|12-21-2011, 05:40 PM||#1 (permalink)|
Join Date: Jun 2011
Location: Las Vegas
An analysis of public forum growing pains
I've also been watching the evolution of Hacker News, and I notice some commonalities:
- both were started by individuals with a lot of drive and self-determination.
- initially the single founder did everything: set up the site, paid for the server and bandwidth, did all the moderation.
- as the site served a particular niche market and was free, the site grew rapidly.
- with growth came a steady and persistant decline in quality. At first it was mostly highly motivated and interested people found and joined the site; as the site grew it attracted more casual members and a greater number of spammers, trolls, and low quality contributors in the mix.
- faced with an increasing burden of staying on top of moderation, the original founder took the model of volunteering to do the moderation himself and expanded it by recruiting more people to also volunteer to do the moderation.
- this approach failed to stem the tide and the initial founder found himself frustrated by how much personal time and energy the site was taking. (In the case of Hacker News this is my observation of about a year ago, and there may have been developments since then that I'm not aware of).
I note that moderation is, literally, a thankless task. Everyone notices if there are a lot of spam and trolls in a forum. No one notices if there aren't. No one sees the effort that goes into moderation -- once a post is deleted or a troll banned, they're not visible any more.
Moderation is like cleaning bathrooms... everyone notices if your bathroom is dirty, but no one knows (or wants to know!) how much time it took you to clean your bathroom when it's clean.
When one person is moderating, even though no one else notices the work involved, the individual see the impact they're making on the site. When they moderate less, quality goes down. When they moderate more, quality goes up.
Now what happens when a group of volunteers helps out with moderation? No one individual's effort makes as much of a noticeable difference. One person moderates more, and that will help the particular part of the forum that they're helping moderate a bit, but the overall quality of the site doesn't go up by very much.. and vice versa if they sometimes moderate less. So by the structure of the situation on average the volunteers have less visibility and less incentive to put in as much effort as the founder originally did.
And this is a specific example of an overall free rider problem. For example, I show up at the forum, I enjoy the spam-free and troll-free environment, I get help with my problems and my personal development desires, but I'm not contributing to moderation myself. (Or with server and bandwidth costs either, for that matter!)
By analogy, I clean the bathroom in my home because I want a clean bathroom; when I have a party and invite a bunch of people over I clean my bathroom because it's my bathroom... but what if I'm renting a venue and having 5,000 people at my party? I don't want to clean the bathrooms! And I can recruit volunteers to help out at the party... but guess what? They don't particularly want to clean the bathrooms either!
A solution is to pay someone to clean the bathrooms. And to pay for that either by charging attendees directly through a ticket price, or indirectly by selling attendees to advertisers and sponsors. Even Burning Man which encourages a radical gifting economy still needs to charge a ticket to cover costs
Personally, I prefer to pay for things directly. Thus if Steve or someone else wants to host a personal development forum, I'd be happy to pay a membership fee.
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