Major social media platforms are using algorithms in spite of the best interests of their users, says Bruce Ableson on this episode of Community Signal. They are focused on serving you an ad at the right moment, or putting something controversial in front of you, “gaming the experience against the users to make money.”
Throughout the conversation, it becomes clear that this is emblematic of their approach in general, not just to curation and algorithms, but to moderation and management. These platforms are what they are not because of what they did last week or last month, but what they did 5 or 10 years ago. Plus:
- The biggest threat to well-managed online communities
- Cynical, or realistic, reasons why major platforms are the way they are
- Why Bruce believes subscriptions could be the future of online communities.
Having nice community guidelines vs. executing on them: “[Facebook and Twitter] say a lot of nice things. Read the Facebook guidelines and Twitter policies. They read fine. Then they want to grow as fast as they can. They cast that aside for the sake of activity, and they get to a certain point and by that point, as we all know, it’s too far along the road to try to reverse course. They’ve taken the funding. They’ve gone public. They’ve done all these things. Now you’re at a juncture where we have this policy and it sounds fine, but we haven’t implemented it.” –@patrickokeefe
On why big platforms don’t care about moderation: “The only way that [the major social media platforms] would care about [moderation] would be if it was affecting their bottom line. Because of the kind of businesses that they are. Facebook is a perfect example. Their business is driven by controversy. The more controversial things that people post and share, the more clicks they get, the more traffic they drive, and the more revenue that’s generated. It keeps people coming back, and it keeps people engaged.” –@bruceableson
On changing established social norms on a platform: “You can’t go back 10 years later, with a billion plus people on a platform, and try to change the culture. You have to have that culture from the beginning.” –@bruceableson
On Facebook’s constant moderation struggle: “Facebook has got a real problem right now because people hate it. It’s not that they hate Facebook, it’s like going on Facebook gives them a stomach ache. I had the same thing through the election cycle in 2016, and the two years since then. You go on Facebook, and your crazy uncle is posting stuff, and some of your friends are arguing with you about things that seem obvious to you. It gets to where it’s not fun because of that. They have a real problem because they can’t go back now. They even announced some of that this week, where they were like, ‘We’re adding more moderators, and we’re changing how we enforce people interacting with each other.’ It’s too late at this point.” –@bruceableson
On the biggest threat to community management’s independence: “Facebook could be the biggest threat to [well-managed online communities] because if they trigger legislation, that gets written and targets everyone, that’s how we lose Section 230, that’s how it gets weakened, and that’s how we can no longer effectively moderate the community. We take the tool away from the people who are doing the right thing.” –@patrickokeefe
On political intervention in online communities: “I just don’t need the Steve Kings of the world telling me how to manage an online community. The thing that worries me most is Ron Wyden, one of the co-authors of Section 230, sounded the alarm recently about how these platforms need to change, or it could get too far.” –@patrickokeefe
On why algorithms are working against us: “[The major social media platform] algorithms are all gamed specifically to increasing advertising revenue. That’s their sole purpose in life, to get content and sponsored posts in front of you that you might click on, and get them in front of you at a time and in a place where you’re likely to click on it. They’re gaming the experience against the users to make money.” –@bruceableson
About Bruce Ableson
Bruce Ableson is currently director of evangelism and enablement for Adobe, after five years as head of strategy & solutions for Livefyre, acquired by Adobe in 2016. Bruce has been involved with social media and social networks for more than 20 years, having founded Open Diary, an early social network, in 1998.
Along the way, Bruce has been credited with inventing a number of features that are central to the social networks of today, including commenting, friends lists, and activity feeds.
Since then, he has worked as a consultant helping Fortune 500 companies build their digital presence, and most recently in executive positions leading strategy and solutions teams for a number of growing startups. Bruce came to Livefyre in 2013, to help build a client solutions team, and also to build out Livefyre’s NYC presence, and now works at Adobe out of their Times Square office.
- Bruce on Twitter
- Open Diary, an early blogging and social nework, which Bruce launched in 1998
- Adobe, where Bruce is director of evangelism and enablement
- Jenn Pedde, who recommended that Patrick have Bruce as a guest on the show
- Wikipedia page for Yahoo! Geocities, an early free web hosting service
- Wikipedia page for webrings, a once popular means of discovering related websites
- Bruce’s appearance on Anil Dash’s Function podcast, where he discussed the impact of being featured on Netscape.com and Yahoo.com
- Wikipedia page for Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act
- Community Signal episodes with Tammy Armstrong and Scott Moore, both of which discussed Section 230
- Facebook’s Community Standards and Twitter’s Rules
- Amazon Mechanical Turk, one way that large communities outsource moderation work
- Bruce’s tweet about algorithms
- TechCrunch article about Twitter’s “Sparkle” button
- Twitter thread showing how someone can be radicalized through YouTube
- Bruce’s tweet about subscriptions being part of the future of communities
[00:00] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:22] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you for listening to Community Signal. We try to produce a show aimed at experience pros with the thought that those newer to the field will benefit from conversations above the one on one level. Our guest today is certainly experienced. Bruce Ableson launched Open Diary, an early blogging and social networking platform in 1998.
On this episode, we’re talking about government intervention and communities, getting rid of algorithms and why he believes subscriptions are good choice for communities of the future.
Carol Benovic-Bradley, Katherine Mancuso and Luke Zimmer are just some of our supporters on Patreon. Thank you to everyone who finds value in the show enough to be among them. Visit communitysignal.com/innercircle for more details.
Bruce Ableson is currently director of evangelism and enablement for Adobe, after five years as head of strategy and solutions for Livefyre, acquired by Adobe in 2016. Bruce has been involved with social media and social networks for more than 20 years, having founded Open Diary, an early social network, in 1998. Along the way, Bruce has been credited with inventing a number of features that are essential to social networks of today, including commenting, friends lists and activity feeds.
Since then, he has worked as a consultant helping Fortune 500 companies build their digital presence and most recently in executive positions, leading strategy and solutions teams for a number of growing startups. Bruce came to Livefyre in 2013 to help build a client solutions team and also to build out Livefyre’s New York City presence and now works at Adobe out of their Time Square office. Bruce, welcome to the show.
[00:01:40] Bruce Ableson: Hi Patrick. It’s great to be here. Thanks.
[00:01:43] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s such a pleasure to have you on. I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about this but I have a list of guests on the program or people that I hope to have on the show and it’s just a txt doc on my computer. It’s Potential Guests.txt. Nothing fancy. It’s this list of guests that I have that I’m always adding to or removing from or moving into categories like they need approval from the company they work for, or they are busy right now, come back in three months. I have some guests that have taken two years to get to or to book and I’ve had your name on my list for probably a year and a half, because Jenn Pedde mentioned it to me, a mutual friend of ours who taught a class at Syracuse and you had spoken at it. I spoke at it and I know she had you there and she said, “Yes, you should talk to Bruce, had a really interesting story. Lots of things to share.” Here we are. Thanks, Jenn. Appreciate the nod.
[00:02:32] Bruce Ableson: Thanks, Jenn. I spoke to her Syracuse class, like you said like a year and a half ago. It was really interesting. It’s always nice to talk to college students.
[00:02:40] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, it’s a lot of fun and I don’t know I think sometimes when you say old school, it’s a bad thing but I think some of the good old school community know how, is very useful for laying a foundation for how to responsibly tackle the challenges of tomorrow, whether they are going to be digital marketers or social media folks or they want to build online communities or whatever it is, some of that foundational knowledge of building strong community, it definitely can’t hurt those kids.
[00:03:08] Bruce Ableson: Right. Absolutely.
[00:03:09] Patrick O’Keefe: Before you started Open Diary, what online communities had you contributed to that stood out to you or that inspired you or that to this day you can think back to fondly?
[00:03:19] Bruce Ableson: It’s funny because I was actually talking to one of my coworkers about this yesterday because he had been involved very heavily in the bulletin board kind of communities in the mid-90s and had participated heavily in some of those early communities. I never got into the BBS communities too much. I watched them and I was interested with what they did. I started out as a developer and there were forums and things that you could find it as developer than is now, that were really helpful but I wasn’t really heavily into any of them.
I didn’t get into community in a heavy-duty way until I started visiting some of the early blogs. They were journals then. They weren’t even called blogs at that point. They were people who were keeping individual journals or web journals. They were calling them online and they will all would be putting them on, on their own web page that they spun up or on Geocities. A lot of them would have Geocities pages, that kind of thing. Then some of them start to self-organize into webrings, what they call at the time.
[00:04:26] Patrick O’Keefe: I had a Geocities site, I was a member of webring. Now, that you’ve mentioned it, Patrick’s Miami Dolphins Website for the Miami Dolphins fan webring.
[00:04:37] Bruce Ableson: Webrings, for people who never saw that or are not a million years old, were basically if you had a page or you had a site like that, you put some navigation of the bottom of the page with a previous and next link and the idea being you could travel through the ring by just pressing the next, next, next thing to different sites. That wasn’t community so much as a way to discover more content but all of that lead to me thinking it would be great to start a place that could be a community for people who are keeping journals or keeping diaries online so that they could easily find each other’s content. That was really where it started. That was a long way of saying, there weren’t a lot of communities I really was involved in before though.
[00:05:21] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s been a minute since I’ve thought about webrings. I think someone made a joke on Twitter the other day because there’s always this talk about– For years, there’s been this talk as we’ve all migrated to these mass platforms of what happened to websites? Every year, someone in January says, “I want websites to come back. I want personal blogs to come back.” Someone said, “I want webrings to come back.” Webrings were almost like– It’s like anything.
An independent website run by one person can be the greatest resource for that thing in the world. It’s happened over and over again. One passionate individual can build the definitive resource for, I don’t know, Michael Jackson or the Disney theme parks or whatever it is. Webrings, a well-curated webring as a discovery engine, to use, I guess, 2020 terminology, or whatever, could be such a great means of discovery. Someone who built something that was focused and curated and was actually a good resource to just click into and hit next, next, next. That could be such a great way to discover related resources.
[00:06:27] Bruce Ableson: Some of them were very focused. You would have the poetry webring or the cat-lovers’ webring. The internet population of people that were creating content then was very sparse. The poetry webring might have 12 people in it, with 12 pages, but then, in the late ’90s, that was a goldmine. That was a lot of content that you could discover all at once.
[00:06:49] Patrick O’Keefe: I listened to parts of a podcast you just were on, on Anil Dash’s show, and this reminds me of something you mentioned there, about how Open Diary’s popularity grew quickly based upon being featured as, I think it was, the Netscape cool site of the day and then, the Yahoo!– I forgot the terminology of what they were. I remember that feature on Yahoo and on Netscape.com. It’s almost like a different world. Netscape and Yahoo were not what they, in Netscape’s case, became, and then, went away. Yahoo’s case, what it became and was worth–
[00:07:17] Bruce Ableson: Then, was not.
[00:07:18] Patrick O’Keefe: It was such a funny time where the leaders of this thing that would be a major driver of everything were so giving of their real estate on their website to say, “Hey. Here’s a random website. It’s cool. You should check it out.” Based upon that, you have, in some cases, a business that’s starting, or you have this major new website that sprang up.
In cases, if we go back and we look at those Yahoo and those Netscape sites of the day, in that mix, there were these companies that were built, sold out, became massive organizations, and it’s not all due to that. Certainly, good people behind them doing good work, but that initial springboard of traffic? It was so generous and giving. It feels like a different place.
[00:08:02] Bruce Ableson: It is. Absolutely. Both of those sites, Netscape.com, not Netscape the browser, and Yahoo.com were both portals. The idea of a web portal is something that doesn’t exist today. If you show it to a current digital citizen of this century, the Yahoo portal page with all of the index links, it would look very strange to them because it just really doesn’t exist because everything is accomplished now through search. That really has been replaced by discovery through search and discovery through social, those two things.
Nobody needs a portal anymore, but at the time, like you’re saying, Netscape or Yahoo would give up their real estate because they wanted to be the best portal out there. They wanted to build brand loyalty so people would make that their homepage. That phase of the Internet, everything was about being the homepage. You wanted the person to go to your page and click the homepage button in their browser so that’s where they started every day. If you could do that, you were winning. [laughs] In their business model.
[00:09:02] Patrick O’Keefe: My first website on a domain name was ifroggy.com. I registered that on January 1st, 2000. Y2K. The very day. I used my dad’s credit card.
[00:09:12] Bruce Ableson: After you were sure the computers were not going to crash.
[00:09:15] Patrick O’Keefe: Exactly. Paid the $70 to Network Solutions for two years, as you had to do then. My real inspiration was Yahoo. I decided that I wanted to build a portal as much as Patrick could do. I did that for a little while. There was cobranded content you could get. There was a site called iSyndicate once upon a time.
[00:09:31] Bruce Ableson: I remember that.
[00:09:33] Patrick O’Keefe: I had some of that. I had people that were writing for me. It had forums. Everyone.net was a service that gave you free e-mail search.
[00:09:41] Bruce Ableson: Free e-mail.
[00:09:43] Patrick O’Keefe: Free e-mail, search and some other things. I hooked all that up and did a portal for a while. Got it going for a year and a half or so. Very small. Then, I realized, “I don’t want to do this. I’m one person. I can’t do it.” Then, I started launching niche sites, but it’s so funny that idea of a portal because Yahoo, for whatever it is now and it’s obviously a much different thing was so meaningful to me once upon a time, and how much it influenced me and inspired me, and it’s a shame in a lot of ways.
In some ways, it’s just natural business, things come, things go, things change. Yahoo had so many fun, interesting, strong products, everything from Yahoo Fantasy Sports. I’ve spent so many hours on Yahoo Fantasy Sports alone, and their news reporting at one point was very strong. There was just so many good products, Flickr, they bought. [chuckles]
Yahoo was such an inspirational thing just in and of itself to me as a teenager and I imagined to a lot of young people creating content online or even young developers. It’s funny to think back on that.
[00:10:43] Bruce Ableson: It is. They innovated a lot of things. Those portals really lent a structure to the web for a lot of people who were new to it. It was something that you could interact with and immediately understand, “This is why hyperlinked documents are powerful.” I can drill into the tech category, and then drill into the blogging subcategory under that and find a bunch of sites that are related. Right away you got, “Okay, here’s the power of the internet, is I can find all of these things.” Those portals made that solid.
[00:11:17] Patrick O’Keefe: You have the substantial experience where there are a lot of different places you could work for. What was it about Livefyre? I’m familiar with Livefyre pre-acquisition and early Livefyre actually. Going to South by Southwest parties Livefyre, that Livefyre, commenting platform, turned curation engine. I have a friend at CNN, you probably know David Williams, I’m familiar with some of the stuff that Livefyre’s done over the years. Just as a professional coming in, what was it about Livefyre that attracted you? How do they get someone like you, I guess is the question? What did they do?
[00:11:48] Bruce Ableson: Well, I’ve been involved in a series of startups at that point that were doing one form or another of social applications for the web, whether they were conversation or curation. Livefyre, the company appealed to me because I really liked their vision. I joined after the last infamous South by party that they had, which was they rented a fire truck to drive around Austin before I joined. I missed that. They were a great company and they had a really good vision. The founder of the company, Jordan Kretchmer, had started it.
It was a very prototypical, Silicon Valley startup story where he started in the kitchen with two people, him and an engineer and built it really believing that they were making a conversation engine for the web that could be embedded anywhere. The difference being, I built Open Diary years before that as a community in a place that became this massive, thriving community, but it was all contained in one place. The vision of Livefyre was, well, we can now take that and put it anywhere, put it on pages where we can have conversation about anything.
Of course, that idea wasn’t new then. I’ve been at a couple other startups that were trying to execute that and do it as real time technology, and had crashed and burned. Especially then, and this is now six or seven years ago, six, doing things in real time where you’re delivering that comment stream to the screen. If somebody else posts on it from the other side of the world, you see that comment unfold in real time, you can reply. It’s functionality we take for granted today because you see it in Twitter, you see it at most platforms. The companies I’ve been at had tried to do that and couldn’t scale, it was really hard engineering problem.
I met with Livefyre’s CTO and engineering team and they showed me the technology, and I was really blown away by that. That was how I ended up with them. It was a really good run. The company was acquired a couple years ago and their technology was great. It was good company to work with.
[00:13:53] Patrick O’Keefe: What do you focus on at Adobe these days?
[00:13:55] Bruce Ableson: I do strategy with customers. I was working in solutions consulting, I was heading the Livefyre East team when we were acquired. That meant that I had a team here in New York that was customer success, sales and solutions engineering and customer support and product and they were all acquired and brought in to Adobe. I’ve been working with all those different groups. The Livefyre team joined Adobe and continue working with the product there. A lot of it was doing strategy and solutions type advising with customers that either came with Livefyre to Adobe or that were with Adobe and were interested in the kind of things that Livefyre could do.
[00:14:39] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking about Section 230 on the show quite a bit lately. Given your experience with platforms that host speech and you launched a site in the same decade that the CDA was written, similar to me. Also, with your experience in moderation, and the fact that, you like me, do you get political on your personal profiles, I was curious to hear your thoughts on that? What’s your take on threats to Section 230?
[00:15:06] Bruce Ableson: It’s a tough thing because– Well, I shouldn’t say it’s a tough thing because I’d love to think that’s black and white. Then people can either be decent on the internet or they cannot. If they’re not, then they’re bad actors but we all know it’s not that simple. One of the real challenges with Open Diary when we started, it was most of those free speech and community arguments that hadn’t been litigated yet. You hadn’t had people interacting with each other in a way that was public and visible where they were posting long-form content. Posting things like blog posts and talking about politics or talking about religion or sensitive subjects. Having other people come and tell them you’re wrong or you’re stupid or whatever.
With Open Diary, one of the first things we always did was we always have a rule that you have to respect other members. You’re not allowed to attack them in person. It’s a much higher bar of moderation then say Twitter or Facebook sets right now because I can go on Facebook and I can tell one of my Facebook friends that I think they’re dumb because they support somebody that I don’t in politics. Open Diary wouldn’t allow that because we had a higher bar for that, that meant that free speech arguments kind of came very front and center because then you would always have people who would say, you’re impinging on my free speech by not letting me say the thing I want to.
I’ve always been very steadfast about that, that this is a company or privately-owned property. We set the rules for an engagement here and the rules of how people interact with each other. It’s not the same as if you’re standing on a street corner in New York City, in open and public space. Then yes, there are free speech laws that apply to you there. To me, if you’re in a privately-owned or a company-owned space on the internet, then free speech has a big asterisk next to it.
I do think that getting back to Section 230, there’s challenges to this. There’s always going to be challenges to it. One of the problems or one of the things that makes that bigger is when you have a platform like Facebook, that basically becomes ubiquitous where you have a billion and a half people using it. Everybody you know uses it, it becomes like a public square. It’s closer to the oh, I’m standing on the street corner and shouting something than some of the networks or sites we built. Does that change how they should look at Section 230? I don’t think it does.
I think the current social networks, the massive ones, honestly have done a really poor job of controlling decency in their communities. I think we all see that every day. We see how badly people act on Twitter or that the kinds of things that get posted on Facebook or on Snapchat or on any of these other networks. Tumblr, which started out as a great idea just turned into this kind of cesspool of pornography because they let it. I believe really strongly that these networks – Facebook, in particular, Twitter also, they have huge resources. They could do a lot more to try and keep their communities clean and they don’t. They make some effort for it but they don’t make nearly as much of an effort as they should.
[00:18:19] Patrick O’Keefe: Where do you think the breakdown there is? You have worked with a lot of startups, worked with communities at scale. You’re in a major company now that works with social content. There’s the cynical side of it which is frankly the side that I tend to fall on. Which is that they say a lot of nice things. Their policies certainly read fine. You go read the Facebook guidelines and you go read the Twitter content policies or community guidelines. They read fine, like they read as certainly well-written documents.
Then, as they grow, they want to grow as fast as they can. They cast that aside and consider doing that for the sake of activity and then they get to a certain point and by that point, as you know, we all know, it’s far along the road to try to reverse course. They’ve taken the funding. They’ve gone public. They’ve done all these things. Now you’re at a juncture where we have this policy and it sounds fine but we haven’t implemented it. Now we’re throwing money at it and we’re employing Mechanical Turk or overseas moderators or people in India. People who maybe aren’t trained the best or don’t have the best standard of work or aren’t given adequate breaks and mental health because they have to see the worst of the web.
[00:19:28] Bruce Ableson: That’s right.
[00:19:30] Patrick O’Keefe: There’s that side of it. I guess the non-cynical side, I don’t even know what that is. I guess it’s like, they’re trying the best they can. I guess that’s maybe the non-cynical side. I don’t know where do you fall on that? Where do you think the breakdown is? Is it actually a problem they care about?
[00:19:44] Bruce Ableson: I don’t think there is a non-cynical side because I think the only way that they would care about it would be if it was affecting their bottom line and their revenues. At the end of the day, because of the kind of businesses that they are, Facebook is a perfect example. Their business is driven by controversy. The more controversial things that people post and share, the more clicks that they get, the more traffic that they drive and the more revenue that’s generated, it keeps people coming back and it keeps people engaged. There’s a whole problem there, and I’ve got all kind of opinions about an algorithm and had supported networks like that.
The other problem is and you referenced this just a second ago, but the other problem is you can’t go back 10 years later, with a billion plus people on a platform, and try to change the culture, you have to have that culture from the beginning, it’s something I’ve always been really specific about with Open Diary. From the beginning people understood the rules. We have very clear rules, that people agreed to when they signed up. They know if they break those rules, they’re going to get ejected, and the people and the community respect that.
They know that they can go there and not worry about somebody else attacking them, or somebody else insulting them because of their beliefs, and because of that, it’s a much more comfortable space.
Facebook has got a real problem right now because people hate it, it’s not that they hate Facebook, it’s like going on Facebook gives them a stomach-ache. I had the same thing through the elections cycle in 2016, and the two years since then, you go on Facebook and it’s your crazy uncle is posting stuff, and some of your friends are arguing with you about things that seem obvious to you, it gets to where it’s not fun because of that. They have a real problem I think because they can’t go back now and say, “Well, here no, no, no”, and they even announced some of that this week, where they were like, “We’re adding more moderators, and we’re changing how we enforce people interacting with each other,’ and it really is, it’s too late at this point.
I guess that all sounds very cynical, I guess [laughs] that’s all I follow, I would call it the realistic side, I guess not the cynical side.
[00:21:53] Patrick O’Keefe: Cynical is a negative way to cast it, as it is realistic. I have a community that’s 19 years old in May that I started and I still manage. KarateForums.com. We have a community right now, where people are just in general pretty awesome. They treat each other with respect, they talk about the martial arts. There are a lot of communities like that out there, that they had been around for a long time, that are pretty respectful that reached a certain point that was bigger but manageable, it’s like, how does that happen? You know what? The first five years, [laughs] I just laid it down. I laid down the law and I enforced it.
I had to start a community, and I have this tweet, I need to write, it’s basically a copy of a DM I sent someone, it’s one of the things that, moderate today on day one from the community you want 20 years.
[00:22:38] Bruce Ableson: That’s right.
[00:22:38] Patrick O’Keefe: Which means you know what? You get your first post from a member, that first post is bad, you delete it. [laughs] I don’t care about your first post, that you ever had, and you’re excited to have that first post. If it isn’t the content that you want? It just doesn’t matter, and it’s tough, it’s a tough business. I talk about this at work, in my day job and it’s a tough case to make when you get that activity, we need to make this person mad in a lot of cases and turn them away and depending on your communication, moderation isn’t punitive, it’s educational, that’s the approach most good people take in this space.
A post removed is an opportunity for us to be on the same page looking forward, get on in the same path, it’s not, “You did a bad thing, you’re an awful person.: Not to get sidetracked. I think you highlighted something that is really my biggest concern about Section 230 in 2019, is you mentioned Facebook, and their scale and should that change how we look at Section 230.
I actually think Facebook is the biggest threat to well-meaning, well managed online communities, because you don’t have to watch many Congressional hearings with the Alphabet CEO or any technology company or Zuckerberg to understand that lot of these people are not the people you want to have the pen in their hand, to write the legislation about the internet. Yet, when they write that legislation, it’s going to be targeted at Facebook and Twitter and it’s going to be written in a way that includes all of us and will impact the next Open Diary, the next online community, that someone just wants to launch because they love that thing and they want that thing, and they’re going to do the best they can.
They’re going to manage it, moderate it like you did, like so many online communities do, one person with volunteers, or a couple of people really passionate, and they’re not going to carve out, the exclusion for the community that let’s say, worth less than one billion. $1 billion or less carve out let’s say. It’s going to affect, it could theoretically, that’s my biggest concern, I think Facebook could be the biggest threat to us, because if they trigger legislation, that gets written and targets everyone, that’s how we lose Section 230, that’s how it gets weakened, and that’s how we can no longer effectively moderate the community. We take the tool away from the people who’re doing the right thing because Facebook is so big that they have essentially– I’m not saying they’ve given up, I’m sure there’s good people, they’re trying their best but because they haven’t done what they should.
[00:25:03] Bruce Ableson: Right. I totally agree with that. Facebook is absolutely the elephant in the room. Twitter is the network that politicians see. Twitter’s a special case, because in the real world with real humans there aren’t that many people who participate or interact with Twitter other than journalists and people in our business and politicians, but because it’s journalists and politicians, it overemphasizes the impact on how the political world thinks about it. Facebook, absolutely, they think about first because that’s where all their constituents are.
They still think of Facebook as, “That’s where my average American voter is having their online experience.” I fear the same thing. I fear that the legislative pen will swing too far in the other direction and create legislation that’s made to bring those communities into line and make them better and safer or whatever, and it will make real good communities where people can interact with each other with respect, will make their lives harder or make their jobs harder. We’ll see.
[00:26:58] Patrick O’Keefe: I just don’t need the Steve Kings of the world telling me how to manage an online community, [chuckles] I just don’t need that. The thing that worries me most is Ron Wyden sounded the alarm recently, one of the co-authors of Section 230 about how these platforms need to change, or it could get too far.
[00:27:18] Bruce Ableson: Watching Steve King look at his iPhone and asking Zuck why when he Googled stuff, he got bad results on his name. That is just like such a bad theater. It’s hilarious. It makes me want to cry when you see that. Those are the people who have legislation in their hands at this point.
[00:27:36] Patrick O’Keefe: Scary.
[00:27:36] Bruce Ableson: Yes. It is scary in a lot of ways.
[00:27:39] Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned algorithms, and you recently said on Twitter, “Wouldn’t it be a better online world if feed-controlling algorithms were eliminated? By surrendering control of the experience to algorithms, Facebook and other huge players are ruining the online community experience.” Talk about that little bit.
[00:27:55] Bruce Ableson: I love having my tweets thrown back at me.
[00:27:59] Patrick O’Keefe: I’ll give you the opportunity to expand beyond the 280 at this point. Right?
[00:28:02] Bruce Ableson: Yes. On 280. I appreciate that, because it is something I feel really passionately about. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram also to the same extent but Facebook in particular, they’re all modifying the feed of what they put in front of us. There’s an algorithm that is dictating what the content is that I see as the user. People know this. It’s well known about Facebook, even by regular users that, “Hey, I don’t see every post that each one of my friends put up and I don’t see them in the order that they post them.” I can’t scroll through my feed and see the last hour of posts from every one of my friends in the last hour.
My Twitter feed’s the same way. I tweeted something this afternoon, where there were two tweets next to each other on my feed and I was tweeting it for different reason, because it was funny, there was a joke in there. When I looked at the screenshot afterward, one of the tweets was 33 minutes old and one of them was three minutes old. Here they were right next to each other in my feed. We all know especially those of us who are in the business, that of course, it’s not organized by recency and Twitter has put in a way to let you do that now with the sparkle button at the top.
Those algorithms are all gamed specifically to increasing advertising revenue. That’s their sole purpose in life, is to get content and sponsored posts in front of you that you might click on, and get them in front of you at a time and in a place where you’re likely to click on it. They’re gaming the experience against the users to make money.
When I started Open Diary we were doing, it was just banner ads and side rail ads and pop ups, as horrible as that was. There wasn’t any intelligence to it. The only intelligence was when Google came in to the game with AdSense and started reading the context of the page on serving ads that were related to words and phrases that they were finding. That was really the first step. That was really cool, because at least for a blogging site, it was cool because somebody would post an entry about going canoeing and you’d be getting ads about camping next to it. It felt not bad but now, today, it feels bad.
The feed is rearranged, it’s restructured, things are hidden, things are promoted, things are pushed, just to drive the click rate up and generate revenue. That really leads to what I said before, which is platforms like Facebook and Twitter thrive on controversy now. They thrive on content that people are going to share, or that’s going to go viral.
In the last two years, and we’ve all seen this since 2016, that content a lot of ways has been political. That led directly to people developing content, developing sites that were fake to generate news articles to post them to Facebook and they didn’t care whether it was accurate or not. All they cared was that it was inflammatory enough to get somebody to click on it in the Facebook feed and Facebook seeing that behavior would push that post harder because it’s getting a lot of clicks, they know they’re delivering traffic back to the company that’s serving that piece of content.
It became this horrible self-feeding mechanism where untrue or inflammatory content was boosted and boosted and boosted. They haven’t really done a lot to fix that since then. They obviously know about it and they’ve made a bunch of pseudo moves to fix it but I don’t think it’ll ever be perfect as long as it’s driven by money that’s connected to click rate. The bottom line is that people being what they are, they love the controversial story or they love the story that lines up with their beliefs in a way that reinforces how they feel about something and they’re going to click on that whether it’s true or not.
[00:31:50] Patrick O’Keefe: I feel like we’ve used the word scary and frightened and fear in this episode a few times already, but one of the truly scary things– There was a great Twitter thread recently and it’s not that we don’t know that this is happening but it was laid out really well and it was about– I’m sure this is wrong. It’s about a kid who shot himself or shot his brother or somebody died. The person looked at his history of YouTube likes.
[00:32:15] Bruce Ableson: Yes, I read that whole thread.
[00:32:16] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. He found that what had started innocuously enough had led to– Again, personal responsibility, lots of different factors, upbringing, all these things, but it clearly illustrated a radicalization of this kid. I think we all see this in how we use social networks. I love YouTube as a consumer of content. There’s a lot of content to consume on there that I really enjoy, and there’s a lot of creators that are creating amazing stuff but if I watch one video from I don’t know random nutjob McGee, because someone linked me to it or because I moderate communities so that my job is basically going to every link and going into the areas that no one wants to go into and say, “If I don’t look at this, no one else is going to.”
If I look at one link, and I’m logged into my account or even if I’m not, I don’t have to be logged in. I’m not logged into my tablet, my tablet will feed me the same stuff over and over again. I will be fed videos that are directly related to that video. I want to say forever but obviously it’s not forever, but for a while, and they’ll continue sending me down that rabbit hole of, “You know what? These people are out to get me and this video also says these people are out to get me and these people agree. Oh my gosh, those people are now killing people and these people are a threat to me. They want to eradicate me. I need to go take action.” These kids are getting radicalized this way. It’s really, really frightening.
[00:33:41] Bruce Ableson: Yes, it’s absolutely true. Like you said there, I’m sure a lot of other circumstances involved in that story but when you read that timeline, you could really see how that happened. YouTube is as you said particularly bad about this because they really just focus and focus and focus more and more and you start out with, hey, if you go to the YouTube main page on an incognito browser window and get the generic YouTube experience, it’s fine but it very quickly can turn into drilling down, like you said to more and more radical views, or more and more conspiracy theories, or whatever you show intent for, whatever the thing is.
If you’re watching cat videos, you’re going to get cat videos endlessly, and that’s awesome but if you’re watching conspiracy theory videos, they just continue to get worse and worse and Facebook’s the same way. They’re advertising and feed algorithms continue to refine as they learn, or they think they learn about you and they continue to focus what they’re serving you. Each of those things feeds into the next and it becomes this circular mechanism where the user or the reader is reading and reacting to something and they’re fed something that’s 10% more that and they react to that. Then they’re fed something that’s 10% more that thing and they react to it and it just becomes a cycle until you end up at way down the rabbit hole like you said.
It’s another reason I feel like algorithms are doing us harm. They’re doing the social world harm and they really are created for engagement and to get you to click and to make money. YouTube’s the same way, they want to keep serving you videos that you want to watch because it keeps you on the site longer, and you’ll ingest more video ads.
[00:35:23] Patrick O’Keefe: I feel two things. First of all, I think I said I love YouTube. I love content on YouTube. I feel like that should make that differentiation, and also, I almost feel like saying it’s about money is… that’s the kind way to say it. I think if you go the dark side the goal is to addict you in some cases. There is social science being used to addict you to these platforms.
[00:35:41] Bruce Ableson: Yes.
[00:35:42] Patrick O’Keefe: If you really take it down that dark path like that is what’s happening with a lot of these platforms, and it can get pretty dark. Just to be clear though when you talk about algorithms, getting rid of algorithms, are you advocating for a chronological view or some other alternative?
[00:35:55] Bruce Ableson: Well, I am partly that and chronological view is not the right thing for everything. I love my Twitter feed to be chronological, but a feed can be organized around interests. It can be organized around any number of things. It doesn’t have to be time-based and be recency, but what I want is for it to be the user’s choice. It should be up to the use; how they decide to organize the content that they’re looking at, how they want to see it and any time that you introduce an algorithm that’s going to adjust that feed to serve sponsored content or ads into it, you break out which is why, then it doesn’t. Absolutely is not the solution to everything in the world, the answer for every single thing.
I do think that there’s room for subscription models in social networks and in communities. Small payment subscriptions, when you’re delivering a really good user experience that’s valuable to that user. Users are willing to chip in and pay for that experience and not have their datamined and resold and not be served ads or sponsored content that they don’t want to see all the time.
I think there is a really solid argument to be made to users that subscriptions can work and to investors and to businesses. The number one problem with that is people say we all grew up with free communities and free social sites and the internet is free, and yes, the internet has been free for the last 20 years. The internet is broken because it’s been free. I think subscription is one way out of that.
[00:37:24] Patrick O’Keefe: To me, it sounds like you’re arguing for– Again, I hate to use this word but intentionality. You’re arguing for people to have a little bit more choice and not to be simply opted in to an experience that will go against their own interests. Do this thing, but unlike what everyone, and I say everyone – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram all these platforms – when they do these things they never seem to ask. They never seem to say, “We’re going to do this thing, do you want it?” It’s just here it is, and then maybe outcry leads them to introduce a hidden setting somewhere, that’s like deep in the settings page that if you Google, you can find a guide to reaching that setting.
[00:38:03] Bruce Ableson: You can maybe turn that off, maybe.
[00:38:05] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, but they don’t really want you to know it’s there.
[00:38:07] Bruce Ableson: Now, somewhere deep buried in their terms of service you agreed to let them do that. Of course, nobody reads terms of service and you don’t know that until it happens.
[00:38:17] Patrick O’Keefe: I want to talk about subscriptions.
[00:38:19] Bruce Ableson: Okay.
[00:38:19] Patrick O’Keefe: You just touched on it and it’s something you said in our pre-show questionnaire. “I am a very strong believer in building community from the ground up based on rules that respect the users first and demand they respect each other. This is one of the reasons I believe that subscription models are a valid choice for the communities of the future.”
You said on Twitter that subscriptions are the future for social in a lot of cases. I’d like to drill down on that a little bit. Subscription models, how do they encourage users to respect one another and why in your experience, what has shown you that they are the future for a lot of communities, in your view?
[00:38:57] Bruce Ableson: Yes, in addition to solving the problem of this inflammatory content and advertising and sharing thing that we’ve been talking about, having the person put a stake into the community raises their feeling of responsibility for it. It sounds silly or even primitive but what we find is if somebody is paying $2 or $3 a month to participate in this thing, they value it a lot more highly than something they use for free.
We take I think an interesting stance that ties into that and on anonymity and whether or not you use your real identity in communities now because one of the problems with Facebook I think is that everyone there is using their real names, and you are interacting with your friends and your neighbors and your co-workers and people you know and they know you. That takes away a lot of the original beauty of what social communities and social networks were supposed to be which was that they would let you connect with other people who might be different from you and communicate with them at a deeper level, share things maybe that you wouldn’t share with your mom or your co-worker, share things and talk about things that maybe are really meaningful to you, but are not something that you would talk about in the real world.
Having subscriptions lets you have a model where people can post anonymously. Meaning, they can use a handle or username that is not their real name but the business itself has their credit card and knows who they are. That holds the user to a certain standard of behavior, at least in their minds it does. They know that their subscription can be terminated if they’re a bad actor. I also believe in the warnings. All moderation is not black and white. There are always misunderstandings. We would never eject somebody and cancel subscription unless it was a really obvious bad violation but most of the time there’s a conversation or a set of warnings that you’ll have with the user first before you do that but the user knowing that their subscription would be canceled. Even if it’s only $3, they lose their $3 for the month and they can’t re-subscribe with that credit card, really, really, and I’ve been surprised by how much but really reduces moderation problems, like an amazing amount.
We can have thousands of people interacting with each other in a subscription-based community and we might have one or two moderation problems one maybe a week or a couple of months. Part of that is what we talked about before where it’s like, you start a community and people know the rules and they know that they’re supposed to respect each other from the beginning and everybody in the community understands that. I think the subscription piece is really important for that too.
[00:41:55] Patrick O’Keefe: Do you think that places an odd balance of power toward the organization that holds their credit cards? Like, let’s say Facebook was anonymous right now and had all our credit card information, of course, they wouldn’t have grown the same way. They might have grown better, they might be a better place especially if they actually moderated but people are so, I don’t want to say paranoid, it’s correctly cognizant of the fact that a ton of companies constantly have data breaches, right?
[00:42:20] Bruce Ableson: No, and they absolutely should be.
[00:42:22] Patrick O’Keefe: Is there something to that thought or is it– I don’t know is it not that it’s fully anonymity? Obviously, it’s pseudonymity, it’s a goofy term [chuckles] but I don’t know, I’m sure you get where I’m going with this. What’s your thought?
[00:42:36] Bruce Ableson: Obviously, we would never advocate in any way using credit card numbers, in any other way than is just a way to hold somebody’s subscription but the point you make is absolutely right about there’s data breaches everywhere that’s why it’s something you can only do from a standpoint of being really secure. We use Stripe for credit card payments because we consider them to be one of the most secure. We don’t actually hold any of that information, Stripe holds it for us and processes it and we just receive subscription information back and forth.
To me, it’s really important to do the absolute best you can to be secure with how you handle people’s cards. All that being said, everybody knows that data breaches happen. It’s horrible it happens. I’ve had my American Express card has been changed like four times in the last three years because of being exposed in different ways. That happens to all of us which is terrible but we all still give our credit card numbers to eBay and to Amazon and to all of the sites that we trust.
I think for a site owner, it’s to try to be the most trustworthy that you can and do your best to be as secure and portray that. That’s something that you’ve got to be very forward about with your users because it’s super important.
The other thing about it is that it turns the business model on its head in a good way because if you’re running Facebook, if your Facebook’s board or your Zuckerberg, when you’re running Facebook, your number one goal is to increase ad revenues, it’s to increase the revenues that are being generated through ads and content that’s served in through search and everything else. Same thing if you’re in Twitter, same thing if you’re in Instagram, it’s all about how do you make more ad revenue.
In a subscription model, your business model you’ve got to increase revenue but the way that you increase revenue is by serving the user and creating a user experience that people like so much that they’re happy to pay for it and that they put value in it. It turns it on its head in the way that our business is then serving the user first and not serving something else, a third party first.
[00:44:50] Patrick O’Keefe: I think in a lot of ways when I hear this argument there’s the business model side, there’s the moderation behavioral side and dealing with cutting off a lot of the simple things because as you said, if you make them put a little skin in the game, it tends to cut off a lot of bad actors but it’s almost to me an argument against– A lot of people don’t want to be Facebook, don’t want to be Twitter, don’t want to be massive, want to be big, want to be meaningful, want to have good culture and want to build something that you can be proud of. It’s an argument for slower build.
We sometimes, especially in community, we think that quicker is universally better when it comes to getting the user from point A to contributing. Once upon a time, forums back in the day had a registration form that had 20 fields. I ran phpBB 1, UBB was right there, they had like 20 registration fields, they ask for all this stuff, you didn’t have to fill it out but it wasn’t required but it was still there and you had to scroll past it so people whittled that down. It’s to the point where all you do is enter an email and then that generates the email, you click the link, you create a password, that’s all you got. The user name, email, nothing else. You want to get people in as soon as possible, people in some cases don’t even want to do the email confirmation anymore at the start. They want to do that later down in the drip marketing campaign.
You can get them into the community now, have them posting now, two weeks from now, you send the drip marketing email, they click the link in there, you’re confirmed, that’s what they want to do, they want to get you there right away. I have sometimes made the case for that not being the best route because obstacles slowing people down, call it what you want. Creating a barrier to entry in some cases can actually be really beneficial for a community.
When I hear this, there’s different benefits, different business models as you said, independence from ad networks which frankly can serve up a lot of bad content or things that would harm someone’s computer. All those issues, security issues, privacy issues and so on. There’s also the issue of, to use another goofy term, small-batch community, the idea that for putting culture ahead of simple activity and we’re making people pre-qualify to join our community and I think there’s a lot of value there.
[00:46:59] Bruce Ableson: Yes, I agree with that and I think it’s okay to have a model where you can let people try it out for free for a very limited time. As soon as you have a subscription, you’re automatically accepting that you’re not going to have that kind of growth. I think that’s okay, but in terms of really slowing people down, I like how you put that because slowing people down also reduces problems in the community because what it eliminates or ejects are the people who come by and a drive by where we used to back in Open Diary, 15 and 20 years ago, we call them snipers. The person who would enter the community and make one post or make one vile comment and leave just to piss somebody off or just to make their point.
That kind of traffic, if you’re running an ad-based model, okay, great, you got another question or two, but in a real community, it’s not helping you, you’re better off without it anyways.
[00:47:57] Patrick O’Keefe: Bruce, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today.
[00:48:02] Bruce Ableson: Me, too. It’s great being on. I really enjoyed it.
[00:48:06] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Bruce Ableson, director of enablement and evangelism at Adobe. Follow Bruce on Twitter @bruceableson. Ableson is A-B-L-E-S-O-N. 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 Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. We’ll see you soon.
If you have any thoughts on this episode that you’d like to share, please leave me a comment, send me an email or a tweet. If you enjoy the show, we would be so grateful if you spread the word and supported Community Signal on Patreon.