More than a year and a half later, Matt stops by Community Signal to reflect on his decision and how it has impacted the community. The transition of power at MetaFilter is our focus on this episode, including what led Matt to realize that it was time for him to go. Plus:
- Why MetaFilter charges $5 for new accounts
- The time that Matt caught Dilbert creator Scott Adams posting anonymously to praise himself
- What concerns Matt about the consolidation of power in social media platforms
“I worked at startups, and I didn’t like it. I couldn’t imagine ever running one or feeling comfortable with it. [With MetaFilter], I just wanted to build something that was useful for people and enjoyable, and gave back to the people who participated in it. That was my goal.” -@mathowie
“[After taking a year to plan his exit from MetaFilter:] Maybe it’s the nature of community managers in general. We’re careful, thoughtful people or else we would have terrible communities. I’m the type of guy that gives three months notice if I leave a job. I don’t want to leave people feeling out of it. The community’s maintained health was my number one priority. It takes a year to pull yourself out of a project when you have tendrils in every aspect of it.” -@mathowie
“[MetaFilter’s $5 account registration fee] wasn’t really economic. It was definitely just trying to put a hurdle in front of people. … Anytime we [were mentioned] in the press … 500 or 600 people would just funnel in, sign up for an account and find the nearest thread and just start leaving comments. Most of them are just clueless, like ‘What is this site for, why am I here, what the hell is this, I don’t even like the color of it?’ It would just be chaos.” -@mathowie
“I never wanted a community that was so big, it felt anonymous.” -@mathowie
“[When people started selling MetaFilter accounts on eBay,] I’m sitting there going like, ‘Boy, this is weird having a black market around my own thing.’ I was railing on the music industry. I was writing blog posts about how it sucks the music industry is vilifying Napster and MP3s like, let me pay for digital music. I remember begging, writing things in 2002 and 2003. … There’d be no Napster if you had 50 cent songs or dollar songs. It would be easier to just pay for them than it would be to track down these MP3s … I remember just thinking, yeah, there’s this black market around MetaFilter. I can get rid of it by just doing what I would ask the music industry to do, which is provide an economic way to do the right thing. There were no more eBay auctions after that because anyone could get [an account] for five bucks.” -@mathowie
“Scott Adams and Dilbert stuff would come up on MetaFilter from time to time. I don’t even know what tipped me off … but I’d noticed every time there’s a thread about Dilbert or Scott Adams, there’s this weird user with this really bizarre username that’s always there to defend him to the death. He would argue with everybody about what a genius Scott Adams was. … We have PayPal records with some identifiers of your name and email, [and I pulled up the account]. It’s Scott Adams. … Running communities is weird. This stuff comes up from time to time.” – @mathowie
“The way we think of comments today, as mostly garbage to be ignored and phasing out rapidly in many places, is largely due to the lack of community management.” -@mathowie
“A zillion newspapers and news sites adopted comments without ever hiring a single person to moderate them or even care to look at them. So they became synonymous with cesspools of nonsense.” -@mathowie
“I do think we’re just on the cusp of figuring out where the downside is to [consolidating social interaction to a few, powerful platforms]. Like this week, there was news that Facebook’s working on censorship software for China so that controversial articles would, basically, never be seen in China because that’s a requirement of web publishing in China. That’s really disturbing. How could that be applied by any other government or anybody else or anyone at Facebook? Those are things that are super concerning. I don’t know if we’re ever going to return to a rich, lush, open web of thousands of decentralized servers and writers, unfortunately.” -@mathowie
About Matt Haughey
Matt Haughey was one of the pioneers of blogging. In 1999, he started MetaFilter.com as the first blog community and continued to run it until last year. He’s now a writer at Slack, and continues to tinker on dozens of small web projects today.
- MetaFilter, the community that Matt founded and managed for 16 years
- Slack, where Matt is a senior writer
- Slashdot, a social news website and community that inspired Matt
- Digg, once a social news site, now a news aggregator
- Managing Online Forums, Patrick’s book
- Tom Vanderbilt, a New York Times bestselling author who has received inspiration from Ask MetaFilter for his books
- Alex Goldman, a MetaFilter user who now co-hosts the Reply All podcast for Gimlet Media
- The WELL, an early, influential online community
- Matt’s announcement at MetaFilter about moving on
- Jason Goldman, Chief Digital Officer of the White House, who helped Matt realize it was time to move on
- Josh Millard, who now manages MetaFilter
- Matt’s account on MetaFilter
- Online Community MetaFilter Charges $5 for New Accounts by Patrick
- The Blogfather by Ruth Brown, an interview with Matt
- A Member of Your Online Community Lies About Committing Suicide: What Do You Do? by Patrick
- Death and MetaFilter by Josh Millard
- Josh Millard’s announcement about the suicide hoax on MetaFilter
- Dilbert, a comic strip by Scott Adams
- Article about Scott Adams sock puppet account on MetaFilter
- Scott Adams admitting that he had been praising and defending himself under a pseudonymous account
- Moodle, an open source learning platform
- Community Signal episode with Greg Barber of the Washington Post
- Taboola, a provider of “sponsored links” on editorial sites
- NPR’s announcement about removing comments from their website
- The Shade Room, a celebrity and entertainment news site with a substantial Instagram presence
- Indie.vc, which provided funding to The Shade Room
- Facebook Said to Create Censorship Tool to Get Back Into China by Mike Isaac
- Matt on Twitter
00:04: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Tweet as you listen using #communitysignal. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
00:20 Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and welcome to Community Signal. This week we have the pleasure of speaking with Matt Haughey. We’ll be talking about what it’s like to step away from a community after you’ve managed it for 16 years, why MetaFilter charges $5 for new accounts, and how they responded when a long-term member faked their own suicide on the community. Matt was one of the pioneers of blogging. In 1999 he started MetaFilter.com as the first blog community and continued to run it until last year. He’s now a writer at Slack and continues to tinker on dozens of small web projects today. Matt, welcome to the program.
00:50 Matt Haughey: Oh, thanks. Thanks for having me.
00:52 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s such a pleasure to have you, and a big reason for that is MetaFilter. The community just has such a great name. And when I think about long term, independent, online communities that didn’t become something else, or weren’t bought out by someone, MetaFilter is one of the names that comes to mind as far as mainstream consciousness. I think a case can be made that MetaFilter is up there with really some of the greatest independent online communities ever launched. And as someone who is super familiar with the history of the space, I don’t say that lightly. And I’m gonna put you in a tough position of having to praise your own work here, but what do you think is the significance of MetaFilter in the larger context of the history of the web, of community, of social sites?
01:33 Matt Haughey: Wow. Thanks. [chuckle] Let me see. I mean, I definitely built it and patented it off existing communities at the time. So this is like late ’90s, ’98. I started working on it late ’98. And I really looked at Slashdot a lot.
01:49 Patrick O’Keefe: Another one that’s still going.
01:50 Matt Haughey: Yeah. Something that I loved, but it was a little too nerdy, and I didn’t like the UI, and I thought it was encumbered with a bit too many rules or too much interface and stuff. And I also came from the world of web design, and back then we used to have a lot of email lists. And you just have these lists of 5,000 people helping each other with HTML questions everyday. And how supportive those things were. And so I sort of combined those two and I was like, “I want to build something less nerdy than Slashdot that I wanted to use, that had the chill vibe of a helpful community like the web design communities I was on. Yeah, I just wanted to combine those two things, and it worked out pretty well.
02:31 Matt Haughey: I think early on, I’m sure this theme will come up again and again, it never blew up, it never sold, it never went anywhere, because I never really wanted it to. That was a conscious choice early on, that I saw things rise and fall every couple of years. Digg came out of nowhere in 2004. It was the biggest thing in the world by 2007, and then it was basically unheard of in 2009. And then Reddit comes along couple of years later and follows the same cycle, but sustains at a high level. But I worked at start-ups, and I didn’t like it. I couldn’t imagine ever running one or feeling comfortable with it. So, I just wanted to build something that was useful for people and enjoyable, and gave back to the people who participated in it, and that was my goal.
03:17 Patrick O’Keefe: Humble beginnings. [chuckle] But it’s from that that a lot of great projects come up. And it’s funny you mentioned Slashdot. Again, still around, still doing its thing, Slashdot. I was never really active there, but it always felt like there was an attitude if you did the wrong thing. Like, things would go very bad, very fast, and almost like… MetaFilter might have been a little friendlier than that. And maybe that has to do with the audience, and not being just a lot of techie people. Not to speak bad of techie techie people, I am one, you are one. I get it.
03:49 Matt Haughey: Well, there was even a term for it, right? Slashdot, it’s like B-O-F-H. Is it Bastard Operator from Hell? They’re like know-it-all IT guy mentality. I think that attitude was kind of pervasive there, where it was like, “Yes, you’re doing the wrong thing, you’re in the wrong place.” I would see that creep up on MetaFilter, and I’d do everything I could to squash it. That’s not a good way to be inclusive in your community is to have old timers be exclusive to everybody else.
04:17 Patrick O’Keefe: And it was funny when I published my book on community in 2008, Managing Online Forums. I sent out review copies far and wide, all sorts of podcasts, blogs, mainstream publications. I was on local TV. I was on a couple of really well read publications, but nothing moved the needle more as far as Amazon sales rank than when the book appeared on Slashdot.org. And I found that funny. It was probably summer of ’08. So even then, nothing sold more copies of my book in a shorter time period than just being mentioned on Slashdot.org, which I think speaks to, I don’t know, a couple things; How we write off maybe what we see as smaller or niche communities, then try to play for mainstream players where there’s so much noise. But sometimes, a mention on MetaFilter… I’ve been mentioned on MetaFilter before, and the traffic you get from that can be more focused and larger than… And I’ve been retweeted by celebrities like Sean “Diddy” Combs. And so you think you’d get more from something like that, someone who has 10 million followers. But the reality is that it just goes by so fast, people are so less engaged, that on the whole you might get less benefit from that sort of mention.
05:23 Matt Haughey: Yeah, it’s weird. I have a hard time ascertaining how big of an impact MetaFilter has, being so close to it. But I meet people, adults, who are like, “MetaFilter’s our favorite thing on earth. Has been for over a decade, or a decade and a half.” But on the other hand, I’ve been… I went to a lunch at Etsy to see some friends, and nobody under 40 had ever heard of MetaFilter in the entire company. So I was like, “Oh, well.” But then there’s a couple like New York Times bestselling authors, one of them’s Tom Vanderbilt, who basically started with an Ask MetaFilter question about, I don’t know, cars, and he wrote a book on traffic. And now he writes all these general books about happiness and stuff. And he credits everything, like the first time he went to Ask MetaFilter and asked a question, and he couldn’t believe the reaction he got from people. That was like, “Huh, I should write about this.”
06:18 Matt Haughey: Then there’s other stories like Alex Goldman was a guy in the site who wanted to get into NPR, and now he runs Reply All podcast and Gimlet Media and all that stuff. And it’s like… Yeah, I don’t know what it is. I guess, MetaFilter maybe is a small audience, but it’s the right audience for something, especially if something is in their wheelhouse, and it’s a book everyone is gonna love. Yeah, I guess it can move the needle.
06:41 Patrick O’Keefe: And it’s not unlike The WELL, a really influential community, a decade plus before MetaFilter. All of these influential tech writers, authors, creators were participants in The WELL. People of that generation that went on to be influential and went on to write super well-read books and publications and articles for major outlets, something about The WELL brought them all in. And I think that’s probably true of MetaFilter, something about MetaFilter, the atmosphere, how it was managed, how people came together brought those types in.
07:09 Matt Haughey: Yeah, yeah, there’s a lot of New York media people, there’s a lot of book people, publishing people, there’s a lot of grad students in all sorts of fields. It’s a weird eclectic bunch, but it’s a pretty nice crowd.
07:20 Patrick O’Keefe: So in March of 2015, after 16 years, you stepped away from the day-to-day management of MetaFilter, handing those responsibilities over to a long-time member of your staff, while still maintaining, I guess, sort of a background advisory role. I’ve managed multiple communities for a decade or more, including the one that I currently manage, which I founded 15-and-a-half years ago. And I know others in a similar boat. And when you are involved in a community for that long, it can be hard to envision the day when you finally step away because it really becomes a part of your life. When did you know it was time?
07:52 Matt Haughey: I’m trying to think when did I have this conversation? I guess it was January. It was a year before I walked away. It was January of 2014, I was sort of feeling at the end of my rope. I will say, I think anyone who runs a community knows this or has been involved for a long time, that there’s a humongous mental and emotional toil on yourself, just being in the community management positions, and there’s a lot of high turnover and community support roles, because I think burnout is real and natural, and you can only take so much stress and stuff. So, it took me 16 years to get to the point where I was definitely like, “Hmm, this is not healthy anymore. I don’t feel great about anything. I gotta figure out a way to walk away from this.”
08:39 Matt Haughey: And yeah, I had a discussion with a friend, Jason Goldman, who worked on Blogger and Twitter, early-day stuff. I was reaching out to, I don’t know, people that had done start-ups and sold companies. At the time, I was thinking I hated managing the financial aspects of MetaFilter. I’m not a business guy, I’m not interested in that stuff. I was just lucky with the way MetaFilter worked and the way online advertising worked. There’s always enough money to pay salaries, and the site was always profitable from about five years in. It was like a labor of love for six years, and then, it was just profitable after that. And so I was in a lucky position where it was just always profitable, and I didn’t really have to think about money. And then it got to a position where it wasn’t anymore and it was stressful.
09:27 Matt Haughey: So I’m talking to my friend, Jason, and he heard me complain for about 10, 15 minutes, and then, he just said like, “Hey, I’m gonna stop you there, and I’m gonna ask you this question: The most ardent fans on the site, how long do you think they think you’re gonna run the site?” And I was like, “I don’t… Forever?” And he’s like, “Yeah, until you die.” He said, “Until you’re dead. Everyone expects you to run this until you’re dead.” And like, “If you wanna change that, you need to change that.” [chuckle] I know it’s just having get slapped in the face. I think it’s natural to burn out in any project, especially ones that go beyond a decade. And I’m always doing new stuff, I’m always trying new things. Anyhow, I always had this monster project on my back, so it was then and there I just realized, “Man. Yeah, maybe I should line things up.” This thing has gotten big, it’s bigger than me, and it sucks that I’m the sole owner of it, and I could flip a switch and turn if off tomorrow. I feel terrible about that, but also, it just weighs heavily on me. So I spent a year exploring maybe selling it or finding someone else to take over. And those things never panned out.
10:37 Matt Haughey: Someone wanted to hire me for a job. They were gonna acquihire me, acquire MetaFilter just to get me to work somewhere, and it was another community. And I was like, “What?” And then, that fell through, and they were like, “Why don’t you just pay part-time or to take up your time, and then you could just come work for us?” And I was like, “Huh. I never thought of that.” But the math works out; if I had a job, we didn’t have to worry about finances so much. If I completely remove myself from the company and I could pay someone less than I was earning to cover the basics of the site. And yeah, and then, that’s when I was like, started looking for a job, and found something with Slack.
11:18 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s interesting that you mentioned that it was more than a year before you announced it. You’re talking about January of 2014, and you announced your stepping away in March of 2015. That’s something that I’ve heard before with people who were involved in a community for a long time. I had a developer community I ran for a particular open-source software, and I ran it for, gosh, 12 years before I handed it off to one of my most dedicated staff members. And I didn’t come to that realization a week or a month or three months. It really was a year or a year-and-a-half of me thinking about it and making sure because it is such a change. And even though there was a feeling of burnout and a feeling of, “You know, I think I’ve gone as far as I can here. I think I’ve done what I came to do. And it’s time to do something else.”
12:01 Matt Haughey: Maybe it’s the nature of community managers in general. We’re careful, thoughtful people or else we would have terrible communities. I’m the type of guy that gives three months notice if I leave a job. I don’t want to leave people feeling out of it. So, the community’s maintained health was a number one priority. So yeah, it takes a year to pull yourself out of a project that you have tendrils in every aspect of it.
12:28 Patrick O’Keefe: And now you’re a year-and-a-half plus removed, how do you feel? About MetaFilter, about how things are going over there and about the decision of leaving?
12:35 Matt Haughey: It’s remarkable. Like, I have this fantasy that, whatever was stressing me out, money, issues and just feeling like I’ve just been ground down after 15 years. My ideal setup was to be able to walk away from that, keep that all at arm’s length, check on it once a month and maybe the staff. Tell them, “Here’s my red phone. Call my red phone once every three months would be ideal, three to six months if something emergency comes up, otherwise, you just make all your decisions on your own. I trust you guys.” Everyone on the staff had worked there for five, six years. Nine years is, Josh, the person I left in charge.
13:17 Matt Haughey: And so they know what’s going on. They do a great job everyday. That was my goal and then I would move into something where, I’d get paid well and do a good job that would make me feel fulfilled. And I have to say, over the year-and-a-half later, like, lived up pretty much to every single expectation and beyond. It went remarkably smoothly. They literally do call me once every three to six months with like, “Hey, we got this weird legal request from some weirdo that wants to sue us for some discussion about their company that they don’t like. You know, this is kind of beyond what we have to deal with. You might want to look into this, talk to your lawyer”, etcetera.
13:57 Matt Haughey: And so, it’s been great. I don’t know if people realized it, “Oh, you’re running a community”, I would say like, 5% to 10% of my brain 24 hours a day, was worried about the site. Like, “Is the site up? Is it running? Is everyone being okay? Are they being chill with each other?” It’s impossible to go through life with 10% of your mind elsewhere always forever. Since leaving, it’s been great. I literally have weekends for the first time in 15 years. I don’t wake up, having to run to check an admin control panel to make sure nothing terrible happened in the night. It’s been remarkable. I didn’t know what a weekend was. Hadn’t had a weekend since 1997, 1998. It’s gone extremely well. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. The staff has been great. I had money worries when I left. Taking my salary out of it lifted a lot of those worries. And the site was just doing so-so and things got better financially after I left and they saved up money really well ’cause they managed that part of it. I mean, just everything has gone really well.
15:01 Matt Haughey: So, the site has six months operating expenses in the bank. Everything is pretty stable, the election was pretty nuts on everybody, and they’re all feeling a bit of a burnout. So I hope everyone’s taking vacation soon. But yeah, it’s been remarkable. I think I couldn’t ask for anything more. I don’t know if this is a blueprint for how it should be done but maybe taking a year to set this all up helped, but it just went as well as I could have possibly imagined.
15:29 Patrick O’Keefe: That’s really amazing, and so great to hear. You still pop up on MetaFilter, you still comment from time to time. I looked at your account today. But you’re a regular member. Was that strange? [chuckle] You know, after you had fully handed over the responsibilities. Was it hard to get out of that mindset of being the manager and just allowing yourself to comment?
15:46 Matt Haughey: Yeah, it was super strange and we have a lot of admin controls in the UI natively. At first it seemed symbolic, they turned my account, my admin controls off and it just went to, like, user. So we had admin controls so you could control the site. If you’re looking at anything, there’s a direct link to edit or delete something and you can see if people flag something and why they flagged something. There’s always added controls that are like in situ when you are just reading the site. So that is not like a layer away. And we have an admin toggle for it, so we turn it off and that was mostly so I could take screenshots. So if I just want to take a screenshot of a new feature, I have to turn off all the admin stuff, so I just have a regular user account and view of the site. And we primarily made it just for, “Eh, I don’t know”, sometimes you want to make a screenshot you don’t want. You don’t want to leak all this customer data or whatever in your screenshots. And so, the day I sign off, I switch over to non-admin. [chuckle]
16:48 Matt Haughey: It was a completely different way of enjoying the site. I would read something for the first time and just be interested in the words, and what the answers were to questions and stuff like that and I could just let it go. If I turned on the admin controls, I’d see two people are bickering and why these things were removed an hour ago, and that person needs to be emailed. You can leave notes, the moderators are gonna all leave notes to each other actually on the site. Turning all that stuff off I really did get, for the first time, a user experience and so it’s been great. I’d never turned on admin stuff and I just look at it as if I’m a user all the time now. It’s fantastic.
17:28 Patrick O’Keefe: For the last 12 years MetaFilter has charged a one-time $5 fee for new accounts. It’s an entrance fee, more or less, and a lot of people in community talk about making registration and onboarding easier and easier. And this sort of flies in the face of that, at least a little bit. It’s a public community, not a private one where you have to pay to participate. But at the time, it was sort of a creative solution to some specific problems. What did that fee allow you to do?
17:53 Matt Haughey: Yeah, it wasn’t really economic. It was definitely just trying to put a hurdle in front of people. So at the time I was running it totally as a side project. I had a full-time job. And anytime we got in the press, it would happen often like New York Times would just mention us casually in some tech section or I don’t know, some discussion from MetaFilter, we would show up somewhere on a big site like that, like a big news site. And 500 or 600 people would just funnel in, sign up for an account, and just find the nearest thread and just start leaving comments. And most of them are just clueless, like “What is this site for, why am I here, what the hell is this, I don’t even like the color of it?” It would just be like chaos. And those would always follow like any big news mention.
18:41 Matt Haughey: And it started to become a monthly occurrence where there’d just be a day of chaos once a month as hundreds of people would funnel in. Like I said from the start, I never really had a growth mentality about the whole thing. I had realized that the communities I had ever been in were just a few hundred people, or maybe a few low thousands. I guess Slashdot probably had hundreds of thousands of users, but there was really probably only a core group of 10,000, 15,000 people a day that probably were always commenting, like when you start recognizing people by their user names and stuff.
19:14 Matt Haughey: And so I never wanted a community that was so big, it felt anonymous. I wanted it always to be sizeable. So, the $5 fee at first was definitely just a crutch. So after I was tired of… You have a full-time job and you’re in the New York Times at 9:00 AM and suddenly there’s chaos when you check the site at lunch, and I’d realized jeez, when I get home from work at 6 o’clock, I’m gonna be up till midnight cleaning up all these messes, and sending emails to people asking them to calm down. Or at the worst, banning people and telling them why they’re temporarily banned, because they showed up and said crazy stuff. All this disruptive stuff kept happening. Before the $5, I turned off new user sign-ups completely. So I think in 2003 sometime, maybe in the spring, I just turned them off. I was just like, “You know what, we’re good, we’re fine, yeah, whatever.” 10,000 or 15,000 users, like that’s enough. I am tired of this. This thing is totally running on the side for me, and I don’t have the time necessary to dedicate to this around the clock.
20:14 Matt Haughey: So, I just turned off new user sign-ups. There was always a counter on the front page of how many total members there were. And people would notice once in a while it would go up. Because people would email me a sob story or they seemed like really nice people. I’d meet people at meet-ups. They’d show up and seem chill, and I’d be like, “You know what, if you want an account I’ll send you one.” So, there were a couple of accounts trickling in. But then after a year-and-a-half, I was just constantly getting requests everyday from people to give them an account.
20:44 Matt Haughey: I did a short experiment where I did 10 sign-ups a day max and it always happened at noon. And the first day I tried it, my counting algorithm didn’t work, and 150 people signed up or something. And before they got cut off, I forgot to carry a one or something. And I tried that for a week and gave up at the end because Australians were like, “It’s 4:00 in the morning. You’re never gonna have another Australian member because it’s so hard.” And I’d be like, “Oh, God, timezones are the worst.” So, yeah, I was sitting there with all these problems. When we get press, we get a whole bunch of yahoos acting crazy, that’s an administrative nightmare.
21:21 Matt Haughey: So I don’t want just open sign-ups all the time. Everyday I would just dread getting up to see like, what happened in the night while I slept. And then the other thing was, I want something controlled and fair, and I don’t know where I came up with it, but I eventually settled on like, “I’ll just charge some nominal fee via PayPal, as a one-time thing.” I mean, it could have been a dollar and it would just be the pain of having to create a user account and pay a dollar before you’re even done with the account. That would be a ginormous hurdle. And yeah, I just came up with five bucks going I don’t know, five bucks sounds like, I want it to be like a coffee, like an expensive coffee price. So it wasn’t economics, so a lot of people think, MetaFilter’s great and it runs, it’s self-sustaining, it’s so awesome because you have that $5 fee, and it doesn’t even pay for the servers. It probably did in the first month because we had several thousand people, probably 3,000 people signed up in the fist month or so, because there’s just this backlog of demand.
22:21 Matt Haughey: So, that’s an impressive amount of money. What is that? 15 grand? Yeah, like 10 grand or something after taxes sort of came in the first month. But like today, it’s a couple hundred bucks a month maybe. I mean, there’s single digit people signing up today. 10 or 20 people a day at most is totally normal. For the month that’s, not very much money. And so, yeah, it was just this massive hurdle just to control growth. And it sounds weird in this day and age to talk about controlling growth, but I don’t think growth is great on communities. I’d seen these bursty communities come and go and rapid growth in a community was almost always associated with downsides, nothing but downsides. It was great to get more people, but people felt more anonymous. They got surly with each other, jokes got out of hand really quick. And so, I felt like for the health of the community keeping it controlled was a good priority to keep going.
23:17 Patrick O’Keefe: You had something that was great, you had enough people. And it just got to a point where more volume was not necessarily better for anybody. So you came up with a simple solution and I’ve read some interviews that you did around this. And one thing that you said as well that when you closed accounts for that period of time, you had people who were selling accounts on eBay.
23:38 Matt Haughey: That’s what I forgot to mention, yeah.
23:39 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, I guess you had an account that went for $130 or something, so this was also a way to cut off that sort of oddness and if you want to spend some money, here’s an account for five bucks.
23:50 Matt Haughey: Yeah, part of me was like, this is 2003, 2004 right? And I’m sitting there going like, “Boy, this is weird having a black market around my own thing, and I was realizing that I was railing on the music industry. I was writing blog posts about how it sucks the music industry is vilifying Napster and MP3s like, let me pay for digital music. I remember begging, writing things in 2002 and 2003. It wasn’t until Apple, in fall of 2003, even introduced selling digital music. That would be like, there’d be no black market. There’d be no Napster if you had 50 cent songs or a dollar songs. It would be easier to just pay for them than it would be to track down these MP3s from these weird communities and search them and find them and load them on your player. So I remember just thinking, yeah, there’s this black market around MetaFilter. I can just get rid of it by just doing what I would ask the music industry to do, which is provide an economic way to do the right thing. So yeah, there was no more eBay auctions after that because anyone could get one for five bucks.
24:56 Patrick O’Keefe: That’s really funny. I remember I actually paid for my Gmail account, way back in the day. It wasn’t a lot. It might have been $20, $30. But it was really early on and I have an account. It’s not like it’s a really one-word account or something. It’s pokeefe@gmail, but I am so surprised by the amount of false emails I get to that account. It’s not a small number. There’s all these Patrick O’Keefe’s or Paul O’Keefe’s running around, and they think they have pokeefe@gmail. So I get all these random emails. I just threw an autoresponder on it and said, “If you’re really looking for me, find me here. Otherwise, you got the wrong guy,” because it happened enough. That’s pretty funny.
25:31 Patrick O’Keefe: So switching to something not funny, I wanna ask about what was an incredibly tough situation that you faced at MetaFilter and I would guess, it was probably one of the most challenging moments in your time there. In 2012, you had a long-term member fake their own suicide, complete with their “wife” authoring an emotional note to the community, which generated this amazing outpouring from the community, and then you find out that it’s a hoax. Talk us through what happened.
26:01 Matt Haughey: Yeah. Man, it was so long ago, I’m having trouble remembering all the details. I don’t remember it being like a really heavy user of the site but it was a moderate user of the site that had a couple years of history. I still to this day, have no idea why someone would do this but we frequently… This is the path of how someone reaches out to us and says, “Hey, my roommate would never shut up about your site. I’m just emailing the general contact at MetaFilter.com because they wouldn’t shut up about MetaFilter and they had this unfortunate accident and unfortunately, they passed away. And I just thought, you guys would wanna know, ’cause I could tell their laptop was always running this weird blue site, and I know they hung out there and people would probably wanna know.” That is something that happens probably… Now, as the site, everyone’s getting older on the site and have gone through a rash of… And it seems like this year, a dozen people have died that were famous long-time members, usually from health. Some members are just older when it started 15 years ago and so, that’s a normal thing that happens.
27:07 Matt Haughey: So, we get an email. We take these seriously. We offer condolences and say usually like, “Is there an obituary around or anything like that we can link to because people like to see that for verification?” And it’s not super, supremely important. I don’t remember specifically what they said in return but they might have been like, “I’m too upset to talk,” or something and we never heard from them again. That’s not abnormal. So yeah, we searched around. We put up a post saying, “Hey, this person died,” and people usually go, “Oh, that’s a bummer.” And it was like a week later or something, I don’t know why, the programmer who works on MetaFilter, Paul, was… I don’t know what he was doing. He was surfing Facebook and he somehow found the woman who’d wrote us as the wife of the guy who has committed suicide.
27:57 Patrick O’Keefe: You have a great memory because Josh Millard, who posted the announcement on MetaFilter about this whole hoax, wrote an article on Medium in September about death and MetaFilter. He actually mentioned that, basically, the person got sloppy because a friend of that person tagged them playing golf a week or two later.
28:14 Matt Haughey: Oh, I think it was frisbee. Yeah. I think it was a week later. It was frisbee golf, and someone that works at MetaFilter had seen this and just went, “Hey, wait a minute.” At some point, I think we were trying to find an obituary or something. All we had was the guy’ name, Paul Simpson or something like that, something generic. And so we were like, “Okay. I think they’re in Texas. Do we see any Paul Simpsons at any of the newspaper sites?” And it was like, “No.” And then maybe Paul, this guy who works for us, a different Paul, was searching Facebook for Paul Simpson, found the guy’ profile, and it was dead after we had heard. But then, a week later, it was like, “Hey, just chilling with my buds, playing some frisbee golf,” and there was a photo. And then he just told us in our admin back channel, “Holy shit, I don’t think that guy’s dead. I think this is him.” Like, “What?”
29:06 Matt Haughey: I can’t remember if we emailed them back and if they said anything or if it became clear that this just never happened. I felt bad because at the same time, I don’t know why the Guardian, UK newspaper asked me to write an op-ed about the importance of community or something. And I turned it down because I was dealing with all this. It was before the hoax part came out. I was just like, “Look, I don’t wanna be like a whatever, figurehead of good communities when we just lost someone,” and I just felt bad about it. And then, it feels here was a hoax. I was just pretty angry about the whole thing. Why would you screw with not just a website and not just the staff behind a website but the thousands of people that have to read it? I don’t know. It, still to this day, pisses me off to think about that incredible lack of empathy to do that, to purposely gaslight, I guess, is what we call it now. Gaslighting people and making them think terrible things. It’s just super messed up, super messed up.
30:10 Matt Haughey: Yeah, I’m still pissed off to this day when I think about it. That is so terrible to do to thousands of people, and then a week or two later we have to tell them, “Oh, all those condolences and stuff, that was bullshit, we’re really sorry. It never really happened.” And then everyone’s mad at us, the staff, going like, “Don’t you guys have checks and balances in place for this?” And then so from them on, I’m a little more cynical anytime I get these horrible emails. And I can’t be 100% sympathetic, ’cause I have to be more like, “Well, great, but you gotta show me an obit or we’re not publishing anything.”
30:44 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, you’ve been hardened.
30:45 Matt Haughey: Yeah, that was pretty messed up.
30:46 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, ’cause this was a member. I’m looking at the article I wrote, they were a member for six years, they made hundreds of comments. This isn’t someone that was fly-by-night, this was someone that was at least somewhat well-known in the community. And it was this constructed story. The post by the supposed wife was long and detailed, and it generated hundreds of comments of people who were sad or offering their condolences, or just genuine emotion. And then you find out that it’s a hoax. Is it clear then what you need to do? It was always like, “We need to tell the community right away”? Once you knew that that was the case, what was your immediate next step?
31:23 Matt Haughey: I think it’s how quickly can we get this out there because this is appalling and terrible. And yeah, there’s no self-preservation or anything about… I don’t care that I’m embarrassed that I was tricked. And I don’t want people to feel bad about stuff any longer. And the same thing happened, there was an early web hoax that happened on MetaFilter of someone who blogged for a year-and-a-half saying they had cancer and fighting it and then they died suddenly. And then there were a couple of people that seemed cynical, were like, “What? Why did they suddenly die? That’s weird.” Diseases are terrible and they do this to people, but just the way the person described it, the caretaker, that sounded strange. And attacking people for saying something like that in public and being like, “How dare you, this person just died from cancer.”
32:14 Matt Haughey: And then we find out a few days later that actually the entire thing was cooked up. That had happened before, and it was like, “Oh my God, I will eat crow all day long, but the truth has to be out there.” And we also had the terrible Dilbert guy. Scott Adams and Dilbert stuff would come up on MetaFilter from time to time. And I don’t even know what tipped me off one time, but I noticed… I guess all community management is basically pattern matching and pattern recognition. But I’d noticed every time there’s a thread about Dilbert or Scott Adams, there’s this weird user with this really bizarre username that’s always there to defend him to the death and he would argue with everybody about what a genius Scott Adams was. And maybe the fourth time it happened in five years, so it’s not something that happens often. I would just go, “Who is this person?” And I’d dig into their history and we have PayPal records with some identifiers of your name and stuff and email, and it’s Scott Adams.
33:14 Matt Haughey: So that was when I was like, “Holy, why does a famous-ish guy even waste his time on this? Did he not know he would be found out?” And if you searched this, he had a really weird username, this weird username was all over the web. He was on Gawker, he was on Reddit, he was on things like Slashdot. And you know it’s all the same guy ’cause if you go and look in his posting history in those places it was him defending Scott Adams is a genius. And so yeah, I remember emailing Scott Adams to be like, “Yo man, I figured this out. I kinda want to and have to tell the community that they’re being scammed a bit. Do you wanna say anything about this?” And he freaked out and just posted on the site himself, posted on MetaFilter, he just told everybody in a thread, like, “I was trying to be careful and not be like… I’m not here to get revenge or retribution.” “You can’t keep doing this, and I need to tell people that you have been doing this.”
34:12 Matt Haughey: And so he just said, “I don’t trust this guy Matt, but screw you all. I am Scott Adams, yes I am Scott Adams, I have always been defending Scott Adams because he and I are the same.” So those other things were… [chuckle] When that stuff comes to light, it’s like how quickly can we get it out there in a… Just to get the information out there, even if we are embarrassed by it or someone else is embarrassed by it? You don’t want anybody to be damaged by this news, but yeah, it’s just how do you get this info out there? Running communities is weird. [chuckle] This stuff comes up from time to time.
34:44 Patrick O’Keefe: Exactly. Running communities is weird. You wrote your own blog software in the late 1990s because there really wasn’t, [chuckle] if you were around at that time you’ll remember, there really wasn’t much available. And you put a lot of thought into how comments would work on your blog. For example, you deliberately put the commenter’s name at the bottom beneath their comment so that people would have to read the words before they knew who posted them and could prejudge their words. So I was curious to hear, what’s your take on the state of online commenting?
35:12 Matt Haughey: Yeah. Comments, I had lofty goals at the start. I would think the way we think of comments today as mostly garbage to be ignored and phasing out rapidly in many places, is largely due to the lack of community management. So, I put a lot of thought into the design of comments. I thought I was doing the best job I could at the time, but I think other systems patterned it off of MetaFilter and early blogs and all of Moodle type and WordPress look pretty much the same way as that. But they don’t have an attentive staff. A zillion newspapers and news sites adopted comments without ever hiring a single person to moderate them or even care to look at them. So they became synonymous with cesspools of nonsense. These days, the only time I hear someone point out web comments is to say, “Surprisingly, the web comments are good on this,” like you see something on Twitter. They’d be like, “Check out this amazing story, also read the comments. They’re surprisingly good.” I hear that about once a week because the default is open comments are terrible.
36:21 Matt Haughey: And I guess on MetaFilter we never were advocating open anonymous terrible comments. We always knew who people were. People had to have an account. We have these huge barriers to get an account. We have this comprehensive flagging system to point out even problematic or offensive comments that we mostly left up and we would just rarely act upon. We took it super seriously and I think that’s why they’re still usable today on the site, on MetaFilter, and why somewhere, whatever Yahoo! News or CNN, whatever classic terrible news site, has phased them out completely or you don’t even see them. These days I am surprised when I go to a major news site, I don’t know, Washington Post, do they even still have com…
37:04 Patrick O’Keefe: They do. They do. I’ve had the guy who kinda oversees those efforts, Greg Barber, on the show before. And they actually put a lot of effort into them. But to your point, it’s tough because a lot of the outlets that we hear about… Because, like you, when I hear about comments, sometimes I hear people say, “Oh, there’s good comments here.” But most of the time, we’re getting rid of comments.
37:23 Matt Haughey: Yeah. Well, I wanna finish my thought that I think there’s a Washington Post, I’ll see some major news, huge news story, like, “Here is what we know about Donald Trump’s taxes,” or something. It’s just millions of people are viewing this article and you scroll down the bottom below, the Taboola garbage. And finally at the bottom they’ll say like, “What do you think about this? Leave a comment.” There are zero current comments. And I’ll be like, “Wow, how are 50,000 people reading this right now and not a single person has left a comment?” I see that all the time now where I see zero comments on very popular sites. And so when people like NPR wanna phase out comments, I’m not surprised. It is added burden of the community management to check on those things. But also even the ones on some popular sites, just they don’t get comments. It’s like people have signed off completely on the idea of comments being useful that they don’t even participate anymore.
38:20 Patrick O’Keefe: You and me, we both come from independent community backgrounds. You wrote the software for your community. I didn’t, but [chuckle] all of mine have been self-hosted or I had access to the database and wasn’t locked me to some proprietary or closed system. A lot of people today don’t seem to care much about that, if at all, as people make platforms they have no control over their preferred destination for their community-building efforts, whether it’d be Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or something else. What do you think that means for the future of communities?
38:51 Matt Haughey: It’s tough. People are going to where the people are and that’s natural. And a couple of months ago, for the hell of it, I started a little tiny blog about a little tiny subject, and I’ve been amazed at how basically it feels like, like spitting in the wind, [chuckle] how pointless it seems. And if I had just made a post on Twitter or post on Facebook or just Instagram, wrote the post to a photo that accompanied with it, I’d have more readers. And I’ve watched “communities” pop up around personalities that sort of bubble up in these social networks. And it’s interesting. Like, The Shade Room is a Indie.vc invested in. It’s basically like a celebrity gossip blog that has a WordPress site, but really they operate in Instagram.
39:39 Matt Haughey: They’re basically getting to be as big as TMZ or, Perez Hilton, independent gossip media people. But this person is huge, the person behind it. They’ll have millions of readers and it’s weird that they… At one point, I think they are banned from Instagram ’cause they’re acquiring so many followers so quickly, they look like a bot or something or they’re cheating somehow. And I think they started a new account the next day and got two-and-a-half million followers within days just because they have all these juicy Hollywood stuff. I’m not even interested in their site. I’m just amazed to see someone build a community and a service and a thing that’s actually a media thing and it’s all in Instagram and… You go to the WordPress site, it’s just kinda boring-looking, and the Instagram one is just easier to read and faster and gets at… That’s where all the commenting is taking place.
40:31 Matt Haughey: Yeah. I don’t know. I think seeing the web consolidate on four or five platforms and that’s where millions or billions, literally billions of people are using the web now. It’s slightly troubling that these four or five places they’re kinda controlling the access, or controlling the content, controlling who sees it. Everyone’s gone to algorithms and stuff. We can’t go back in time, but I love the early 2000s ’cause it just seemed we are all putting up around… Sticking our own shingle out there and everyone’s running their own servers and those security and hassles associated with that. But it was great, there’s thousands and thousands of independent voices and now it feels like… Facebook shuts something off. They silence many people at once. They can knock anyone off their service if they feel like it. If you get as big… If you’re the number one news provider on Facebook, Facebook may wanna boot you just because you’re outperforming them. And so, yeah, it’s troubling, but I don’t fault anyone creating a new thing, service, site, community today by embracing those ’cause that’s truly where people are.
41:44 Matt Haughey: It’s just a million data points along the way, suddenly something is coming to mind. I’m involved in the local bike racing scene and I would go out to every bike race and I’d race the bike races, and then I’d stick around all day and I would take photographs of the races after mine was done. And I might put up 200 or 300 photos of people racing. It is mostly to teach myself how to be a better photographer but I used to always put those on Flickr and then I would point… This is, well into, two years ago. I was doing this on Flickr exclusively. Then I would send an email to a list of bike racers saying, “Hey, these photos over here of all the three o’clock races. Look for your photo of you and you can feel free to use it.” And I’d look at the Flickr stats and something like 35 people would ever click on it. You might get one favorite out of a set of 300 photos.
42:32 Matt Haughey: And then one day, I just put it on Facebook. I was just like, “Ugh, I’ll just also drag it over here and make a new album.” I didn’t have to tell anyone it existed and it was thousands of likes, people re-sharing everything and you’re seeing that those 300 photos reach 56,000 people or something in 24 hours. [chuckle] I’ve just realized, Oh my God. Flickr was superior in every way except people, better photo display, better photo controls. I could see everything was in an album with a title, but Facebook is where billions of people are. When you’re just doing something for free like taking photos of people, you want some feedback. Yeah, Facebook was just so much more rewarding and enticing ’cause you could just see immediately within minutes of uploading anything. You’d see people would find themselves. People would find their friends in the photos and tag them, and they would just spiral. Yeah, I was just like, “Oh my God.” I see why people are going to Facebook like crazy, but man, it’s unfortunate.
43:35 Patrick O’Keefe: I don’t know. I guess. I don’t know if it’s our own doing, if we atrophied and fell in love with those platforms and sent everyone over there. Or if it was just always meant to be, go that way.
43:44 Matt Haughey: There’s a lot of upsides to going with a platform. It sucks to run your own software or run your own server. That is a potential barrier. Me and you, whatever. If we had an idea in 1999, we could build all the software necessary to make the thing a reality and then, build it into what we want, tweak it along the way and that’s great. Lots of people have great ideas but just don’t have the technical knowledge. It’s hard to find someone that has a good idea and a great technical background, a design background and can get all those pieces right. So I see why. It sucks running your own servers and stuff. Maybe three or four years ago, we moved MetaFilter all over to AWS. We used to lease our own servers. We used to have a rack of servers in Seattle and in Texas.
44:27 Matt Haughey: Now, everything’s in AWS somewhere in the cloud. And there’s advantages to all that, but yeah, if I didn’t have to run software at all, that would be easier. You wouldn’t get to customize it any way you want, which sucks, but I don’t know. I don’t fault people for going with what’s convenient and what’s easy. I do think we’re just on the cusp of figuring out where the downside is to this stuff. Like this week, there was news that Facebook’s working on censorship software for China so that controversial articles would, basically, never be seen in China because that’s a requirement of web publishing in China. That’s really disturbing. How could that be applied by any other government or anybody else or anyone at Facebook? Those are things that are super concerning. Yeah, I don’t know if we’re ever gonna return to a rich, lush, open web of thousands of de-centralized servers and writers. I don’t think we’re ever gonna go back to that, unfortunately.
45:23 Patrick O’Keefe: What’s funny is that you mentioned how tough it was back then to have your server, have your software. Now, it’s easier than ever. [chuckle] But because we have these other options, we have this diversification, people might be less inclined to do it. People today have it so much easier than we did in 2000 and ’99. And I like to think that, I don’t know. These things move in cycles. As more concerns come up, the pendulum can swing back based upon what people are concerned about at the time. So, like when Facebook cut the reach of a lot of pages. A lot of people took the opportunity to make sure that they weren’t putting all their eggs in that basket. Certain things can happen that can push people back, but I think you’re right, people go where the people are.
46:06 Matt Haughey: Yeah, and I think Twitter and Facebook are just extremely well-oiled attention machines. It is really hard not to stare at Twitter all day. It is extremely difficult. I’m not a big fan of Facebook. I don’t use it a ton, but Twitter is like… I can tell I’m addicted to it. It’s hard to get away from it. I don’t know if we’re gonna get back away from that cycle. We might, but I don’t know. I think you’re right that it is easier now more than ever, even to build your stuff. It just seems like we require a breath of knowledge, going so far beyond what we had to know in 1999. I feel there’s a framework for everything. There’s a server architecture for everything. There is an automated system for every aspect of… Even cloud hosting is a whole hodgepodge of stuff. If you’re just a single person, it’s hard to figure out and navigate all these possible options but it is easier. It is out there.
47:03 Patrick O’Keefe: Well, Matt, thank you so much for coming on the program. I really enjoyed talking to you.
47:06 Matt Haughey: Oh, yeah. Thanks. Thanks for having me.
47:08 Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Matt Haughey, senior writer at Slack and founder of MetaFilter. Follow him on Twitter @mathowie. That’s M-A-T-H-O-W-I-E. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and we’ll see you next week for Episode 50, marking one year of our show. Thanks for listening.
Thank you for listening to Community Signal.