SitePoint Podcast #54: Building Communities with Derek Powazek, Part 2

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Episode 54 of The SitePoint Podcast is now available! This week, Kevin Yank (@sentience) and Patrick O’Keefe (@iFroggy) conclude their conversation with Derek Powazek (@fraying), co-creator of JPG Magazine and creator of Fray, about the care and feeding of web communities.

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Interview Transcript

Kevin: March 26th, 2010. Dealing with destructive users; the communities of Facebook and Twitter; and the role of design in community sites. I’m Kevin Yank and this is the SitePoint Podcast #54: Building Communities with Derek Powazek, Part 2.

This week, we’re picking up right where we left off in Podcast #52 with the second and final part of our conversation with Derek Powazek and Patrick O’Keefe about the ins and outs of web communities. When we left you, we were talking about what to do when your community grows to a point that problem users are taking up a lot of your time and resources.

Kevin: So I realize we could spend an hour talking about how to handle these challenges—

Derek: And I have.

Kevin: Can you boil it down? Do you just need to make the hard call and say look this isn’t what we’re doing here. I need to feel okay about banning you even though this may damage you permanently?

Derek: Well, I think as far as take away from this we need to say several things. Every community needs a terms of service and a set of community guidelines. And in those documents it should say “We reserve the right to deny service to anyone for any reason, period.” Unless you’re the government you can say that. And you should. And you should make it clear what kind of things aren’t okay. And then, yeah, if you have a toxic person who is bad for the community you have to make the hard call of saying I’m really sorry but you’re done here, there are lots of other sites on the Web and maybe you’d be a better fit elsewhere. It gets back to that admitting to ourselves and everyone else that every community is exclusionary to some extent, and that that’s part of what the definition of what a community is.

Kevin: Derek, I had the pleasure of watching you give a talk on this sort of stuff in Perth late in 2009…

Derek: Edge of the Web! That was so much fun.

Kevin: …and I will be sure to link to those slides in the show notes…

Derek: Oh, great.

Kevin: …if people want to read a little further in detail about your thoughts on this sort of stuff.

Derek: Excellent.

Kevin: But speaking about large communities, let’s talk about the giants, the Facebooks and the Twitters out there. There is a temptation to think of Facebook as a community and to think of Twitter as a community, but really, as you said earlier, these are really tools; they’re raw material for building communities.

Derek: Hmm-mm.

Kevin: And yet it does seem like Facebook and Twitter do have communities of their own, and as you alluded to earlier, we always hear about them in relation to attempted changes by these services. But are these the vocal minorities? I mean are these communities illusions, so to speak?

Derek: Oh, that makes me want to say “Well in philosophy class you realize all perception is illusion”, but that’s probably taking the conversation in a different direction.

Kevin: Right.

Derek: I think the two examples are illustrative. Facebook and Twitter are both incredibly decentralized communities where there is no central watering hole, right. So it’s hub and spoke system where you’re at the center and you have tendrils out to people, to certain people, and everybody has one of those wheels and they’re all overlapping. So it’s a social network more than a central community.

Kevin: And in Twitter’s case there’s no watering hole but there’s a fire hose.

Derek: Yeah! Well, in Twitter, so that’s what they have in common, these overlapping social circles. But what’s different is Facebook at least traditionally has required bilateral opt-ins, so basically I have to say yes to you and you have to say yes to me and then we have connection. Where as Twitter is only one way; you just identify someone you want to follow. In that way it’s like Flickr which is a lower overhead but more distant social structure, so it’s not about creating friendship links it’s about just following people who you seem interested in. And Facebook, traditionally anyway, defaulted to private so you really couldn’t see anything unless you knew someone. Whereas Twitter traditionally defaulted to public so it was much more about performing in public than Facebook. What’s interesting is they’ve both moved towards each other. So Facebook has changed their privacy defaults in what I think is a totally backhanded, sneaky way, and is trying to get more and more of their content to be public, which is gonna be really interesting to watch as people realize that Google is now going to index everything they say as public and it’s going to be available to their bosses. And that was the whole reason Facebook was popular was it was out of sight of your boss and mom and dad and brother… And Twitter more and more is adding groups and lists and things which are getting towards, I think, Facebook’s version of self-grouping. It’s been fascinating to watch them respond to each other in that way.

What’s further interesting to me is that if you— I know some of the folks who work at Twitter, so I’m not speaking for them, but if you asked them are they a community they’d say no. They’d say we’re like email; we’re a distribution system. Which I think is mostly untrue. They’re not a distribution system; they’re not built into web servers, it’s not a global network of Twitter, it’s Twitter.com and their API. So there is a Twitter community, it’s just that every individual’s Twitter community is different and slightly overlapping with everyone else’s. I think what’s really fascinating about it is it’s the first community I can really think of where—virtual community, I can think of—where most of it happens by API, like very little of it is actually taking place on Twitter.com, and that’s new, that’s unusual, and I think points in a certain direction for the Web and for other things.

Kevin: Mmm. We interviewed Alex Payne from Twitter, the head of their Twitter API, and he admitted that that’s something they fell into by accident, but he counts it as one of if not their biggest strength at the moment.

Derek: Absolutely. Their early and copious use of the API really enabled this whole ecosystem of Twitter related stuff to come into the world. And it’s why they leapfrogged all over everyone and no one could catch up to them. Pownce, which was a better web experience, more sophisticated tool, just couldn’t keep up because Twitter had the ball and never let it go. That’s a terrible sports metaphor. I think it’s because they released an API and so all the action was there. Because when it comes right down to it, sending a hundred and forty characters to my friends is not a hard thing to do, so Twitter has to stay ahead of how easy it is to implement that feature elsewhere by always being first with any new interesting adoptions. So how many iPhone clients does Twitter have? I don’t know but it’s more than any company would ever need, whereas Facebook is the opposite approach where it really is all about Facebook.com, right, they have some ties into it, but really it’s all about this one website. So in that way it is more of a centralized community, but there’s still no central watering hole, there’s no equivalent of the Flickr Help forum which is accessible to every single member of Flickr, right.

Kevin: And if ever a forum overwhelmed by its success it must be the Flickr Help forum, it’s impossible to find anything in there.

Derek: Well, I got to say I’m glad it’s not my job to manage that forum because my hat is off to the people who do.

Kevin: So, speaking of the Flickr Help forum, a strong community can be a blessing or it can be a curse. Have you ever advised a site manager not to devote energy to community building?

Derek: Yes. Oftentimes when clients come to me what they’re thinking about is how great their community will be in a year when everyone loves them. And all of the value that that will create for their brand or their magazine or newspaper or whatever. And my job early on is to get them to stop thinking about how great that community will be, because obviously it will be awesome, and to get them to start thinking instead about tool building because that’s really what we’re talking about. That’s why I said in the beginning you can’t create a community, you can only create a playground, you can create a structure. And so once you start talking about structure then you have to talk what are the rules, what do people actually do here, why is this thing here? You have an existing community out there, hopefully; usually you call them an audience or consumers, and right now they aren’t talking to each other, at least not fostered by you. If you gave them the microphone what would they say? So you might want to do some user testing. And if you do user testing and you give them a microphone and they say “I hate you!”, then maybe you don’t want to give them the microphone.

Kevin: Yeah.

Derek: If you’re Microsoft, if you’re an insurance company, God forbid. Imagine like the publicly accessible forum for AIG, right? There are certain companies that are so damaged by their reputation or their actions in business that simply adding community tools to the mix won’t make things better and will likely make them worse.

Kevin: So if your business plan does not involve people liking your company.

Derek: Yeah. And everybody likes to talk about TiVo, as I just was, but everybody loves their TiVo, so that’s a natural thing. Though I have to take my hat off to the one great exception here is I think it was Shell Oil created a forum where it was like we want to talk about global sustainability and environmental issues and we want to hear from you, and we’re a giant monolithic oil company, which would fall into that hated category I think, in general, but they bravely put it out there and they invited the hate and they had people there to deal with it and to talk back and start this conversation. And an amazing thing can happen when you do that, which is if you give the microphone to people who hate you and they can yell into it for a little while, after they yell into it then they kind of feel better and they don’t hate you as much. That’s a very brave, very difficult thing to do. It’s like playing with bombs; you have to be really careful with that, but it can work and they did it. I think it was Shell Talk or Shell Care; I have to look up the URL. [Derek later let me know it was called Tell Shell, but is now defunct. -Kev.]

Patrick: You know when people ask about whether or not I should do this online community thing regardless of whatever that is, I mean I don’t try to scare them away from it, but I tend to focus on like what does it take to do this actually, because it’s not really about XYZ, you won’t be able to make five or a hundred thousand dollars in a year, or you’ll have this number of people, or any of these things that would be the positive things. It’s almost like what do you have to do to get it there. So what is the time, do you have people you can dedicate to this? Do you have full time people you can dedicate to this? Do you have a budget for this? Are you going to afford to keep this online and running? Even if it’s not necessarily going well after a few months or six months or however long it is, you know, do you have the resources to stand behind this? Because it may look flashy when you have a company like TiVo that has a community that’s strong, and obviously it’s attractive for a number of reasons, but it takes a lot of work and time and effort and dedication and buy-in to actually get there. So I always kind of run through the list of things, well okay, you need this person, you need this, you need to have this commitment, this amount of money, these resources, and so on. And I don’t try to scare people away from this because I love this, but it’s so much harder then a lot of people realize.

Derek: Yeah. I think the other key thing from the outset, if you’re talking about creating an environment where there wasn’t one before, is to sit down and have a very sober conversation about what does the success case look like and what does the failure case look like, and attach it to metrics like if we get in the next month we create a thousand accounts, ten of which actually log in more than once, is that a success case or a fail case? And that way in a month you can look at it and say is it working or not, and if it’s not you need to fess up to it right away and either change it or give up, adjust your— Adjust it, like see if you can make changes to meet that success case. A lot of times, especially with smaller startups, we’re so in love with the idea of whatever we’re gonna do that we don’t stop to think well what if nobody comes to play or what if just a few people come to play, is it still worth doing? And then if you have to make up those numbers after it’s already launched then you’re always gonna fudge it to say well we got a hundred users to use it this month so that’s what success is, a hundred users. It’s much better if you can do it from the outset as soberly as possible, that way you have something tangible you can look at and say is this working. Because community can be so fuzzy oftentimes its hard to say what is a success.

Kevin: In some cases community is almost taken for granted as a necessary part of a new web presence nowadays, but it can be a bold decision to step away from community elements. I’m thinking about people who choose to switch off comments on their blogs.

Derek: Which I just did.

Kevin: Well, why don’t you talk about your recent redesign of Powazek.com.

Derek: Sure. Well, I should say it’s not that I— I probably will turn comments on at some point in the future. Powazek.com is a personal site, it’s not my business site, I have consulting clients, I’m not looking for new ones, so I don’t have a big business site up at Powazek.com. It’s really a traditional home page for me to be the person that I am and link to things that are interesting; I’m blogging, let’s just call it what it is. What’s interesting to me over the last three years or so is a lot of the casual conversations that used to happen in blog comments have migrated to Twitter, and I’m perfectly happy to see that happen because Twitter has really optimized for that. There’s like a hundred and forty character limit to how much someone can yell at you, which I think is really effective sometimes. And there’s a hundred and forty character limit to how much you can respond, which is good for me sometimes. So when I did this redesign at the point where I was starting to edit the templates to include comments I just thought comments don’t give me anything, in fact they make me not want to write. Lately, they make me not want to write on my own site, which is kind of not the point, so I’m just going to leave them out and just use Twitter for any follow-ups and see how that works. And so far it’s a double edge sword, you know, you lose the stupid comments of which there are many and we all know, but you also lose the really, really good ones, which are people who take the time to really digest what you’re saying and add something of value to a post. What I think I really want to do next is— One of the reasons that comments are so terrible on web logs is because web log commenting systems haven’t evolved past the point of deleting or not deleting a comment. And that’s really dumb. We should be able to put rules into commenting systems that say things like you know what, unless you use fifty words or more you can’t say it, which would put an end to all of the ‘I agree,’ or ‘you’re stupid’ posts, or ‘first’, right. So the system should say the owner of this blog has decided that if it’s less than fifty words then it’s not worth it, so…

Kevin: They need to be different words and not exclamation marks.

Derek: Right, exactly.

Patrick: Not spaces either.

Derek: Yeah. And the comment form should change things to title case if they’re typed in all caps, which is what Flickr comments do by the way. It should also say if it’s over a thousand words that’s too long, and I’m not gonna let you post it. It should— There are all these things that computers are really good at doing to sculpt the input that comes into them that are not built into these systems. So the thing I’d like to do next is actually create a WordPress plug-in, with somebody who knows how to do such things, to kind of create some of those rules. Comment systems also should all turn off after a period of inactivity. I’m still getting spam on my Vox blog which I haven’t posted to since 1997. No, that’s not true, 2007, sorry.

Kevin: I’m convinced there’s this cycle that you go through when you launch a blog…

Derek: Oh god.

Kevin: …you have this idealism where you’re like everything I say will be evergreen and I want new conversations to arise out of the ashes of my old ideas years on. But somewhere around year two, which is often one year and six months after you’ve stopped posting to the blog, those new comments on old posts get just too much and you just switch them off.

Derek: Right. And what happens is any open microphone on the Internet that nobody’s paying attention to will invariably be used for spam. There are these automated spammers that are very savvy and are very, very good at finding any crack to post links online. And they’re doing that to game Google. It’s not really about defacing your site, it’s about creating Google juice for third parties. But it becomes any community platforms problem if they leave these microphones on and lying around and unattended. So it’s actually bad for the Web in general to allow these places to be left on, let alone a WordPress install that’s a few versions out of date, there’s gonna be just automated worms crawling around to stick links in your templates because they found an exploit. I think we as a community of creators have to be very, very aware of these kinds of problems because they really are damaging to the health of the Web.

Patrick: I think the comment about, well, comments, and the moderation and the kind of the low quality of tools in general is a great point. And something when I got heavy into blogging coming from forums where I have this great system of documentation, I have every post we’ve ever removed documented, saved, a copy of it, action we took, everything. I can look back at it any time and see what we did years ago. To go to blog writing and allowing comments and just to see, well, there’s no accounts, there’s no way to censor this in any way, there’s no word censor involved here, there doesn’t seem to be a way to just hide this comment, there’s really nothing here except delete and allow, was disappointing. And I think I went looking for plug-ins at that time on the platform I was using to say is there anything here I can use to better moderate this? Sure, I found a couple, but it was so far behind what I was used to. And that just makes it difficult because I do want to have— I do have comment guidelines. I’ve tried to apply a similar strategy in general to maintaining a good atmosphere and the type of comments that I want to allow. But the platforms in general can sometimes just make it difficult, as you said, and blog comments, it’s funny how they are so far behind. There are some plug-ins; I actually have a plug-in that shuts down comments after fourteen days.

Derek: So do I. I have Comment Timeout on WordPress.

Patrick: Yeah, so I mean that stuff is useful, but it would be great if there was some sort of bigger, better suite as far as moderation tools and logging all of that information and documenting it and so on and so forth. Even creating an account on WordPress if you require a log-in seems kind of weak. I don’t know. So I’m definitely on board for a plug-in if you write it.

Derek: (laugh) Yeah.

Kevin: So I know there are people out there who are definitely tackling this sort of thing. I know there’s Disqus.com, who are trying to make a business out of building a better comment system that plugs in to popular blog systems. I don’t have much experience with it, so I can’t speak to how well it addresses those issues, but I think these are symptoms of the fact that comments, at least for those of us with stars in our eyes, we’ve always seen comments as sort of an intermediate stepping stone, it’s a temporary solution. And those of us who rail against the walled gardens of the Internet, the Facebooks, have always thought that a thoughtful comment to a blog post should take the form of a blog post on another site and that the Web should become this interlinking conversation, and that the conversation in response to a post shouldn’t happen necessarily on the site where that was posted. And we know very well that there are secondary markets for comments out there. If you switch off comments on your site, but you’re a popular blog, you’re going to find comment streams all over the place; on Digg.com, on Reddit, all these places.

Patrick: At least then you don’t have to moderate them.

Kevin: Yeah.

Derek: Yeah.

Kevin: So I don’t know, do comments have a half-life as a system? Are they going away? Are we ready to give up on comments?

Derek: Hmmmm.

Patrick: You know, I don’t think they’re going away, I think what it is, is they are what you want them to be. I think, you know, there’s this small group of vocal people who I don’t want to call them any kind of like snob or anything, but we’ve all seen the people, “That blog doesn’t have comments? That’s not a blog!” Or “I have to log in? Who does that?” “I’m not going to log in; I’m just going to leave!” And, you know, to that I say “fine”. If that blogger decides that they want a closed comments or require a log in so that can better manage their comments, I mean that’s a decision they make. There are repercussions, sure, but if you don’t find that blog interesting enough to read it, or that site, because blogging is just a medium and a platform anyway; if you don’t find that site interesting enough without comments then I don’t know if you’re gonna spend much time there anyway. I don’t see the big deal; a blog is not necessarily just about comments.

Derek: Right. I think it’s when we’re talking about personal blogging; really the only person who’s allowed to say what the rules are is whosever blog it is. So like John Gruber is an incredibly successful blogger who writes about Mac stuff at Daringfireball.net, and he’s adamant that just no comments on the site, that’s not the way it works. And it hasn’t slowed him down any; that site is his full time job, he’s got advertising on it, he sells sponsorships, and it’s incredibly successful. And he linked to me the other day and boy does he send a lot of traffic, so thanks for that John.

Patrick: The deck. (cough-cough) Sorry.

Derek: Yeah, exactly. I don’t think it’s hurt him any and so that’s why I’m giving it a try. One thing I found that’s interesting is in the responses to posts I’ve made lately, because there are no comments it’s actually increased the amount of discussion on other places, so I got a lot of feedback in Twitter. Which is great, I’m actually happy about that because it allows this— It’s one step removed, so I kind of— If you were saying it on my site then I have to care about it and I have to worry about it and I have to monitor it, and it’s a big hassle and it takes time, and all the time you spend doing that you don’t spend writing, so you wind up never writing, and if it happens elsewhere then it’s not your problem. And you can respond or interact if you want to or you can just let it go and let conversation happen. And I think that’s a more comfortable middle ground just for me as a person; if raising community is part of the mission of your company then you can’t get away with that, you’ve got to step up and do the work to host them. I do think, however, though that the tool makers have to get better at this, and we need better tools than simply approving or rejecting comments.

I also want to say that I think the barrier to entry has to be adjustable on websites because when a site is early in its life you can get away with having a very low barrier to entry, where for example, any old person can say whatever they want and to comment, and that’s success because you really just are trying to get the community going. And as communities get larger you often have to raise that barrier to entry, make it a little more difficult to get over so that the quality goes up. So some of the tools that I was talking about like requiring a minimum word count, allowing or disallowing certain URLs or phrases to be used, maybe even— Oh! The Gawker properties now have a very interesting community comment system where if— You have to become a user and then you have to be kind of approved. You can comment before you’re an approved commenter, but it kind of goes into this dark space where only some people can see it and most people can’t, and then other people have to approve the comment before it shows up. So they’re actually leveraging the community to say there’s two groups here, one there’s everybody who we don’t really know, and the other is the people who we have already identified as being good posters. And the good posters can promote comments out of the bad, of the unknown poster pool. So they’re kind crowdsourcing some of the decision making around comments. I think it’s very smart and largely successful, and they’re one of the few properties I can think of that’s really innovating around this area.

Kevin: So before we finish our conversation around communities, there’s one more thing I wanted to touch on and that’s design. One of your many hats is that you are the creator of Fray, Fray.com, which these days takes the form of a quarterly magazine. And one of the things I admire Fray for is the site is bringing back the art of from-scratch page design. Every time you have a new issue out you redesign the site, or the front page of the site, at least, accordingly.

Derek: Mmm-mm.

Kevin: Can this sort of thing be done with a community driven site? And more generally, what is the role of design within community?

Derek: Wow, that’s a big topic. So let me take the first one first. Can it be done? Definitely, yes; but I think you have to do it from the outset and you have to set expectations in the community. So, here’s the— I’m going to pick on Flickr because I usually compliment them. You know Flickr has looked the same largely for four years at least. There’s a look to Flickr, and it’s a good look, it’s very simple, but the design has remained unchanged for so long that now when they make even the most minor changes people go bonkers. And I think partially that’s because people never like change and there’s deep physiological reasons in our brains for that, but I think it’s also because they have settled into this static experience where there’s been so much time unchanged that now any change is suspect. Whereas if there had been these iterative changes all along the way the community would probably be more tolerant to them.

Kevin: That seems to be a recurring trend on the web. I mean what’s echoing with me is the situation with Internet Explorer; they went six years without a major update and web developers became set in their ways, they started thinking of the web platform as not a moving target but a fixed target, and the Web is not about fixed targets, or it shouldn’t be as far as I’m concerned.

Derek: Yeah, definitely. And it’s managing those expectations that become so key in community experiences. But on the design side I can tell you for sure that the design of the community platform, the colors, the font choices, the structure, the visual layout of what the user is looking at when they are in the creative act of saying something can drastically change what they say. And there’s some great psychological studies about this, one of which was simply putting a red or blue box around the content changed how the user perceived the content. Red made people more detail oriented and less emotional, and blue made people more emotional and less detail oriented. And in fact, if you put a blue background on a task that was detail oriented, people performed worse at it, whereas if you put a red background around something that was detail oriented they performed better. So basically you should make your desk red when you’re doing your taxes, and make it blue when you’re doing creative writing. I mean it’s laughable but it’s proof, it’s actually true that design matters.

Kevin: I suppose a red desk would want me to get my taxes done quicker so I could get away from that monstrosity.

Derek: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So the color choice matters, and more importantly I think is when a design of a community system is reassuring and, like one of the reasons people love the iPhone so much is there’s a very strong iPhone experience. When you’re using it you feel taken care of, right. If you’ve ever in the iPhone sent a photo by email, you’re in the photo browser and you say send this photo in email, the photo kind of shrinks a bit. Behind it you can see the email app go away, you can see the photo app go away, the email app come up, create a new message, and then the photo kind of moves and lays down into the message, right, so it’s this very beautiful narrative of like you’re taking your photo, you’re going into this email app; I’m putting it in the email for you, now you may write the email. And you feel taken care of. When people feel in control and taken care of they react positively and are much more likely to contribute positively. And when people feel out of control they’re way more likely to go back into their lizard brain which goes to fight, right. So if your community is creating negative stuff, maybe it’s partially because they feel out of control and their dukes are up, right, they’re making fists. And that’s a design problem. So, making the design more handholding can help people participate better. And it’s weird once you start kind of picking into the details of well how do you make people feel taken care of, and that’s I think the really fun part.

Kevin: Hmm. Well, thank you for taking the time to discuss community with us today Derek.

Derek: It was my pleasure.

Kevin: You can find Derek Powazek at powazek.com, and subscribe to his quarterly collection of stories and art at fray.com. Patrick O’Keefe is a regular host on this show and you can find him at iFroggy.com.

And thanks for listening to the SitePoint Podcast. If you have any thoughts or questions about today’s interview, please do get in touch.

You can find SitePoint on Twitter @sitepointdotcom, and you can find me on Twitter @sentience.

Visit sitepoint.com/podcast to leave a comment on this show and to subscribe to get every show automatically. We’ll be back next week with another news and commentary show with our usual panel of experts.

This episode of the SitePoint Podcast was produced by Karn Broad and I’m Kevin Yank. Bye for now!

Theme music by Mike Mella.

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