Episode 52 of The SitePoint Podcast is now available! This week, Kevin Yank (@sentience) and Patrick O’Keefe (@iFroggy) are joined by Derek Powazek (@fraying), co-creator of JPG Magazine and creator of Fray to discuss the care and feeding of web communities.
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Kevin: March 12th, 2010. Derek Powazek returns to discuss his other great love, the care and feeding of web communities. I’m Kevin Yank and this is the SitePoint Podcast #52: Building Communities with Derek Powazek, Part 1.
We last spoke with Derek Powazek exactly one month ago in Podcast #48, when we discussed his take on the divide between digital publishing and print. Although you might say publishing is Derek’s day job right now, he has a whole other career in web communities. He wrote a book called “Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places” in 2001. You can find out more about Derek at powazek.com.
Also with us today, SitePoint Podcast regular co-host Patrick O’Keefe, who it just so happens also wrote a book about web communities called Managing Online Forums. You can read more about it at managingonlineforums.com.
Today, we’re going to talk about community. Now, this is a big conversation, so let’s not waste any more time. I’d like to start right off by thanking Derek Powazek for coming back for another chat.
Derek: My pleasure.
Kevin: Derek, where did your interest in communities originate? I mean do you remember when people first started coming to you for advice on community building?
Derek: Oh man, well, mostly I was just interested in the Web, and community is what made the Web interesting. So I think I fell into the Web in 1995 just as I was about to graduate from college in photojournalism actually—I thought I was going to work in newspapers for the rest of my life (ha, ha, ha, ha, yeah). But what the Web presented as an opportunity was this way to do the same media stuff that we were doing in newspapers and magazines, but do it in a way where everyone could truly participate, which was not how newspapers worked. So the interesting thing about the Web from the get-go was that collaboration amongst people, so I just threw myself into it and started doing experiments working for people doing interesting things. I wound up working at Hotwired in the very early days there, Electric Minds with Howard Reinhold who wrote the book called “The Virtual Community”, which is the seminal book about this stuff. And I guess in 1999 when I was working at Blogger I got the opportunity to write a book about virtual community, and I think that was the moment where I thought, oh wait, I have been doing this a while, I might’ve picked up a few things.
Kevin: So that was “Design for Community, The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places”?
Derek: Correct; published by New Riders in 2001.
Kevin: Okay. And did that say everything? Is that still a definitive work today? (laugh)
Derek: Well, it’s out of print, so I could say yes, but no. I think— You know, I went through the book the other day to see how many of the example sites I talked about almost a decade ago were still in existence, and I think it was Slashdot and MetaFilter. I interviewed Matt Haughey and CmdrTaco from Slashdot for the book, and those two sites are still going strong. But a lot of the other ones are dead, which makes the book feel very dated. But I think the core ideas of community are unchanged because the technology around it changes, but people’s human nature changes very, very slowly.
Kevin: Sure. So people who come to you for advice are either coming to you for advice on creating a community where none exists or they have problems with the care and feeding of their existing communities. Is creating a new community still the done thing today? Is that still something that people want to do a lot?
Derek: Well, the first thing I tell people who come to me with this is you can’t create a community, you can only create a system, an environment, a hangout. And if you’re very, very lucky, people will adopt it and they’ll self-identify as a community eventually, but it takes time and effort and work and it’s very, very difficult. What I think is different in the year 2010 than a decade ago is that, well, a) for a long time the idea of virtual community in and of itself was controversial. You get into a lot of debates with elbow-patch sociologists who say “Oh, you know, there’s no such thing as virtual community; it’s just people on the computer.” And you don’t have to have that argument as much anymore. Like we all understand that the Internet is a part of the fabric of our lives; it’s a part of our social structures. And so saying that there is community that happens online, there’s community that happens offline, and they overlap, is now obvious, and I think that’s a great thing.
The other thing is, ten years ago, if you really wanted to get the people in your audience to talk to each other you really had to create your own platform to do it, and so everybody was making their own site and their own … trying to foster their own community and blah, blah, blah. Nowadays there’s so much social infrastructure available on the Net that if you’re just starting out it’s a lot easier to find where the people you’ve identified as your community, where they are, right, so you can go to Flickr and start a group, you can go to Facebook and start a fan page or a group. There’s all this existing infrastructure now that wasn’t there before. And that’s a great service to organizations that want to find their people. I think one of the greatest things that the Web has given us is the ability to connect our audience to talk to each other in a way that they never were before, and it’s easy to forget that that’s actually a fairly new concept in the world.
Kevin: We have with us today Patrick O’Keefe, a regular co-host on the podcast. Patrick wrote a book called Managing Online Forums. And as you say, the infrastructure, you used to sort of bring it yourself when you wanted to create a community, and more often than not that took the form of building a forum. But nowadays it is much easier in many cases to create a Facebook group or create an equivalent on some other social network. And Patrick, I’m sure you have some thoughts on this as well. Are there cases where building a forum is still the right approach today, or at the risk of—
Patrick: Answer carefully! Just kidding.
Kevin: I know you have a relatively new book on this Patrick, what is the place of forums in today’s social Web? Derek, I’d like to hear your thoughts.
Derek: So, here’s a case study. When Heather and I wanted to create a place to honor photographers we created JPG Magazine. And so we looked at who are our friends who are photographers, where are they hanging out? And they were hanging out at Flickr, so we started by creating a Flickr group, and that’s where we got the ball rolling and people started talking and meeting each other. We created the JPG website to host the magazine, but we were still really living in the Flickr, we were kind of this digital hermit crab where we were using Flickr for the social stuff, and then spreading out we actually used Gmail to accept submissions. And we used basically any tool out there we could use. And when the community had enough momentum behind it, that’s when we started our own site and invited people in to use the platform that we had designed specifically for this task. And so I think there’s a good model there of first going to where your community is already and fostering that discussion. And then if you get the critical mass then you can kind of strike out on your own. If you can’t get the critical mass then you haven’t lost anything, you’ve just interacted with your community a little bit and learned some things and can move on. So I think there’s still a place for good old fashioned forums, good old fashioned creating of social software for a specific purpose, but I think we now have the added ability of kind of testing the waters first.
Patrick: I think that’s a great point. I think it relates to the answer you gave about the tools in general and how they’ve evolved. I’ve been managing online communities since 2000, and I know you go farther back than that, so we’re kind of old-timers in this stuff. I remember the first version of phpBB, for example, stuff like that. And at the time that was like, wow, wow, accounts, who is online, what is this technology? But I think that it’s tools, and I think that’s the value of tools, that people who start today maybe don’t fully appreciate, as much as we might, just the ease of use and the ease of just simply jumping in and signing on to this site where there might already be a community like a Facebook or even a MySpace or Flickr or whatever, where there already is a group of people engaged and interested in a certain topic. And then I don’t think that’s a replacement for your own hosted community, but as you said, I think it’s important to find the base, and whether that be a company who has a following and maybe has a prelaunch community, a private invite sort of thing going on, where people are coming in before it launches and then they launch. It’s important to launch with some form of momentum, and forums to me are just part of the landscape, I think, we have all these tools, part of the social media landscape, and forums are just one part of it and they relate to the others. But it always depends on your need and what you want to get out of it, what resources you can dedicate, because forums are, as you’ve found, and everyone who’s manages forums has found, are time consuming. And so it’s just evaluating the tools and making the right decision I think.
Kevin: It’s really interesting to think of forums as something that you move into when you reach a critical mass nowadays. Because I’m sure as anyone knows there’s nothing sadder than happening across a forum on the web that has more forums than posts.
Derek: Oh god, yes. And if you’re a business that really says something about your business if you make a park and nobody comes to play in it, then you’ve miscalculated somehow.
I wanted to add one other great case study about this, which is actually mentioned in my book as well, and still exists, so I should have listed that too. But it’s the TiVo community where when TiVo came out years ago just some random fan started a bulletin board, a forum software system, for people to talk about TiVo, and they had people very excited about it. And when TiVo the corporation found out about it they had this choice, they could either— they could have come in and shut down and been heavy-handed and tried to stop the people from talking about their product or force them to come over to a forum that they created, or they could invest in and slightly co-opt the existing forum, and they smartly decided to do the latter. So they came in and said “Hey guys, we love that you’re talking about our product, could we give you some money every month and in exchange could you use our actual logo at the top of the page? And would you mind if our engineers actually came onto the system and answered questions directly? And can we invite people to be part of our private beta here?” And so instead of fighting the naturally occurring community they just came in and sponsored it, and I think that was a brilliant decision on their part.
Patrick: And the great thing about that sort of situation is that it’s something that already exists and already is powerfully supportive of whatever it is you’re doing. It is making you money and at the same time you’re not really spending money it. You don’t have to dedicate someone to manage this community, it’s already there. It reminds me, I run photoshopforums.com, and I gave a talk at Blog World Expo recently, and after I did and actually cited the site during the talk, and after I did the person from Adobe came up and just said thank you. And I thought that was a nice thing to do. And it’s just kind of cool to see and I think gaming companies are really doing a good job at that sort of thing where they encourage— a lot of gaming companies I’ve seen, encourage third party communities, link to them, sort of spread the love around a bit knowing that communities that are out there supporting the game, they aren’t encouraging mass piracy—and there’s plenty of those communities out there despite the bleak picture some would paint—they’re doing a lot for your business and they’re helping out without you investing in them. So it’s something that I think smart companies like TiVo are encouraging.
Derek: And here’s what TiVo did—because it is a business decision—they actually said “We’re going to pay you a monthly stipend for us to sponsor this community forum, but in return we ask you to do this one thing which is don’t let people talk about how to steal our service. So basically talk about hacking the box, talk about opening it up and replacing the hard drive and doing whatever the heck you want with it—you bought it, it’s yours, you want to violate the warranty, do it. But any discussion about how to get around our $10 a month subscription fee, basically that’s going to kill this company. So that’s the one the thing we ask you not to foster, don’t host those conversations.” And I think that was a pretty good deal for the forum. So they said sure, they took the money and they told the community this is the one thing you can’t talk about for obvious reasons. Those conversations went to other sites. But I think it’s tivocommunity.com is still like the place to go talk about how to hack your TiVo, how to put in a new hard drive, where do you get the HD models, etc.
Kevin: That’s a really powerful example of trusting a community to work in the best interests of something that they’re passionate about. I mean so many companies would have come into that situation and said, “Look, our product comes with a license agreement that says you won’t break open the box, so if we’re going to officially endorse something that’s where we need to draw the line.” But they trusted the community and said, look, the reason that license is in effect for our business is that we don’t want you to steal the product that makes us money. To be able to trust them to draw that line and at the point where it will impact the product that they are passionate about, I think it’s a really good lesson.
Derek: The opposite lesson is Apple who sued a bunch of rumor sites and basically took people who were diehard fans and made them hate Apple for suing the place where they were just talking about the products they loved. Apple, actually, for as much as I love their products, is an incredibly secretive company, and outright hostile to some of the more organic community things that have sprung up around them.
Kevin: Most recently with the just announced iPad, there was the site that posted a bounty for confirmation of rumors prior to the product’s announcement, and Apple went in and said no, we’ll have none of that.
Derek: Yeah, and Gawker was being provocative in that example, and so they were kind of baiting the— teasing the bear in that case.
Kevin: Well, they knew what would happen of course.
Derek: But in so many of these cases if Apple’s lawyers had just simply shut up, nothing bad would have happened, and lots of good could have happened.
Kevin: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Patrick: The great thing about the TiVo example is that it does draw that line, because when you ask a community to change for you, in the case of TiVo, to accept this money and this is what we want you to do, it’s important to know the line to not stifle them and feel like the company’s taking them over. And I think that’s maybe what Apple is kind of doing with those rumor sites for really no good reason, because interest isn’t piracy it’s just interest. And TiVo knew that line and that’s why it’s a great example I think.
Derek: Yeah, I think TiVo was lucky enough to have one guy who was kind of their webmaster at the time, his name is Richard Bullwinkle, who saw this and understood the opportunity and sold his superiors on this idea of sponsoring the group, and wound up being promoted to like chief evangelist or something, and that became his job.
Patrick: It was either be fired if this doesn’t work out, or be promoted if it does.
Kevin: This actually brings to mind Get Satisfaction, which seems to me an attempt to formalize this process that people can go to Get Satisfaction and create their own community around any product they happen to own or to need support for. You can just go on there and if you want to talk about a particular product you just fill it in and instant community with questions and answers and bug reports and all that. And if that community grows enough, the company that actually made that product can come in and officially give it the stamp of approval and add staff members who are flagged as officially speaking for the company. But that doesn’t need to happen, and yet it’s formalized that process.
Derek: Yep. Yep. I think you’re absolutely right. And it’s no surprise that Get Satisfaction was started by people who’ve been doing the Web for a long time and have just seen this happen over and over again in forums and blog comments where when the company actually comes in and participates the tone changes, everybody feels happier about what’s going on. It works. So I actually really like Get Satisfaction and we use it for MagCloud and for projects. I think it’s a great product.
Kevin: What are your thoughts on closed communities? Because I’ve seen companies like TiVo—but not at all like TiVo as well—but a company in the place of TiVo could have come in and said “Alright, we’re going to sponsor this community, but in order to get access to it you need to put in the serial number of the TiVo that you own. It’s for TiVo owners only.” Is that ever a good idea?
Derek: I think it’s an important option to keep on the table. I think too often we default to thinking about communities as necessarily open to all, but that goes against the very nature of community. The fact is that if you define the word ‘community’ it means a group of people, and if there’s a group of people it means there are other people who are not those people, right? There’s in groups and out groups, so all communities exclude someone, and that’s okay because that someone who gets excluded can be a part of another community that excludes someone else. It’s part of the nature of community to understand that it’s exclusive. And I just bring that up because so often the dramas and the problems that you have to endure and manage and design for, as somebody who manages community, are there because it’s a public stage. The trolls and flamers and griefers are performing, right. It’s a performance that needs an audience. And if you take away the audience you lose a lot of those problems. So I’m actually a big fan of, if you can do it, like if you can close a community to the extent that it really includes the people who it’s designed for, and does not include the people it’s not, it can actually be very, very beneficial for the health of the community, and dramatically lower the costs of managing it.
Kevin: And in the case of spammers the audience they’re performing for is the search engines.
Derek: That’s right.
Kevin: A closed community is closed to the search engines almost necessarily as well.
Derek: That’s right. And I think there are some classic examples of community tools that were put out into the Web really designed for one audience becoming adopted by another and then ruined, right, because the audience that adopted it is just there to play games. So, the Chevy Tahoe campaign comes to mind where—
Kevin: Oh, you should definitely cover that for people who aren’t familiar with it.
Derek: Just do a search for Chevy Tahoe. But basically they put out a community tool where you could come and you could create a video ad for the Tahoe, which is this giant gas-sucking SUV. And I just love the idea of a bunch of people at this company sitting around thinking “I know, what everybody really wants to do, everyone on the Internet, they want to make a video ad for our gas-sucking SUV.” So they put these tools out and you could use clips of the car driving around and insert photos, of course only the clips they provided and the photos they provided, and the only place you could really use your voice is you could add some text. So people made these crazy parody ads that said things that they would never actually want to say in a commercial like ‘murder your whole family,’ and ‘destroying the earth one gallon at a time,’ and it took on a life of its own where that was the primary use case of what people were doing there. Now, I think this is an illustrative example for many reasons. But at the core of it I think the problem was they were giving a tool designed for one audience, which is their owners. Tahoe owners probably would have done something very nice with this tool, or maybe at least gotten a kick out of playing with it for a while. But the rest of the Internet had this other reason to play, so that’s one example where if had it been a closed community and you actually had to own one of the cars to play with it, it would have had a very different result.
Kevin: Coming back to this idea of setting limits on the community that you’re building in order to define it, when you’re starting up a community I think there’s probably this siren song of what the users—the small number of users you have collected so far—are asking for. And you need to balance that against what your vision of what you originally wanted to build in this community if you’re being purposeful about it. So I’m thinking, for example, you wanted to build a forum for retirees to talk about their lifestyle and the things they do now that they’re in retirement, and you might get a little bit of traction, you know, you get a few dozen users in and conversing, and suddenly they’re asking for new forums to be created to talk about retirement finance and saving up for your retirement, and you didn’t want to talk about … you know, money. And yet it’s tempting to bend to those demands because you can see it as a way of growing your community; the more you do for the people in your community the bigger it will grow, right?
Derek: Yep. Yeah.
Kevin: So where is that balance?
Derek: I think you’re right, it is a balance, and there’s no one right way. If I was running a site that was faced with that issue the math goes something like this: how easy is it for me to implement what they’re asking for? Is it a huge time commitment, you know, it’s going to put us off developing five other things that we think are core to our mission to do this one thing people are asking for? That’s on one side of the equation. So if it’s high cost or low cost to the organization.
And on the other side is the more philosophical issue is does this take us off mission or not? So if you start a site devoted to talking about cats and everybody wants to talk about dogs you may have a much more serious problem. Right, it would be easy, it might take five minutes to create a new forum for everybody to talk about dogs, but then maybe you’re just running the wrong site. So then it becomes a question of why are we here. A great example of that is—oh god, this is way back—but you know the Leggs pantyhose?
Derek: They were a very early experimenter in online community, they put up some online forums, they got used, they got adopted, they had all these members, it was very exciting for them. But then they realized they had actually been adopted by the cross-dressing community, and all of the people talking about these pantyhose were men. So now they have this issue, right, of well do we continue to foster this, which—and these are people buying our product—but it’s not exactly on message for us, like it’s not the community we were going after. And I think they kind of moved away from it slowly; I don’t think they freaked out and shut it down. But it’s a great example of how far off course do you want to allow the community to go.
You know when Flickr was started it was really just about photos, and they faced similar decisions around do we allow artwork, like paintings? Do we allow screenshots? There were people taking screenshots in Second Life that were saying these were photographs because it’s a photograph of a virtual environment, right, so how is taking a screen grab in a virtual environment really that different from clicking a shutter in the real world? So you wind up with very philosophical discussions about what are we building this for. And I think it just has to be made by the people creating the site, and sometimes the decisions you make are unpopular. I know Flickr got a lot of flack. Flickr’s decision was we’ll allow people to add all this stuff, but we’re going to exclude certain things in search results because when people come here to search they’re looking for photos. I think that was a fair decision, but I think it still angered a lot of the community.
Kevin: Well, there must be a certain point where if you suddenly find yourself at the helm of a wildly successful community that isn’t at all about anything that interests you, if you’re faced between killing the community and setting it free. I’m sure there are some great cases of communities that have been given their freedom. Like that Leggs community, I could imagine. I’m sure that those cross-dressing men who like to wear pantyhose are out there discussing that somewhere now.
Derek: Oh, I guarantee it.
Kevin: It would have been a shame for that forum to suddenly close its doors overnight and for them to have to find a way to reorganize themselves on their own, whereas I’m sure there’s someone in that community who would have loved to have been given the keys and said here you go, pay the hosting bills and its yours.
Derek: Yeah, I think that’s a good solution. I mean it also depends on the specifics very much. So I created one site called Kvetch. Kvetch is online still now but in a different incarnation. Kvetch is a Yiddish word for complain, and when I started it, it was a very simple post box, a lot like Twitter now where you just come and you could complain, you could write like “this happened to me today,” and kind of send it off into one of a few groups. And it was all anonymous and it was kind of the idea was you could get it off your chest like anonymously you could kind of toss this complaint in the pile and then you’d feel better. And they were presented randomly. It was fun, blah, blah, blah. Anyway, a lot of people used it for what I was hoping, but it was also taken over by some misuses. We had death threats in it. This was before Columbine, but we had like “I’m going to blow up my school,” things posted in it. We had personal attacks like “first name, last name is an expletive deleted.” And we had people abusing it to yell at each other, like “whoever posted that last thing is an a-hole!” And so there were legal problems there, like there was actually the potential for a libel suit in that, and there were safety problems where people are going to start making bomb threats on this site, I don’t want it to exist, right? So for a long time I was deleting that stuff, I was pulling it out, and eventually I got tired of that and shut down the site. And that wasn’t a community site that was so near and dear to people’s hearts that it was an outrage that it was shut down. But it was a fun experiment in its time. And so that those were the things that made me decide to shut it down, and it wasn’t just that it was off topic, but it was also dangerous.
Kevin: What are some of the more common challenges you hear from managers of communities that have been around for a while?
Derek: I think the top of the list is that communities that have existed for a while create very strong expectations of what the site is for, what the community is for, how it works, what it does, down to like what color are the links, and you know, where the photos are. And it can become very, very difficult to change once those expectations get set. So I think the biggest problem is how to introduce change into these communities, because change is a part of life—if you stay still you die. So companies get new owners, change hands, introduce new features, change the design, like stuff changes, and so introducing change into static systems is very, very difficult because, as anybody knows who has done this, people react badly to it by default.
Patrick: Yeah, change is a good one because it’s like every little detail, like you said, link color, it’s like … okay. But as far as challenges go I think one of the things that I’ve found in general is as you get bigger you deal with more of the scarier things from like suicide threats and just kind of the weirder things that you deal with that people might threaten and mention, and I don’t need to go into detail. But it just seems like the more people you get the more you’re a platform for that. And you have a lot of people who are opportunists looking to take advantage of some attention, and then you have the legitimate people, and the problem there is that you can’t sort the two, so you have to treat them all the same. I think that’s a challenge that a lot of larger, veteran administrators face. I’m on a list for community managers, it’s called e-mint, so it’s a long-running list on Yahoo! lists, of all platforms—Yahoo! lists, talk about going back, Yahoo! groups, okay. But there was someone who asked about, you know, they had people on the community detailing child-abuse history, and it wasn’t really about what their community was about. But it’s such a delicate thing, it’s such a difficult thing to consider, and the role of managing a community like this, it can be easy at first, although it’s not easy but, you know, it’s a different kind of easy. And then you get to a certain point where it can become really difficult because you’re managing people, and all of these people have these different emotions and mental states, and all the things that can happen. And I think that’s the thing that people are more exposed to when you have a community that you’re controlling, or managing rather, that grows to a certain size. That’s when more of the unfortunate things, the weird things, the uncomfortable things start to happen.
Derek: Yep. I think that’s true. And the way I look at it is let’s say one percent of the people in the world are actually dangerous psychopaths, this is a thing that exists in the world, so you can run a site for a long time getting bigger and bigger, and never happen to cross into that one percent. But ultimately you will, like it’s only a matter of time. It’s a matter of size, really. The moment your community reaches a certain size, statistically there’s going to be someone who comes in the door who has got problems that don’t have anything to do with the Internet, they have to do with their brain chemistry, or whatever reason people are nuts.
Patrick: To be kind, right?
Derek: Yeah. And so you’re going to, if you deal with that community, eventually you’ll deal with that person or people. And if you let them they will suck up every single moment of your community manager’s time. And so it actually becomes a business problem when you’re spending a lot of money on people to manage your community, and they’re really acting as a very, very small group’s version of Deanna Troi.
Kevin: Sorry, apparently I’m the only Star Trek fan here.
Derek: Ah ha-ha-ha!
Patrick: Uh, yes, yes you are.
Derek: Oh, sorry. Yeah.
Kevin: Guilty as charged.
Derek: Yeah … therapist.
Kevin: But right, you don’t want to be paying your community mangers to be…
Kevin: Babysitters, underpaid psychotherapists.
Derek: Yeah, because it’s more than babysitting, it’s actually like some of these folks need help. No, and that’s incredibly difficult when you come across it because there’s only so much help you can give them in a community setting that’s really not about them.
Patrick: It’s not just difficult, it’s unfair. I mean for anyone in our spot to be expected to manage that sort of situation, a community manager, a community administrator, or whatever, is not— that’s not short for psychiatrist or doctor or even full-time babysitter. You’re there to manage the community and keep it going on track, not to necessarily deal with the problems of one individual.
Derek: Yeah, and yet one individual, as we all know, can throw a community system into chaos.
Derek: It really, like— One effective troll can ruin a community. And when there’s money on the line, when it’s a business-related community, then you really have to look out for that dangerous one percent.
Kevin: And that’s all we have time for today. I know—we were just getting started! Well, the good news is that’s just the first half of the conversation that we had with Derek, and the second half is coming up in Podcast #54 in two weeks’ time. We’ll get Derek’s advice on how to deal with that dangerous one percent; we get Derek’s take on the communities surrounding social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter—are these real communities?—and I ask Derek what kind of sites shouldn’t have communities, whether he’s ever given a site owner the advice “don’t work on your community”. All that and a lot more in two weeks’ time, but first next week we have our regular news and commentary show with the whole gang.
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This episode of the SitePoint Podcast was produced by Karn Broad and I’m Kevin Yank. Bye for now!
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