the world just to boost your ranking, so gaming anything is really tied often to money, right, like if there’s any financial incentive people go nuts to try and get to that; if it’s 10,000 points equal a dollar people will kill themselves trying to get points. But even without any financial incentives whatsoever people still do it, and I’ve seen it happen just with everything, everything with a leader board, anything with a number; even things you don’t even think about like if your user page, like your user profile page is on your forum or community, have a number in them that’s maybe like the user ID signup and maybe it’s in sequential order, people will lord that over others that I was here before you therefore like I’m more correct.

Patrick: I have a three-digit user number!

Matt: Exactly, this happens on MetaFilter, I’m a four-digit user, shut up five-digit user.

Patrick: I remember the same thing with ICQ, oh, my gosh; I have four-digit ICQ number, a six-digit!

Matt: Yeah, people sell those things. But, so when it comes to community designs something five years later happens you’d never thought in a million years people would pick up on, so a community I’ve built off of MetaFilter I made sure that usernames no longer had numbers and stats to them anywhere, and it was like your username was in the URL so that people couldn’t get in those kinds of games. But I’ve just seen like ridiculous gaming before, let me see, the 5K contest, this was like 10 years ago, programming contest for like you can only make a 5 kilobyte webpage, and like people would submit four or five hundred submissions of people doing amazing like JavaScript Tetris games in 5K of code doing all this crazy math inside their code to keep it tight. And some guy with a lackluster project signed up, God, 700 to a 1,000 accounts to vote his up, like I was on the judging panel and it came around we were like, okay, the dolphin in Flash is amazing and I don’t know how that was less than 5K, the Wolfenstein in 3D in 5K, that was incredible, what was this guy’s thing, you know, it was like a lamp that turns on; why is it the highest rated thing? And then we did some digging and it was some kid in Italy who just ran a bot; and the grand prize for the entire thing was $50.00 (laughter), and somebody spent days programming a bot to signup, login, vote in his five stars and vote everybody else like one star, it was ridiculous. So, people game anything and even things you never in a million years thought they would, so be careful with those leader boards and giving out any points at all.

Patrick: And thinking about PHPBBhacks.com, which is a site I’ve run for over 10 years now, the largest unofficial resource for the PHPBB forum software, and when we launched the version of our front-end database, or the friend software we use now, we had a top or most downloaded hacks style template page and also a top-rated page, and it made sense as a way to show people what other people were downloading, but what happened was — and I could never prove this but I always suspected that people were gaming it, and not many people, I think it was a few authors or maybe even just one who wrote a script and just hit the download over and over and over again to get that download count up. And I took the page down, I don’t even want to deal with this, I shouldn’t have to put a CAPTCHA on this, I don’t want to ask people to put a CAPTCHA to download something, I don’t have the programming knowledge right now to put together something that’s based on number of times per IP address, whatever, I just don’t care, it doesn’t matter at the end of the day, it’s just not that important a feature; I just took the page down and said forget about it, like if you’re going to game it I don’t even want to bother with it. And no one cared; I haven’t received one email over the six, seven, eight years since I took it down that anybody said, oh, I want that back, so apparently it wasn’t that badly missed, and the only person who really cared that much about it was that maybe one author. So I mentioned the SitePoint Forums because before Sarah was administrator, long before, there was a reputation system for a period on the SitePoint Forums, and you made me think of that, Matt, because the same kind of things happen and expose themselves I would say within the community, those sorts of activities and behaviors where it maybe isn’t a majority of people, but it’s just this minority of people that’s just annoying with it and just tries to game it in a way, but also like make it a constant point of focus of adding rep, rep, rep, rep, rep me! And eventually the forum’s, the administrator, whoever the brain trust in charge at that point took it down, so, I don’t know, that made me think of SitePoint.

Matt: Yeah, I was going to say a good indicator like the CAPTCHA, have you seen a CAPTCHA anywhere? The only reason it’s there is because someone’s gamed whatever feature or thing you’re about to do.

Patrick: That’s a fair point.

Matt: Like looking up a domain or signing up for Digg, or whatever, somebody’s automated that in an annoying way and the person running it is so pissed off, like the contact form on MetaFilter requires a CAPTCHA because we got so much weird Chinese spam from bots that we just had to do it and just — oh, that sucks.

Patrick: Any thoughts, Sarah, I wanted to leave an opening there for you.

Sarah: Not really, to be honest, what I was going to say was that interestingly the rep system is something that we’re constantly asked to reinstate, and every time we have this same conversation and I come back to the same conclusion that it’s just not going to happen. I don’t know why people think that it is, yeah, it’s something that should be so important. It’s not really what forums are about in my opinion but, yeah, that’s about all I’ve got to say on that.

Patrick: Yeah, it’s funny because I remember I was on the forum staff for, I don’t know, about six, seven, eight years, and I would say coming on 10 years next week of being SitePoint Volunteer Staff in general, so all the time that’s gone by, but I remember it being a constant request and it being a point of discussion with staff, and I was always like well, you know, I don’t think we should do this again judging from what happened last time and how it was used. And then you have Stack Overflow’s hot right now, their network of communities are hot right now, and they have their reputation sort of baked in to what they do, and I don’t know, it’s not bad or good it’s just a way of doing something I guess, and people participate for different reasons.

Sarah: Yep, absolutely.

Patrick: So I’m just going to throw this one out there, I don’t know where it’s going to go, I don’t know what kind of email I might receive, but at the end of the last episode we started to — I think it was after the recording, we started to talk about the idea of tech being a male dominated world, and yet on the podcast we had two female community managers and Matt and myself, two average white males, and there’s a lot of female community managers, it feels like to me there’s a lot of people in the space and it’s more gender balanced than other areas of tech, and I have my kind of theories on why that might be, but let’s just kick that off as the point of discussion. And, Sarah, I’ll ask you for your thoughts.

Sarah: Yeah, sure. I came from, as I mentioned in the last broadcast, a very technical area as a .net developer and found the opposite, so yeah, very male dominated. And I found that, um, I don’t know how you guys feel about this, but quite refreshing actually in a way to walk away from that and come into an environment that is a lot more sort of — I don’t know if you’d say female dominated but a lot more even. But what I find interesting, though, is that there is still the constant perception that I’m a male, and I don’t know how much of that has to do with my username and how much of that has to do with the fact that, as you say, tech is traditionally a male dominated area. But, yeah, I would say probably 60, 70% of the emails I get are addressed to Dear Sir (laughter).

Patrick: Not even “or Madam,” just Sir.

Sarah: Just Sir, yeah, I love replying to those people. And, yeah, to be honest I’m not somebody that is offended by that at all, I find it mildly entertaining, and a little bit interesting. I don’t know whether the community side is more enticing to females because it’s less technical, I think it’s probably more to do with the fact that it is more people based, and I think that traditionally women do very well in those areas where people management I suppose, mediation; we’re used to listening to our children fight and in some ways this is very similar (laughs), so it’s not surprising to me. Yeah, I think it’s great, I think it’s to be encouraged, but then again it shouldn’t really matter.

Patrick: Right. And you brought up a point that I was going to kind of bring up myself which is part of being a community manager it’s not the typical tech role, locked in a code basement pounding away in front of a monitor, you know, community is very people based, personality based and analytical in a way. And, I don’t know, it seems like it’s more to do with personality than a traditional tech role might be, I don’t know if that’s a fair or unfair statement, but I’ll just throw that bomb out there and kick it over to you, Matt.

Matt: Here would be the epitome of the culture of male dominated computer world, I once spoke on a panel of all women except me about, what were talking about, I think it was something general like freelancing, tips for freelancers, but the moderator just made a point to try and be more inclusive by not just having four white guys on the panel, so instead it was just me and three women. And then so when the organizers came over like an hour before our talk, we were in the green room or something when one of the handlers came over to say, hey everyone you should get your things and lets go, the show starts in 15 minutes; they only spoke to me because I was the only man there (laughter). And I remember just going I’m not even the moderator, why did they even single me out, they never talked to you guys, that was totally messed up, like that’s just sort of classic computer science world. So, yeah, I was noticing last week that that half the people on the call are female, half of my employees, two of my moderators out of three are female, and it’s just awesome and it’s great and we totally strive to be as female friendly as possible, and we have a lot of pissed off dudes that aren’t allowed to tell women that they would love to sleep with them and junk like that. But, yeah, I was just noticing that like it’s kind of weird and cool that community management in general is way better gender balanced than the world of computer science.

Patrick: So just to throw this data point out there, it’s not a new survey, it’s from October 2009 from Forum One Networks who used to do some online community and social media compensation surveys, and their 2009 online community profession compensation survey also asked people their gender, and they received approximately 370 responses, and they had people who worked for organizations like Answers.com, Autodesk, Best Buy, Cartoon Network, Consumer Reports, EA, Nokia and so on, so Sony and a lot of other big corporations. Of the 370 that replied 52% were female –

Matt: Whoa!

Patrick: vs 48% that were male and this is from 2009.

Matt: That’s awesome.

Patrick: So you have that half-half split. And one theory that I have for some of this, and it’s just something that I’ve found in my own communities, and I know not everyone is like this, not everyone manages their community like this, but the way that I’ve always run my communities and promoted staff in the form of volunteer moderators, is from the community first of course so it’s not uncommon, but I don’t ask anybody what their gender is, I don’t ask anybody what their age is; I ask them their name when we bring them on board, but they’re invited before I even ask that. And so when it comes to us selecting staff members and picking from people in the community, and really my staff, current staff, has a major input into that, they make most of the suggestions, they comment on everybody, I always want their thoughts and their feedback, we judge people solely on the merit of their contribution to the community, how they act, what their attitude is, what they’ve contributed, whether or not they’re a good example to other members. So it doesn’t — it never enters into the discussion of we don’t even know what their gender is in many cases, in some cases, and not all of the staff knows, one or two might, but not all of us will know or be certain. And sometimes the username is a giveaway, sometimes it’s not, and it’s interesting to see that happen where we don’t know what gender they are, how old they are, what race they are; they’re just promoted based on the merit. Just a while back I realized I had two law enforcement officials on my community staff, and I didn’t know that because I didn’t ask or I don’t really care. So I’ve got a couple police officers that are on my moderation team, well, I guess that makes sense, I didn’t know that, but, and it’s funny because I think half of my staff is female and half is male and it just works out that way, and I think online community is a great, or online communities in general are a great example of, for better or for worse I would say, judging strictly on the merit of the contributions to the given community.

Matt: Yeah.

Patrick: So we talked about how I guess the idea that users act like children, not all do, not all members do (laughter), but Matt said it not me, so that kind of plays into what I wanted to talk about next which is persistent problem members and toxic users, and I think it was Sarah who used that verbiage, as good as it is. Managing online community you have a lot of people who maybe push the guidelines, who violate your guidelines, your terms of service, whatever, that you talk to about it, and they never do it again. But then you have this very small minority of people who persistently seem to take pleasure in pushing those boundaries and maybe even demonstrating that they don’t really care about the boundaries. So, Sarah, how do you deal with those people?

Sarah: (Laughs) Yeah, I’m a volatile personality myself so I take great pleasure in dealing with those people. I have very little patience for them because I guess I view my primary role in this job is to protect the people in the community that are there for the right reasons from the people in the community that are there for the wrong reasons and whether the wrong reason be spam or soap-boxing or back-linking or just general abuse, it doesn’t matter, so yeah, I have a very short fuse when it comes to that. I give people one chance, I prefer to make that chance an offline conversation, a message, a personal message from me. I usually ask my staff to send those people through to me rather than going through our normal infraction system that tends to just rile those people that as you say they have absolutely no respect for guidelines or boundaries anyway. Yeah, and that either works very, very well, people pull ahead and appreciate the fact that you’ve taken the time to treat them like a person and everything goes well, or they turn it into a mudslinging match and they get abusive and then, yeah, at the end of the day unfortunately I’m the one that has the ability to pull pin on them and that’s usually what happens, yeah, it’s black and white as far as I’m concerned.

Patrick: Matt?

Matt: What do we do with problem users, well; we could talk for hours about this or years (laughs).

Patrick: We could just start with the names they call us after we ban them but we’ll skip that.

Matt: I mean there’s a whole like ramping up system, we have this whole flagging system so people get on our radar pretty quickly, and we remove sort of things that break the guidelines that escalate usually to like a direct email to them because we found like a direct email usually stops about 90% of people in their tracks, as going, “Whoa, hey, I just thought, wow, okay, there’s actual people behind this, okay, I’ll stop.” That’s usually the reaction. Sometimes it’s like how dare you tell me, don’t ever email me again, kind of.

Patrick: Get a life!

Matt: Yeah.

Patrick: Get out of your mother’s basement!

Matt: At that point we’re like, hey, we’ll only give you one last warning then if we can never email you again, so if you get banned at least you know what’s going on. Yeah, things just sort of escalate; it’s usually over an email by talking to them, that stops almost everybody. Persistently problematic people just have to be — everything has to be explained to them, so it might be 10 emails with someone that takes up one moderator’s entire day just dealing with one person, and at some point they’ll say like, you know what, you should talk to all the other moderators too, and the owner of the site, only to cc everybody because this is going nowhere or something; the only people we ban instantly are like spammers that are clearly there to just pop URL’s everywhere and try some SEO jack-assery. But for the most part for behavioral issues we rarely ban on the order of maybe once a month or something, and it’s only after like a gazillion emails have gone back and forth. But for the most part people get the picture if they’re being problematic and their stuff is being deleted, if not the email works; I would say 90% of the time the truly persistent are a pain in the ass, but that just keeps going. I mean I would say this is a lame generalization, but like in the last two, three years, and I’ve been doing this for 12 years now, and the last two or three years we find consistently people admit to us in the end after just like 20 emails telling them like why prison rape isn’t funny, and like all these obvious things that like they’ll admit that they have some — they’re on the autism spectrum, like if they’ve been described as Asperger’s and stuff, that social interactions are actually physically difficult for them and they don’t understand about other people’s feelings and stuff. Lately we’ve been running into a lot, and we’re like holy cow, when you’re just exhausted explaining to someone.

Patrick: And what percentage of people actually have that is the next good question, right?

Matt: Well, I don’t think it’s like an ADD thing where everyone thinks they have it, but I think –

Patrick: Right. Because it’s easy to see a history of violations by saying, oh, Asperger’s!

Matt: No, I mean this is like after 30 emails where you’re like you seriously don’t get it why like shooting a grandma in the face is considered offensive to people, or something like that.

Patrick: Right. Because some would say that might be a troll that’s kind of a claim to make after spending a whole day emailing with them then oh, yeah, okay good, they’ve trolled their maximum and now, okay it’s cool. So, but you have to take their word for it, I mean you can’t say, No! You don’t have Asperger’s; you have to take their word for it and then kind of deal with it as an aside. But I think one of the questions I would have then for you, and by the way, I think you’re totally — one ban a month for personality at MetaFilter, that doesn’t sound — that sounds way too low, that sounds way too low.

Matt: Well, yeah, yeah.

Patrick: Unless you don’t get as much traffic as I think you do.

Matt: No, we get tons of traffic; I just think we have like a million other stepped measures that sort of shake out any problems before they get that bad.

Patrick: Well, I’ll give you that. But the thing I was going to ask you was the need to protect the community, what you have going on, and also to protect I guess your time and your resources. So you have a small team, we talked about that last episode, and large site, lots of contributions, lots of content coming in and out, lots of stuff you have to read, lots of reports you have to view, flagged content, whatever; at some point I always explain to people, I take the time to explain to people we give people tons of chances, so I totally understand that. But, at the same time it’s hard to justify 30 emails in a day as a member of staff’s time; you said the whole day, I know that’s an exaggeration, certainly it probably wasn’t their whole day, but a part of it and, I don’t know, I think in some cases that’s hard to justify where I think the staff of a community generally the responsibility is to protect the community and not to play doctor to one person.

Matt: Yeah, yeah, definitely.

Patrick: Or parent or mother, however you want to term it.

Matt: Yeah, we definitely keep the — we’re mindful of how much time we’re spending with problematic users. And I mean it doesn’t literally take your entire day, but it –

Patrick: Feels like it.

Matt: Well, I mean not only do you spend maybe like an hour or two writing emails over the course of an eight-hour day, you don’t stop thinking about it for 24 hours, it dominates your thoughts, like, God, I hope — like every time you look at Gmail you’re like, “God, I hope that guy doesn’t email back…

Patrick: It can be stressful.

Matt: Ah! He emailed back!” You know, I have another half hour to think about what he said, concoct a reply, so it ends up it really does take all your time. We have like some leader boards in the background of like people that are most problematic over the history of their participation on the site, and we kind of realized the top ten worst users are people that are just constantly, you know, you recognize all their names that you see them get in fights everyday and stuff. So, I’ve also heard, I mean the smartest thing I ever heard about it was from Philip Greenspun who started Photo.net and established ArsDigita, whole community management software company, he had fake accounting in his programs starting in like 1997 or something, he just created a fake accounting system so anytime anyone used the contact form while logged in that cost like a fake dime or something. Anytime he edited or deleted something that was like fifty cents or something in like this fake account, it’s another table in the database and anytime the user requests an action that requires moderators to do something it had a price, and he adjusted these prices; I think he ended up with like a contact form email to one of the people running the thing, it was like $1.00, because that really took someone’s time. So when some unknown person goes, hey, I have a problem, he just looks at their account and goes, dude, you’ve racked up $13.00 fake dollars, like oh my god, you are sucking the life out of this community (laughter), versus like, oh, ten cents, whatever, they’re new, that’s fine. He would use this like background, this wasn’t public to any user, it was just sort of a background reputation sort of thing going, and I’ve long wished I’d instituted something like that. Because I mean we get people who email us about typos in a comment out of 300 comments in a thread, like, “Hey, I misspelled billions, I put too many L’s,” like really, does anyone even care, like come on, and that takes time.

Patrick: I’m being judged on the Internet, help!

Matt: Yeah. I mean no one will even mention it, they just don’t feel good about having a typo out there with their name on it.

Patrick: They don’t respect me!

Matt: Yeah. So I really wish I instituted accounting in the background on my site.

Patrick: That’s funny. And, Sarah, one thing you mentioned that I wanted to highlight was in addition to protecting your community and directing people to you who need more than a basic level of attention, I guess you could say, because that’s something I do as well, and I think it’s especially important with volunteer staff, which is what SitePoint has in the forums and which you manage and what I manage where they’re not paid, and it’s a ‘as they want to do it’ type of thing; there’s a commitment there but it’s not like — you can’t say, well, be here from this to this, be there from that to that, you work this many hours, it’s just not that kind of thing. And so when you have someone who emails them and is disrespectful or rude or makes a snide comment or just asks about something that’s not something that moderators strictly deal with. I know in my case I always ask if anyone ever gives you trouble send it to me (laughs) because that’s what I’m here to deal with. Yeah, and I always say, hey, thanks for the note, I appreciate your concerns but just so we’re all clear here the moderator is just doing exactly what I say, and if there’s any issue let’s have a discussion right here.

Sarah: Yeah, and the reason I do that is because, yeah, that’s what I’m paid to do, I want my mods to enjoy working for me and I want them to enjoy the job that they do, and they’re not there to take crap from anybody. If they want to that’s up to them, but yeah, that’s not an expectation of mine for sure, I get paid to do that.

Patrick: Right, yeah, I think that’s a good thing to do, and there’s a chapter in a section of my book that’s titled, Allow a Wrath to be Directed at you and Not Your Staff, and that’s what I try to do. If anyone’s mad, if anyone hates anyone it needs to be me. So with different types of online community there are different types of identity, and whether it’s online community or social media or whatever you want to call it, there’s certainly divided lines between the idea of real name identity and anonymous identity and kind of those two cultures. You have some sites where people expect a real name and people don’t expect a real name, and some cases people prefer just to be anonymous. So I wanted to talk a little bit about identity within community and how it differs. And I think all of us operate under the same general principle with our sites as far as I can see with SitePoint, with MetaFilter, with my network, where people aren’t required to give a real name, not that I can see on the sites, and there’s just a username they’re known by, the name that they give themselves, that’s what they’re known by. Matt, I’d like to ask you to talk about how MetaFilter’s identity system works and how you find it performance-wise.

Matt: I find communities that get as close as possible to real people’s names tend to have more mature discussions because people are, I don’t know, kind of worried about their reputation kind of. So I tend to build communities where it’s mostly about having all this identification, if you want to opt out of all that you can, but I know in the backend as the guy running the place at least I know some more things about you so I can kind of — you can’t use that to abuse other people.

Patrick: Right.

Matt: I’m torn because I have a love of investigative journalism and the craft of journalism and whistleblowers, and anonymous reporting is actually important in sort of freedom of the press, but then as a guy running communities, like fully anonymous discourse is usually horrible and you think of things like 4chan is just being like anything goes craziness because there’s no consequences to any of your actions really when you can be completely anonymous. So I tend to favor having some identity out there, if you really want to opt out of it you can, you can just use a username that’s generic and strip your account of all public details about who you are. But when we have like straight-up anonymous stuff it’s always like vetted, it goes into a queue; on MetaFilter like on Ask MetaFilter, you can ask a question once a week, anything you want, you can instantly post it and it’s on the front page, but if you want to ask an anonymous question it goes into a pile and one of the moderators looks at it and has to approve it before it goes live, so we’re not approving like how to kill myself suicide questions, and then we’re digging into who asked that and trying to find local authorities that can help them deal with what drove them to that point. But we know that like there is value in anonymous communications, it just has to be — I mean as a community, someone running a community really has to stay on top of that really closely because I don’t know if you’re familiar with 4chan but it’s ridiculous (laughter), it’s absolute anarchy is really what you get when you totally allow anyone to do anything. But, I mean as Christopher Poole who runs 4chan will say, having a completely anonymous message board also has its positives which is people aren’t afraid to fail, people iterate over and over and over again, they’re basically failing all the time because it doesn’t matter, nobody knows who made that bad joke so you actually get good jokes; out of 400 people trying bad jokes eventually someone actually gets a success, and people don’t feel dejected that like, oh, if you look at my history nothing but duds, I mean because that doesn’t exist, there’s no history. So I’m torn, I wish I could allow for more anonymous speech, but the reality of it is it’s almost always abused.

Patrick: Yeah, and the funny thing is, and I’m not really a fan of 4chan, while appreciating the value of anonymity in certain circumstances, when 4chan is heralded as an example of an online community, I don’t really like that, I’m not a huge, huge fan of that. And it’s a funny story because the first year I was at South by Southwest, 2008, I went to my hotel, and this is also before I’d ever spoken before also, so I’m at really my first tech industry of any kind conference. So I’m going there, I’m at the hotel, the Hyatt Regency in Austin, and it’s in the evening and the bellman is — I got some help for my bags, so we’re going up in the elevator and he’s like, “Why are you here?” South by Southwest, I’m here to speak about online community. And he says, “Oh, like 4chan?” (Laughter) Like, ah, yes, kind of, thank you, here’s your tip. So, yeah, that’s kind of a funny thing. And I think you make a good point, there is a case for anonymity, there is a value there in certain circumstances. At the same time, though, I think it’s fair to say that that doesn’t have to be our communities, that doesn’t have to be this particular space, that doesn’t have to be your community or anyone else’s community, and I think the username versus real name thing also, usernames aren’t always anonymous obviously, and you didn’t say that but it just kind of leads to the next point here, usernames can be consistent. Like iFroggy, for example, is my username everywhere, that’s not anonymous, there’s nothing anonymous about iFroggy; you search for it, you find out as much as you want to know about me. So, a username can have — can follow you even more than your name can, especially if it’s a common name like John Smith, for example, which is the proverbial common name. That name might not mean much, but if he used that same unique username everywhere then they can follow you that way. So, Sarah, I wanted to ask you about identity within the SitePoint forums and how that works.

Sarah: Yeah, as you said, very similar to your network. I guess with the exception of an email address I don’t really know who anybody is; I can track them down in that way. I get emails sometimes from people who have passed themselves off as PHP experts to clients and then freak out when they ask a question about PHP formulating a client’s site using their real name or the client’s name or the client’s site address, so I guess identity can definitely be an issue in that regard. But I think that, as you say, that these days with the number of social networks, for instance, I’m Hawk on every single network that I’m part of unless that was already taken, in which case I am some other Hawk related head, or people can find out who you are, people can go to your Twitter page, they can find out where you live, they can find out who you are from Facebook. Identity these days, I don’t know, online unless you’re one of those people that’s clever and uses a different handle on every single site they use, identity’s not necessarily related to your given name anymore.

Patrick: I get those — not that I get those sorts of emails, but I do get those sorts of comments sometimes, once in a long while, and the one that strikes mind to me is there was a member who felt that someone shouldn’t be on my staff because they ask questions and didn’t just answer them, and I always die a little bit when I hear that type of comment because I think, and I understand it certainly, it can be seen as weakness to some people, but to me it’s part of the progression, so, I don’t know, I would hope that people could see that and understand that, that that’s how people gain knowledge in this day and age, but maybe that’s a little too idealistic. I think just to kind of summarize pros and cons of usernames or I guess you could anonymity/real names, I think, Matt, you made a great point with the comment about accountability, I mean I think that’s a big one, and I think that’s what people see when they require real name identification or even when someone requires Facebook Connect; even Facebook can be gamed, obviously people have fake accounts, but generally speaking when people login with Facebook they are more accountable, and there are a lot of sites that moved over to Facebook comments, TechCrunch probably one of the biggest examples, and some people say they didn’t like that because they enjoyed the troll-ish comments (laughs), so you can’t please everybody, right. But, I think they think they’ve had a higher level of discourse since flipping the switch, so I think it’s one of those things that varies by the site; for most communities I would probably say usernames would probably be for the best because it’s kind of an opt-an-identity in a way, because if someone really wants to be anonymous with just a username, as you pointed out, Matt, they certainly can be because they can name themselves whatever they want and don’t have to disclose that information to anyone else. But it allows their to be some level of accountability I would say with people when they’re not just a guest account or somebody who’s not logged in, but there is — they have to login, they have a username that people know them by, and so that’s a level of accountability in itself just beyond being anonymous. And dead (laughs).

Matt: Well, you know, even with the option to just have a generic floofyfloo647 is your username and don’t put your real name or anything on it, it’s like 90% of the people that use MetaFilter either put their real name or a well known username they use everywhere because they want like everything on their permanent record, they want people to go, oh, that’s the funny guy on Twitter with the same name. And we just have this — I mean it’s 5% tops is like would rather not anyone know anything about them. And MetaFilter we’ve got like a leg up on probably every community in the world in that I require the $5.00 PayPal charge, so it’s like I get the real business name or PayPal account behind a user, which has like been awesome for spammers (laughs), like we can track down spammers so fast now because we know they own the site that they’re pimping all over the place.

Patrick: And, Sarah, you made a point that relates to our final topic of discussion about how people are concerned about what a client might find. With SitePoint the obvious example who is someone who is gaining their knowledge in some aspect of web development or programming, and they weren’t always an expert or they weren’t always able to sell their services to clients, they didn’t have that level of expertise yet, and they used resources like SitePoint to grow that expertise to where they can do that now, and they’re concerned about that showing up in search engine results. And Matt also mentioned earlier off the recording some people who will come to him and say I’m 24, 26 now, I joined MetaFilter when I was in my teens, I said a lot of things back then but I don’t really want online, in your words, Matt, in an age of Google, because everything is so well-indexed now and so easily searchable that it makes it easier to find what we might feel are our past indiscretions and then people can then hold them against you.

Matt: Yeah.

Patrick: So, I guess you have to be sensitive to that and that concern, but I mean how do you address that within an established community like a MetaFilter or even a SitePoint, and I’ll ask you, Sarah, in a second, but where you have this — this is your history, right, the content on this site someone could have posted 5,000 times in 5,000 different blog posts on MetaFilter and those are all linked, I mean it’s all intrinsically part of MetaFilter, and those discussions people replied, it’s all linked in one another; how do you deal with that concern?

Matt: Well, we usually just like say you can pick out a handful at the most if it’s going to be a long thing. I mean the idea of it I think has merit is that when they were commenting in the year 2000, Google was just getting its legs going and it wasn’t indexing every page on the Web in realtime, and nobody ever thought the employers would Googling your name, instantly that would be the first cut and they’re hire you or something. So I mean I’m just really glad that nothing I ever did has — I mean I didn’t even go online until I was 23 or something, so in 1995, so I’m lucky that my previous ridiculous teen generation doesn’t exist online everywhere. So I would definitely say people today leaving comments anywhere probably know this pretty well, that like be careful what you say, be careful what you’re doing, Google’s always watching. But like things you did 10 years ago, like remember when Google bought, what was the Usenet search engine, not Excite, it started with an E, I thought, they used to be based in Austin, Texas, they bought like the Usenet archive and integrated it into Google Groups, and someone pulled up like a ridiculous — like my very first lame miscategorized HTML help post from like 1996, like I asked in a JavaScript forum a basic HTML4 question, and the replies were all like, ‘wrong forum, dumbass’ kind of. And it’s like that was funny, amazing that Google just bought this archive, made it online; stuff that no one ever thought would be searchable 10, 15 years later would be suddenly was, and it was just a weird change of perception that wasn’t there at the start. So I think if you’re designing a community today you’ve got nothing to worry about, I think everyone’s really up on this stuff and they’ll be careful what they say, but if you have 10 year old content, yeah, it’s like you do kind of have to be understanding of this.

Patrick: I think the company you’re thinking of that Google bought was it Deja?

Matt: Yeah, Deja News, that was it.

Patrick: Deja News, yeah, okay cool, yeah, I went to the Wikipedia page for list of acquisitions by Google. And that’s actually the first one listed by date, February 12, 2001, so as far as Wikipedia is concerned that’s the first acquisition Google ever made.

Matt: Yeah. Yeah, that’s very old.

Patrick: Definitely very old.

Matt: I mean there are people like broke up with each other on Usenet; in a deep group you know that nobody like Sci-fi/Orsonscottcards/fans, you know they never thought the normal public would ever be able to see, and people are just pulling them up going check this out!

Patrick: Our geekdom exposed! So same question but I guess with SitePoint, Sarah.

Sarah: I think regardless of the site, I think the number one rule with the Internet is that the Internet is forever, and if you don’t remember that then you’re going to get yourself in trouble somewhere along the line; I get the same sorts of emails all the time asking for things to be deleted. The other reason tends to be that somebody has defamed somebody in their eyes or said something about their company when they didn’t own their company, any number of things, and they want me to delete the post and clear the Google cache (laughter), well, I can’t do that. I’d love to be able to do that, I can’t do that; I won’t delete the post either. We have a rule about not posting personal information, so if somebody that is new or doesn’t really know what they’re doing comes along and puts their email address or their own name or anything like that, then absolutely we will edit that out for you, but otherwise if you make a post your post is there, database integrity is important, people learn from posts; the whole purpose of a forum is that somebody can lookup a legacy issue and they can find information. So, obviously there are extenuating circumstances and we always listen, but as a general rule if you posted something that made you look silly or that you wish you didn’t post, then you probably should have thought about that at the time unfortunately because, yeah, the Internet is forever. I guess in the case of people who have had something bad said about their company, I mean we encourage them to signup and refute that information, that’ll go into Google too, it swings in roundabouts, but yeah, the bottom line is that the Internet is forever.

Patrick: Yeah, and I’ll just — I can’t clear the Google cache by myself, but I’ll just give you my admin login, you go to Google.com/admin, here’s the username and password, and you can just clear that cache whenever you want.

Matt: Well, I mean like we do this thing when we delete a thread or something, that it’s still available at a URL, but like it’s not linked in the archives anymore so that there’s a — and we put a deletion reason so that other people can learn from that. But we actually put like Meta Tags for no cache because, yeah, we prefer deleted stuff not to be around in Google. The problem is when someone has a problem with a post, you know like a company mentioned in a post emails us the riot act and says they’re going to sic their lawyers on us, we’ll go like –

Patrick: Bring ‘em on, this is like the MetaFilter empire! (Laughter)

Matt: Well, a lot of times they go, oh yeah, like that’s a lame post, and yeah they’re kind of on the border of slander, I’ll delete it; and it will drop out of Google’s cache eventually. And then I’ll get an email everyday for like six weeks, ‘it’s still in Google’, ‘it’s still the number on result for our company’, and I’m like I can’t control Google, they will drop it out the next time they spider the site, that could be — sometimes it takes two months.

Patrick: Yeah, I don’t control Google, they control all of us, don’t you know how the world works right now? no. And one interesting point that I think Sarah and you both referenced is, and something I think about a lot is obviously there’s this wave to data portability, right, and that’s a hot term right now. And Google Plus basically launched, that’s a major selling point, it’s almost a shot over the bow at Facebook, you can go to the data liberation section and export all your stuff right now pretty much, but I see that and I think of how that applies to an online community much like ours, a structured online community that is very –has a very strong history, has a great network of contributors and contributions that are all integrated together, it’s not like it’s a personal space, it’s not like it’s a personal profile, it’s not a page that you go to and just put your updates on it, I mean it’s all together, people that are discussing things, there’s a million people involved and it all bounces off of one another; the value of one contribution is tied to the contributions it’s responding to or the ones that respond to it. So, when you think of deleting content from a community or just allowing people to wipe out that content then those discussions are then damaged, they’re fragmented, they’re not as valuable as they once were, and the contributions by other people are hence devalued as well along with that. So, I mean that’s something I always think about and what I don’t allow people to simply delete all their posts from my site by request because it damages those discussions. Like you said, Matt, send me a handful of things, if it’s sensitive, if it’s personal information like SitePoint does I’ll definitely clear that out, if it’s a picture of you I’ll clear that out, those sorts of things that are sensitive and personal I’ll definitely get rid of those and I’m willing to be flexible and listen if you’re reasonable. But I’m not going to delete all the content or somehow give you some sort of export of it which I can’t even do as a poor programmer, non-existent programmer. So I guess that’s kind of rambly but I mean, Matt, what do you think about the data liberation, data portability things, and then how it will work with a structured community like a MetaFilter?

Matt: Yeah, I mean I’m right there with you on I don’t want holes in thousands of discussions, so I’ve never allowed people to delete their entire profile. We have offered and we do both on Fuelly and MetaFilter you can export all your data yourself just so you have a copy of everything you’ve ever said or done or did; Fuelly there’s like this miles per gallon tracker, it’s social, that I’ve built, and you can get all your data in a CSV file and you can pop it into Excel or Excrate so you can do anything you want, because a lot of people said sometimes you excel, sometimes I don’t want to see it on the Web, with MetaFilter you can download every comment you’ve ever written in this gigantic text file that sometimes is several megabytes for people, and I’m cool with that, I mean you own the words you said, and I explicitly give copyright to people so that I’m beholden to just display and not do anything else, I’m not trying to make a buck off what they said. But, yeah, the whole being able to delete, I know Digg was talking about the last time this was sort of a giant meme kind of going around blogs a couple years ago, Digg was saying that they were going to allow you to like erase yourself from Digg and there would just be like random Digg user would be the username on anything you ever did if you decided to bow out, so that the discussions were still there but identity basically went out the window to one generic account. And so if people did that en masse that would kind of ruin the community, but they wanted to give people a way out. And I was like that’s kind of a pretty good way to go, but yeah, I’m more of like, yeah, things should stay where they’re at, but to give people the chance to download everything they’ve ever done so if they want to do anything with it they’re more than welcome to.

Patrick: Yeah, to the point what Digg has discussed doing, that sounds a little like what I allow people to do with their accounts when people say delete my account, I’m angry, you removed one of my posts, I hate you forever, I want to go. I’ll say, well, I can’t really — we don’t really delete accounts, that’s like a policy, we don’t delete accounts, but, I can close your account and what I mean by that is I will wipe your profile clean, they’ll be no more data on there, you won’t have your email or whatever, and I’m going to change the username to something generic like username12345. And that way those contributions can all be tied to a single account rather than having guest contributions which just gets messy, with the database and with organization and with searching you kind of lose all that history in the recordkeeping. So I kind of allow that as sort of a go-between to be flexible between, okay, I’m not going to do anything with your account, I’m not going to close it at all, I can’t do anything, and straight out remove the account and mark all the contributions as just the generic guest, so that’s kind of what I do. And I think it’s safe to say that SitePoint has pretty similar policies to what Matt explained, right, Sarah?

Sarah: Yeah, exactly, although I deal with it in the same way that you do, yeah, I’m happy to remove people’s information, I’m happy to change their name, I’m happy to change their password so that they can never login again and they can pretend we don’t exist, but yeah, I won’t remove their posts either. If I was to do that then not only would there be holes all through the database but, yeah, anyone that got angry with me would be able to come and signup again and we don’t allow people to do that either; those two things are kind of related actually, aren’t they (laughs), anyway, yeah, our policy’s the same as yours.

Patrick: And, you know like Matt said it’s a key difference there for people to understand because I think people are sometimes concerned about who owns what they post online, where the communities like mine with SitePoint and with MetaFilter, and I think the vast majority of communities, but you should always read their terms of service, is that you’re giving them the right to display that information, usually in perpetuity, as long as they want, maybe with some exceptions but you’re not signing over the copyright. And whenever big community sites try to sign over a copyright it never, never works well, it’s always a big PR disaster and no one’s ever really happy with it once they find out, so for that reason a majority of online communities, I find, will simply say it that way, you’re giving us this non-exclusive license to display what you contribute, and otherwise you own it, you can do what you want with it. So, excellent, I’ve really enjoyed the discussion and I thank you guys, both Sarah and Matt, for coming on and joining us for this episode. So let’s go ahead around the table and tell people where they can find you online; Matt, why don’t you go first.

Matt: I’m at Metafilter.com, also I run Fuelly.com, which is two L’s, ly.com, A Whole Lot of Nothing is my blog, on Twitter I’m @mathowie, just my name phonetically, Matt Haughey, and I think that’s about it. Oh, I guess my last name, Haughey.com.

Patrick: Yeah, that’s H-A-U-G-H-E-Y.

Matt: Yeah, that’s why there are points to everything I do.

Patrick: Excellent. Sarah?

Sarah: Yep, you can find me at Sitepoint.com in the forums, and on Twitter @ilovethehawk.

Patrick: And Sarah curated the new community powered book from SitePoint, Thinking Web: Voices of the Community, which you can pick up at Sitepoint.com. Ralph Mason, one of the authors, was actually our guest host on the show last week for episode 120. And even though she wasn’t here, Venessa Paech wanted to mention the conference that she’s organizing with Alisa Michalk, they’re co-organizing Swarm Sydney which is an upcoming online community focused conference in Sydney Australia on November 10th; Swarmcity.com.au, for details. And, finally, I am Patrick O’Keefe, I wrote the book Managing Online Forums and you can find me on Twitter @ifroggy, i-f-r-o-g-g-y. You can follow my usual co-hosts Brad Williams, Louis Simoneau and Stephan Segraves; @williamsba, @rssaddict and @ssegraves respectively, and you can follow SitePoint @sitepointdotcom, that’s SitePoint d-o-t-c-o-m. Visit us at Sitepoint/podcast to leave comments on this show and to subscribe to receive every show automatically, email podcast@sitepoint.com with your questions for us, we would love to read them out on the show and give you our advice. The SitePoint Podcast is produced by Karn Broad, thank you for listening and we’ll see you again soon!

Theme music by Mike Mella.

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  • Anonymous

    很精彩的对话