Not this time. The 2016 presidential election – MetaFilter’s fifth – has created a situation where, six months after the election, they are still dealing with far more political discussion than they would normally be seeing. For a community that isn’t focused on politics, this is an incredible burden on moderators and has “measurably affected both the distribution and tone of discussion,” according to owner Josh Millard.
It has become the election year that will not end.
We also discuss:
- MetaFilter’s recent ownership transfer from Matt Haughey to Josh
- Member suicide deaths and the impact they have had on the community
- How MetaFilter has addressed casual sexism, racism and transphobia
Our Podcast is Made Possible By…
If you enjoy our show, please know that it’s only possible with the generous support of our sponsor: Higher Logic.
“‘How did this happen? How did we not know? Is there something we could have done?’ [Suicide in an online community] can leave people rethinking their assumptions about the place as a community. You stop and think, ‘This person, who was a long time contributor here, it turns out that they were suffering. They were really not doing well, and we didn’t know.’ Or maybe, there were signs. [They left] comments that they were maybe struggling a lot lately, but we didn’t really know to do something. We guessed that something was up, and then this happened. That can be really challenging. That can be really emotionally devastating to find yourself second-guessing your relationship with that person.” -@joshmillard
“As much as we’ve been getting steadily better on [casual sexism and misogyny at MetaFilter], in general, it has remained an incremental process because you have to get people on board. You have to set that expectation, you have to do education. You have to teach people to question things that they had taken for granted previously and that includes things like, who is impacted when you’re just joking? Who actually takes the brunt of your disinclination to re-examine the stuff that you learned in middle school? It’s very step-by-step. Every once in a while it feels a little three steps forward, two steps back, because you can’t teach everybody and new people join and some people come out of the woodwork and something sets someone off. Even when people are trying, it’s really easy when you’re dealing with discussions of isms, in general, for someone to have a fairly defensive reaction to being told that they’re doing something, even if their intent is reasonably good, even if they aren’t a real jerk.” -@joshmillard
“The last thing we want [at MetaFilter] is to say, ‘Good enough. We’re pretty not sexist, we’re pretty not racist. Everybody just chill. I think we found a good compromise.’ It’s going to keep being a thing. It’s going to be an ongoing, difficult effort because that’s how improving at this stuff works.” -@joshmillard
About Josh Millard
Josh Millard is an artist, musician, programmer and generalized weird-creative-stuff-maker from Portland, OR. Josh is the owner and manager of the 18-year-old web community MetaFilter, where he’s worked for the last ten years as a community moderator.
- Sponsor: Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers
- Josh’s website
- MetaFilter, an 18-year-old online community, where Josh is owner and manager
- Patrick’s South by Southwest 2018 proposal, based partially on past episodes of the show about IMDb, closing communities and Photobucket’s hotlinking change
- Community Signal episode with Matt Haughey, MetaFilter founder, where we discussed how he stepped away from the community
- Community Signal episode with Jessamyn West, former director of operations at MetaFilter, where she talked about how MetaFilter could have dealt with LGBT and gender issues better than they did
- “mathowie Transfers Ownership of MetaFilter to cortex” by Josh about MetaFilter’s recent ownership transfer
- “Sixteen Years” by Matt Haughey, about his decision to move on from the day-to-day management of the community, passing the baton to Josh
- LobsterMitten, a MetaFilter staff member
- MetaTalk, a section on MetaFilter where members discuss site-related topics
- “Where I’m Off To” by Jessamyn West, about her decision to leave the MetaFilter staff
- “The Road Ahead” by Jessamyn West, also about her exist from the staff
- “Help Build MetaFilter’s Savings” by Josh, asking the community to contribute financially to MetaFilter’s future. The comments of this post include criticism of the financial side of the MetaFilter ownership transfer
- “holdkris99’s Death Was a Hoax” by Josh, about the fake suicide that occured on MetaFilter years ago
- “A Member of Your Online Community Lies About Committing Suicide: What Do You Do?” by Patrick
- “RIP Bill Zeller” by Matt Haughey, about the suicide of MetaFilter member null terminated
- Wikipedia page for Eternal September, which we discussed on the Community Signal episode with Howard Rheingold
- FanFare, a section of MetaFilter for entertainment discussions
- Josh on Twitter
- Josh’s paintings
- Josh’s retro game programming work
[00:00:04] Speaker: You’re listening to Community Signal. The podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers. Tweet as you listen using #communitysignal. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:24] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello. Thank you for making Community Signal a part of your day. On this episode, we’re talking with Josh Millard who recently became the owner of long running online community MetaFilter. We discuss the ownership transition, how MetaFilter tackled casual sexism, racism, and transphobia, and the impact on online communities of the seemingly never-ending 2016 election season.
Community voting for presentations for the 2018 South by Southwest Interactive conference close on August 25th. My idea, “Build a Community for 18 Years, Kill it in Two Weeks”, is one of nearly 4,200. I would guess that less than 10% will make the cut. If you think the idea’s worth having at the event, I would greatly appreciate your vote. I’ll include a link in the show notes on communitysignal.com.
Community Signal is on Patreon. If you enjoy the show, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle for details. A huge thank you to Luke Zimmer, Carol Benovic-Bradley, and Rachel Medanic for being among the show’s supporters.
One last note before we get started. There is some profanity on this episode of the show, maybe a dozen times. If that’s bothersome at all, just a fair warning.
Josh Millard is an artist-musician, programmer, and generalized weird, creative stuff maker from Portland, Oregon. He is the owner and manager of the 18 year old web community MetaFilter, where he’s worked for the last 10 years as a community moderator. Josh, welcome to the program.
[00:01:40] Josh Millard: Hey, thanks for having me.
[00:01:41] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a pleasure. I’ve had Matt Haughey, MetaFilter founder. I’ve had Jessamyn West, former director of operations. Having our third guest from [laughs] MetaFilter on the show and it’s always good conversation.
[00:01:51] Josh Millard: Hitting the trifecta.
[00:01:52] Patrick O’Keefe: There you go, the trifecta. As of July 31st, after 18 years, MetaFilter has a new owner and that owner is you. Congratulations.
[00:02:00] Josh Millard: Thank you. Thank you very much.
[00:02:02] Patrick O’Keefe: You’ve been running this site for a couple years as Matt stepped away from it in 2015. I had Matt on the show in November. We talked about what that transfer of power looked like and felt like from his side, how he slowly came to the realization that he was burnt-out and had to do something about it. I’d like to hear your side of the transition. Was it out of the blue? Was there a build up? Was it clear that Matt was going in another direction? What did it feel like from your end?
[00:02:28] Josh Millard: It’s interesting because at the time when Matt actually talked about stepping away, it was a little bit out of the blue, but also not surprising. I think he talked about this, that he had basically been pretty burnt-out, working with him for the years leading after that, that was clear to everybody else on the team, too. He was palpably not excited about – the way he had been in years passed – and he’d been doing it for a long time. It was a little bit of an eye-opener when he was, “I got this job and maybe I’m going to go”.
At the same time, I was, “This seems like a pretty good situation all around.” He could actually do something he felt energized about and we could re-focus some of our site resources on– Basically, staff were more all-in on the MetaFilter process. It was definitely a good change. I think a mutually welcome one when it happened. It’s hard to say.
Two and a half years ago, the change, I’m sure, felt more significant than it does in retrospect. MetaFilter’s always operated as such a team effort, that as momentous as a site founder stepping away and handing off the control of the helm sounds like as a narrative, practically, for us, it was, “We’re going to have a slightly different mix-up of people doing the stuff we’re already doing everyday.”
It was a very smooth thing because there weren’t seismic things attached to going elsewhere. We basically brought LobsterMitten, who had previously been working full-time, she was able to come back on full-time and then we just kept going. The past two and a half years since then has felt very steady state because we already had years of established practice, years of moderation sensibility and team dynamic.
It was actually a pretty mild thing, in a sense, compared to how it might sound. I think that just reflects the nature of MetaFilter’s structure and how community-driven the whole site is, how straightforward the team management was, that we didn’t have to up-end everything to change up staffing. We just said, “This is going to be slightly different now, but we’re going to keep on keeping on”.
[00:04:22] Patrick O’Keefe: The whole site founder relationship is really interesting. I’ve been in that role before. I am in that role with a community that I manage. I’ve been, gosh, 16 years now. [laughs] More than 16 years. I’ve had others that I ran for more than a decade. He mentioned this during our conversation, but he was talking to someone. They said, “How long do you think members think you’ll run this site?”, and he said, “I guess forever or right until I die”.
[00:04:48] Josh Millard: [laughs]
[00:04:48] Patrick O’Keefe: One side is it’s always been with this person. This person has always been here. They’re like the furniture, more or less. “This person’s here. We expect them to be here”. Of course, there’s a reality also side of that where some people have to think, “Obviously, you can’t be here forever, things happen, things change.” Was there a sense there that it’s out of the blue because it’s just always been with Matt, I can’t see it not being with Matt?
[00:05:14] Josh Millard: It’s interesting. I would say, it honestly wasn’t a surprise, I think, for anybody on the actual MetaFilter staff. We all were working with Matt and had a sense of where he was. The sense that he was looking for change and we knew he’d been trying to find something that would work out well for him and for the site and allow him to do something else for a number years. He talked a little bit on the site, as well, on MetaTalk. For us, the timing was the only thing that was a surprise, the fact that this is what it was happening, that was the only thing that was a surprise. The fact that he was moving away was not shocking.
It’s funny, because a thing about the people who work at MetaFilter is Matt is unique in being the only one who didn’t really get a chance to decide whether or not he was going to work at MetaFilter in the first place? Everyone else who’s been hired on, came from within the community and was excited about the site and had seen moderation in action. When they were offered the job, they went into it with eyes open. Matt, on the other hand, just accidentally founded this thing that turned into [laughs] this life consuming thing.
In that sense, despite being the guy who founded it and being responsible in some very, obviously, serious ways for setting it up and setting the tone and defining the path it took, he was probably also the person least inclined to actually be working [laughs] at MetaFilter, which I think is part of what came out a decade on and started wearing down on him. He didn’t really like dealing with some of the moderation stuff, he really didn’t like dealing with the stress of some of the community interactions. Him moving away made sense there, in a way that everybody else on the team–
I’m not going to claim that everybody is going to stay there forever, I don’t know if I will but if you asked me the same question that you talked about people asking Matt, “How long are you going to be running MetaFilter?”, my answer would be the same, is, “I don’t know, maybe forever.” I think with a little bit more actual enthusiasm, because I’ve had time to think about that and say, “Is this something that really suits me?”, and I think it really does. That helps because it can be a weird job, it can be a tiring thing after enough years.
A decade on, I’m looking at and saying, “I know a lot of things about this job that are frustrating or annoying or difficult or potentially challenging that I didn’t really know when I started working there, even if I had a basic idea of what I was getting into.” I look at that decade on, it’s, “I know all that stuff but this is still basically my dream job, this is still what I want to be doing and what I want to keep doing as long as it’s doable.”
[00:07:29] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s funny to talk about. It’s a fun job for people who were hired onto MetaFilter, where I can see and I’ve had waves and even though we might put on a good face, staff can tell. A staff can tell when you are up or down, it comes in waves, human like anyone else. In your case, it’s funny that I think of Matt. It becomes a duty, almost, when you run a community this long. [laughs] It’s not just a job, it’s a duty, “I’m there.” Was it always going to be you? When Matt thinks of stepping away, is it as simple as were you the right hand person, the longest term moderator, was it pretty clear that it would be you that would be handed the baton so to speak?
[00:08:06] Josh Millard: I think, in the specific timing, in the specific circumstances, it’s not surprising that it’s me. No one on the team, I think, really had any objection about that since I’ve been doing the day-to-day for the last two and a half years and that’s been working out pretty well. We all have a pretty good working relationship.
[00:08:21] Patrick O’Keefe: Going back to the two and a half years, when Matt actually stepped away, you were the longest term most senior person?
[00:08:27] Josh Millard: At the time, yes. That made sense at the time, as well. It’s funny because, honestly, if you rewind five years and look at the financial crisis we went through in the early 2010s and how things played out there, I think I could have played out very differently circumstantially, if a couple things had changed. Honestly, I would not of been at all surprised by an alternate history in which Jessamyn was in the position that I’m in. She’s had a huge impact on the side, a huge investment in it.
She decided, at the time, to just step away and I don’t think she was in any way obliged to make that decision. She just decided to do that and that was, honestly, really big of her and her making the decision where she could have pushed in the other direction on it, I think, it’s complicated. Going back and trying to sort out that history, I don’t think there’s anything that says, “Obviously, it’s cortex versus Jessamyn.”
The other folks on the team, there’s so much invested over time by the team members. We don’t have a lot of turnover, we never had to really let anybody go. It’s been 18 years now that speaks to a very tight-knit, very intimate, as much as possible, egalitarian team that we have where I would trust literally anyone on the staff to take over the duties of MetaFilter, if it came down to that. I don’t think it’s an inevitability thing.
[00:09:36] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s just a matter of when it happened.
[00:09:37] Josh Millard: It’s when it happened, what the circumstances were. It made sense for it to be me but I don’t think it’s because I’m uniquely capable. It’s just because that’s the way the dominoes fell at the time.
[00:09:47] Patrick O’Keefe: The transaction here is interesting and you posted a long announcement about it and walk the community through it. Matt essentially sold MetaFilter to you in a sense but not in the sense that you gave him money or he went out and tried to find the highest bidder but that, as you said in your announcement, “He leaves with a final withdrawal of money in exchange for giving up all ownership at the site,” but that you “worked out a compromise with Matt that leaves us with a reasonable basic buffer of savings to work with.”
I take this to mean that Matt took a percentage of MetaFilter’s cash reserves, feel free to correct me. There was some criticism in the community about this and I’d like you to just walk me through that entanglement of it, the financial side of it.
[00:10:32] Josh Millard: [laughs] One of the things I said in the discussion with the community, because it was, as you say, it was big point of discussion and a certain amount of concern and conflict about it. There are some details that I just can’t get into publicly. It was a negotiation with Matt based on the specific circumstances we were in and mostly me wanting to find a good way for it to work out reasonably well for everybody.
Part of that was making sure MetaFilters still had some savings. Part of that was making sure Matt was able to get away from what had increasingly been a burden from a distance instead of something that he even had an emotional investment in. He retained all that ownership and liability without spending any time on the site because he was working somewhere else and not dealing with MetaFilter.
That’s a strain, absentee situation for him to be stuck in. It’s weird for me as someone working for him, but also running the business. It’s really just a situation where it was becoming more and more clear Matt needed to get out from under it. This was about the best option we had. It’d be one thing if I were looking to make a buck off MetaFilter and had some independent wealth to leverage a buyout or something, but neither those [laughs] are true.
I wouldn’t have been able to afford if I wanted to and I wouldn’t want to approach it as a money-making venture in the first place. I’m glad that I work for MetaFilter and I pay myself a healthy paycheck. I pay the team as well as I can, benefits where we can. The goal with MetaFilter, is really just to keep that going. To keep the server up, keep it staffed well enough to maintain the level of moderation we’ve established over the last 18 years.
Everything else is really just secondary. It’s a weird situation because it creates a need to operate in a corporate context, a corporate legal context that doesn’t really fit MetaFilter very well. One of the things we talked about a bunch was whether it makes sense to actually change the site structure to a non-profit which turned out legally not to make sense for us right now.
The idea of operating with the continuity of the business in mind, rather than trying to find ways to extract yearly dividends or pull profit out of it, falls more to that idea of we’re just trying to keep this organization going and achieve our goal of keeping this community up and running, rather than looking for a buyout or a potential investment income or something like that. Basically, it’s a [laughs] strange situation and it’s been really odd to navigate in a way that it felt like a workable compromise.
I think it doesn’t make contextual sense for people who are looking at it more from the strictly business perspective because it doesn’t really look like good business at any direction. Matt could’ve gotten a lot of money for selling the site as a mercenary maneuver to just get out and get a bunch of money. He did not take that money when he left; we’re still able to operate without having to go into debt or find investment or anything like that.
The community has been supporting us through fundraising, which makes a lot of this possible. We ended up in a situation where we muddled through to a compromise that is unusual. It’s just a weird situation but it’s a weird situation that feels like a good outcome in the end. That’s a very MetaFilter [laughs] way to end up dealing with something. It’s a pretty idiosyncratic site. The fact that we ended up with this idiosyncratic transfer of ownership, it’s a–
[00:13:49] Patrick O’Keefe: Because there’s a lot of ways it could’ve gone, right? Just reading through comments on the community, there’s some people who feel like they donated this money and this is not what they donated it for. There are the people who say that again, Matt invested [laughs] a chunk of his life into MetaFilter, and it’s not that he took some money for that investment of time, is understandable. It could’ve gone the way that you said. He could’ve sold it out, certainly, to someone. He could’ve done that years ago, too. I had a community that I could’ve sold to probably web hosting companies but I felt that they would all be terrible. I didn’t do that. [laughs]
[00:14:25] Josh Millard: Exactly.
[00:14:25] Patrick O’Keefe: That’s where I could’ve got the money. I did something else. It’s tough because usually when a website is purchased, right, or if something like this is purchased, there’s this expectation that there’s going to be an infusion of cash or investment into the community. [laughs]
This transfer, speaking for you, Josh, not Matt or anything else, no other circumstances, puts you in a weird position, too, where not only are you the new owner of something, [laughs] but the infusion of cash isn’t there. Now, you’re immediately asking for donations to help keep this great thing-
[00:14:53] Josh Millard: [laughs]
[00:14:53] Patrick O’Keefe: -going, right? That’s a tough spot, isn’t it?
[00:14:56] Josh Millard: It’s an odd spot to be in and it ties into some of the oddness of the transaction itself but it’s good enough for me. I’ve said before, I would basically be working on MetaFilter for free in my spare time while working some other job if that’s what was required to otherwise keep the community going. Who knows what is going to happen in five years or 10 years. That could turn out to be the way things go in the far future. Maybe the ad economy will fundamentally disappear or something like that but that’s okay. That’s where I am emotionally with it.
My long-term goal is not to have MetaFilter be something that brings up dollar signs, it’s just something that I want to keep going as an idea, as a community, as an ethos that just perpetuates itself in practice. I don’t want to be flippant about it, but most of my feeling about it is, I don’t give a shit about all of that stuff. My goal was, MetaFilter keeps going and now, MetaFilter keeps going. Good enough for now. We’ll just keep moving forward.
[00:15:55] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s take a pause here to talk about our excellent sponsor, Higher Logic. Higher Logic is the community platform for community managers with over 25 million engaged users in more than 200,000 communities. Organizations worldwide use Higher Logic to bring like-minded people together by giving their community a home where they can meet, share ideas and stay connected. The platform’s granular permissions and powerful tools, including automated workflows and consolidated email digests, empower users to create their own interest-based communities, schedule and manage events, and participate in volunteer and mentoring programs. Tap into the power your community can generate for you. Higher Logic, all together.
You told me that, “The two things you think you found most challenging as a community,” meaning MetaFilter, “are violations of trust and the loss of community members to suicide. The two are very different but they both come down to the same thing: they test some of the assumptions community members make about what we’re all doing in this shared space.” Talk about that.
[00:16:52] Josh Millard: When I think about things that have been difficult on the site, one of the things about MetaFilter is it exists so much as not just a website that does a thing. There’s things people do on MetaFilter. There’s verbs that you can attach to a description of it. People post links from the internet and they talk about them. They ask questions, they get answers. They share creative stuff, they post songs they’ve written, they discuss the site itself. That’s of all the actions people are doing on the site. That’s what they go there to do.
But it’s all surrounded by such a strong sense of this, as a community space. That sense of community, that sense that people know where they are, they know they’re around other people that they know, they know that they’re coming to a place that has a momentum and a predictability to it as a social space above and beyond what happens on any given day. That’s a really important defining aspect of the community. A lot of it does come down to having a sense of trust about where you’re going and who you’re going to encounter and how things are going to go.
People on MetaFilter know that they can basically trust one another to be pretty civil. There’s a by internet standards, asterisk-ness to that and there’s the reality that everybody has a bad day. Not everybody always manages to be totally civil but at a basic level of expectation, you know that people aren’t going to run around shouting lazy, racist or misogynist or transphobic stuff on the site. If someone does, there will be an actual swift responsible from the community and from the moderation staff to try and shut that down. Which is not the case in general on the internet. There’s a lot of places that-
[00:18:25] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s not? [laughs]
[00:18:26] Josh Millard: -are not making that basic effort. I know, it’s shocking, isn’t it? You establish a sense of, “This is how the community reacts. This is how we deal with things. This is what is allowed, what isn’t allowed. This is how we behave towards each other.” There’s a degree of basic good will and respect underlying all of it. You take that expectation of behavior and that, basically, trust in how everyone’s going to behave. Then, if you take someone acting genuinely, remarkably malicious in that context, that can be a real strain because people have a shared sense of the site’s identity as a place where people don’t do that, where people don’t commit violations of trust or try and pull deceptive shit on each other.
Then, when someone does that, everybody has to stop and look around and say, “Did this happen because this is an exception case or did this happen because, fundamentally, what we assumed about the community is not true and it’s not really that thing?” We’re just telling ourselves that it’s a matter of doubt, collective self doubt. It’s tricky when something happens that brings that up because people do have to reevaluate how they feel.
I feel generally, MetaFilter’s done well about odd things like that and basically held on to it’s community sensibility and generally acknowledge that when someone acts very poorly, that’s something for us to collectively move past and be better than and just not let shatter our ability to be individually or collectively vulnerable. Because you get that sense that people don’t want to be tricked, they don’t want to be suckered, they don’t want to be made to put an emotional investment into something that turns out to be empty or false or a trick. When people get tricked, it feels shitty and it’s really easy to want to shut down and put up a wall and not let that happen again. You don’t want to be made a sucker again, you’re going to be more cynical, you’re going to be more untrusting, you’re going to doubt things that you otherwise would have believed in. I think that can be really damaging to a community because you can end up with everybody standing back 10 feet and eyeing each other warily instead of just getting back to the business of sharing stuff with each other and communicating and discussing in a thoughtful and interesting way. It’s a difficult thing to navigate.
It doesn’t come up too much on MetaFilter, thankfully, but I think in any community, it’s a potential danger. You have that worry, not just about someone acting badly, but about the community developing unhealthy immune response to the possibility that someone’s acting badly.
[00:20:49] Patrick O’Keefe: MetaFilter had, years ago, a high profile case of someone faking their own suicide and pretending to be [laughs] their spouse and this messed up story, and I’ve written about it. We talked about it when Matt was on but have you had additional members that actually did commit suicide?
[00:21:04] Josh Millard: Yes. There were a number. There’s about 10,000 active members on the site and if you just look at basic statistics, there’s going to be a lot of people who are suffering from depression, chronic depression, acute depression. People who struggle with various sorts of mental illness and the possibility always exists.
[00:21:21] Patrick O’Keefe: How does something like that impact the trust of community, as opposed to someone acting maliciously like the person who faked their suicide, that you have a real case of this happening? What does that do to the trust?
[00:21:31] Josh Millard: In terms of someone taking their life?
[00:21:33] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes.
[00:21:34] Josh Millard: I don’t think it’s much of an immediate danger to trust but it creates a challenge of the sense of the space as a community. Everybody gets a different amount out of MetaFilter in different ways. There are a lot of people who use the site, basically, as just a casual social space on the internet. They use it as link aggregator, they just want to find something cool to look at the internet that day or they want to ask a question about what’s going on with their computer, but they may not have a strong emotional attachment to it. They’re fond of it but it’s not a big deal. There are a lot of people on MetaFilter for whom it is a really important community space and a really important part of their life.
Certainly, that’s been true for me for many, many years. When you have that strong community attachment to a place, you tend to develop some assumptions about the kind of relationship you have with other users on the site and how real that is, how meaningful it is, how close your connections are. When things are good, I think it’s easier to just feel that as a warm glow, if you will. It’s just nice to be here, and we like each other and we’re all on the same page. When something terrible like someone taking their life happens, that can be a shock to that system a little bit because it brings up the same questions it would bring up in any community context, really.
“How did this happen? How did we not know? Is there something we could have done?” It can leave people rethinking their assumptions about the place as a community. You stop and think, “This person, who was a long time contributor here, it turns out that they were suffering. They were really not doing well and we didn’t know.” Or maybe, there were signs. You feel like their comments that they were maybe struggling a lot lately but we didn’t really know to do something. We guessed that something was up and then this happened. That can be really challenging. That can be really emotionally devastating to find yourself second-guessing your relationship with that person.
Your collective relationship with each other, that that terrible thing can just slip through the cracks and happen, which is, like I told you, that’s a very unfair way to treat yourself looking at that because the reality of depression, the reality of mental illness, the reality of self-harm and attempted suicide and successful suicide, usually is a shock. You can’t perfectly predict these things. You can’t know what’s going on inside someone’s head, especially if part of what they’re struggling with is communicating what’s going on inside their head.
That’s why it’s so important to have things like crisis hotline information and crisis resources available to point people to, which is what we do when we see basically any hint of someone talking about suicidal ideation or self-harm on the site. We reach out to him and we say, “I don’t know where you are. I don’t know how serious you’re feeling but these are some resources you have that you can use right now. Please use them if you need to. Please, let us know if you need to talk.” You can do what you can there but you can’t prevent people from acting independently. You can never know exactly what’s going on in someone’s mind.
You can never know whether or not they are having a bad day or having an existential crisis that goes to that level. It’s hard to really internalize that, it’s hard to really believe that. When something like that happens, and we have lost a number of people over the years that we know about. Bill Zeller was one. The guy went by null terminated on the site. Long-time member. Very good contributor and by all counts, wonderful guy. He’d had some terrible childhood trauma but he’d gone on and lived his life and then he took his own life and it’s a heartbreaking thing. It’s a very difficult thing for the community. It’s difficult for people who knew him. It’s difficult for the site as a collective. It’s again, one of those things where, I think, having a real sense of community makes it more navigable. Having a sense that this isn’t just, “I remember that username from that guy who also posted links to ponies on the site.” That’s a bummer but actually people being able to come together and say, “Geez, I remember this. I remember that. I remember when he did this,” and have that living memory of his participation in the community, I think, makes it more possible for people to both grapple with the reality of what happened and also support each other in moving on from there.
Bill comes up on the site now and then as people remember stuff he was involved in or funny MetaFilter things that happened that he was there for. It never gets any easier dealing with those things when they happen but the fact that we are able to deal with them as a community, I think, is really important. I don’t really have a button on that. It’s such a hard topic. It’s such a difficult thing and obviously it happens everywhere and people have to deal with this in their families, in their community, friends, church communities, social communities. There’s no getting around the impact that the loss of someone under any circumstances can have. It’s really more of a question of how able you are to then cope with that together and support each other and get through the damage and the trauma that comes from that kind of loss.
[00:26:19] Patrick O’Keefe: When I had Jessamyn on the show, she said that, “There’s always opportunities for people to learn about how to deal with things more respectfully. I think there were definitely times that MetaFilter, historically, when we could have dealt with gender issues significantly better than we did. We could have dealt with LGBT issues specifically, better than we did. We could have dealt with transgender issues better than we did and part of that is because there’s a learning curve. Part of it is maybe we weren’t getting inputs from the people we should have been seeking out inputs from. Part of it is just the world changes around you and things that may have seemed like they were okay, were an okay way to talk about issues, became not okay.”
I bring this up and it was interesting to me because you brought this up before the show, as well, saying that over the years, MetaFilter has stripped away a lot of casual sexism, racism and transphobia that had been a more normal part of the community in the earlier years. When was that something that you became aware of?
[00:27:13] Josh Millard: I would say there was a lot of turning-point stuff in the mid-late 2000s, 2006, 2007 not coincidentally corresponding to Jessamyn being more and more heavily involved in driving some of the moderation sensibility, as she had started to work for and with Matt as the first employee of MetaFilter, besides him. It doesn’t reduce simply to, well, Jessamyn’s a woman, has sense of that but I think there is some truth to the fact that Matt had not really experienced the kind of pervasive, casual sexism and misogyny that exists in the world to the same basic degree and lived experience that Jessamyn had.
She was able to say, “You know what? Actually, it’s shitty that dudes are just making sexist jokes constantly or saying ‘tits or get out,'” even if it’s a funny internet thing. Even if that’s what everybody says, it’s just a meme. That’s pretty shitty misogynist. She just basically started speaking up about it and she started calling it out in a spot where through no ill intent of his own, Matt just probably wouldn’t have because it wasn’t on his radar the same way. When she started doing that it turns out a lot of women on the site were, “You know what? That’s good.”
There were a lot of discussions in 2007 and 2008, in particular. It really got rolling as a thing that needed talking about, that needed improving on the site. I think that started forward progress on a lot of these fronts. That was one of the most visible and easy to push on things because we’re talking about half the population, and not necessarily fully half of the site population, exactly, but a good minority chunk of the user base was self-identifying as women and, I think, has been a little bit more willing to do so since then as MetaFilter’s improved on that front. 2007, 2008, I think we started pushing on that better and to some extent I think people saw that we could, as a site, work to improve that in a way other than just like quitting because it’s too toxic or assuming nothing’s going get better.
Once they saw it could be a little bit better we started seeing people pushing on other stuff, as well. We’ve talked about transphobia. The site has come miles on that, not in a way that was necessarily a bunch of especially nasty people running around on the site, but just the way that if you’ve been paying attention to the narrative of trans issues over the last even ten years, it’s been a huge shift in just basic social awareness.
I think MetaFilter’s come along with that. It’s a little bit more lefty, a little bit more progressive, a little more likely to tackle that stuff in detail than random pop culture but in general, you can see that movement happening of people saying, “Maybe we should stop just making the same shitty jokes we’ve been making for decades and start trying to understand where people are coming from and realize that people are actually just living their lives and trying to actually express their gender identity and express their sexuality in a way that isn’t worthy of easy mockery. It’s just people actually living their lives. In a lot of cases, having their lives made more dangerous, more difficult, more lonely because people are just reflexively shitty or ignorant about it.”
[00:30:14] Patrick O’Keefe: When did you come on board?
[00:30:15] Josh Millard: I started working for MetaFilter in early 2007.
[00:30:19] Patrick O’Keefe: This is pretty much right around–?
[00:30:21] Josh Millard: Yes
[00:30:21] Patrick O’Keefe: Pretty close, right? [laughs]
[00:30:22] Josh Millard: Yes and I can’t say it’s because I came on board.
[00:30:26] Josh Millard: Again, I pretty much–
[00:30:28] Patrick O’Keefe: That wasn’t the allusion I was making. Josh is here, let’s all knock that stuff off, right now.
[00:30:32] Josh Millard: I was definitely a slower to pick up on some of this than Jessamyn, in general. I credit her with a lot of setting the tone for this on MetaFilter where people actually started considering this stuff really important to deal with.
[00:30:43] Patrick O’Keefe: Was it like a cold turkey thing, where all of a sudden it’s, “We’re not going to do this anymore,” or was it more of a conversation in the community at the time and more of a, “Now that you say that, we get it”? Of course, some people didn’t. I assume you had to kick some people off the site, right? How did it go at the start?
[00:30:58] Josh Millard: It’s definitely been an incremental thing. It wasn’t uncontroversial at the time. I think there was a lot of, not because they’re necessarily a whole lot of dyed-in-the-wool sexists and misogynist on the site. I would say there were a few but you take a large group of people, you’re going to get that until you start doing something about it. Because it wasn’t on people’s radar, the same way Jessamyn and a lot of women on the site were saying, “You know, it’s actually a problem when you just casually say, ‘I’d hit it,'” that’s shitty and sexist and misogynist. I think a lot of people had the take of, “Come on, it’s a joke. We’re goofing around. We don’t actually mean it, we’re not meaning it in a sexist way. We’re definitely not trying to be misogynistic.” It’s what people do, they say, “I’d hit it.” They say these things because they’re the things people say. It’s an unreflective thing where people have to be forced to actually comprehend it and think through it and question their assumptions about, “what is harmless?”
I think that has been a big part of why it’s been– As much as we’ve been getting steadily better on this stuff, in general, it has remained an incremental process because you have to get people on board. You have to set that expectation, you have to do education. You have to teach people to question things that they had taken for granted previously and that includes things like, who is impacted when you’re just joking? Who actually takes the brunt of your disinclination to re-examine the stuff that you learned in middle school?
It’s very step-by-step. Every once in a while it feels a little bit three steps forward two steps back because you can’t teach everybody and new people join and some people come out of the woodwork and something sets someone off. Even when people are trying, it’s really easy when you’re dealing with discussions of isms, in general, for someone to have a fairly defensive reaction to being told that they’re doing something, even if their intent is reasonably good, even if they aren’t a real jerk.
You can take someone who’s not really sexist, other than in a, “This is the water we are swimming in every day,” way and then say, “That thing you did, that was pretty sexist.” They may not stop and say, “You know, I never really thought about it,” they may say, “What do you mean? I’m not a sexist. I’m what?” Their hackles get up and then it becomes about them defending their honor instead of them stopping and saying, “Maybe there’s something that I can do differently here. Maybe there’s something that I hadn’t really thought through before.”
It’s difficult, it’s a large site we don’t gate sign ups to prevent people from being able to just join if they want to throw the $5 at it, now they’re a member. There’s going to be constant turnover, there’s going to be new people who haven’t had these discussions, there’s going to be people who maybe have academic disagreements and don’t see why them staging an academic debate unilaterally, is something other people are going to be into. It’s really easy for people to want to say, “I understand that there’s stuff here that’s a problem. I understand that there’s stuff that could be potentially harmful but we really need to examine the whole rhetorical territory. We need to make sure that we’re understanding where the people who are doing notionally harmful things are coming from and are we being fair to them?”
What if this, hypothetical that? It’s so easy to [laughs] basically crawl up your own ass in pursuit of that academic argument that you just aren’t hearing people saying, “No, the thing you’re doing is actually harming people right now. The thing you’re doing is bad.”
If you just stop and then have your academic conversations in a context where everybody wants to have that conversation. Having a debate on a challenging topic with six people who’ve all decided that they specifically want to sit down and have that debate, is one thing. Wandering into a large mixed group and saying, “Now, we’re going to debate whether sexism is really real,” without getting those people to actually say, “That’s great use of my time. I definitely want to hear this hot take on why sexism is a myth.”
You can’t just do that and expect people not to be, “What are you thinking?” There’s a lot of challenges to it and a lot of those challenges don’t come down to there’s just a bunch of horrible people in the world. It’s that people who aren’t horrible still absorb these things. People who don’t have ill intentions still grew up in a society formed by racist structures and sexist structures, and homophobic structures. There’s so many things that we just take on without realizing it in our formative years, coming out of pop culture, coming from our parents, coming from school and interactions with other people, who have internalized growth stuff, that it’s a lot of work.
It’s a lot of work to try and move on that and move forward steadily. We still have a lot of work to do there. MetaFilter really is far better on a lot of the stuff than it was 10 years ago, but it’s still something we have weekly and monthly, yearly conversations on all these fronts because it still doesn’t go well all the time. It still doesn’t hit where people who are most impacted by this problematic shit, needed to be to not, basically, have a bad time.
The last thing we want is to say, “Good enough. We’re pretty not sexist, we’re pretty not racist. Everybody just chill. I think we found a good compromise and eh.” It’s going to keep being a thing. It’s going to be an ongoing, difficult effort because that’s how improving at this stuff works.
[00:36:00] Patrick O’Keefe: In the pre-show chat, you brought up a really interesting point about the impact of the 2016 presidential election. Speaking of people saying things without thinking.
[00:36:11] Patrick O’Keefe: The impact of the 2016 presidential election on online communities that allow political discussion but tend not to focus on it. How in years past, you might have the occasional contentious political thread that requires an investment of moderation time. It wouldn’t be a constant thing. Election years come and go. There might be an increase in election years, but after the election ended, things would go back to normal. That hasn’t happened this time, has it?
[00:36:37] Josh Millard: No, it’s been fundamentally different, which is a real challenge. I was maybe hopefully, maybe naively, maybe realistically if I’d won the coin flip on how the election came down, projecting that things would basically start to calm down after November. That we would say, “This was a zoo that we all just lived through, but now we’re going to get back to a little bit more status quo. We’ll go back to talking about politics as part of what’s going on, but just a little piece of the mix.”
There’s never not been US and world politics as part of what’s being discussed on MetaFilter, but it’s always been a slice of it. The last two years, the last year and a half, in particular, have been a huge tilt to that basic set of expectations where we’ve had so much constant discussion, that instead of having– Maybe every couple of months we would have some big political thing that came up, some crazy scandal that would lead to 1,000 or 2,000 comment thread and, boy, what a week that would be, basically.
Then things would settle down again a little bit and then things would go the other way. They normally do for a month or two or three and then, maybe there’ll be another big thing. It would be this big quarterly spike of, “Now we’re going to have a real busy week.” It’s just been a real busy week every week since September.
[00:37:53] Patrick O’Keefe: [laughs]
[00:37:54] Josh Millard: That’s really difficult. It’s exhausting for everybody. It’s exhausting for the mod staff because we are spending so much more time dealing with people having political discussions than we normally would be. Normally, those quarterly spikes were exhausting, but then it’s over and, okay, we’ll recharge and come back to it next time. Instead, it’s been nonstop. We hadn’t really had a break as a team from these discussions and they tend to be relatively difficult as you can imagine.
There’s lots of other things that people argue about too, but politics is a pretty reliable source of friction and clashes between people, and strong feelings, hot tempers, etcetera. Having that roiling along weekly, where there’s several hundred comments a day on the site, just creates a pretty demanding situation for us, as a team. The team at MetaFilter is just big enough to keep an eye on the site 24/7. We have six moderators total, splitting up 168 work week to have reasonable length shifts, a mix of part time and full time.
No one’s working a 60 hour week of trying to keep up with this stuff. As it is, it doesn’t afford a whole lot of extra flexibility. We aren’t a big enough company to really schedule shifts in a super flexible way. Everybody’s just constantly been at it for over a year now. I think we were all really hoping for a break in November. We were hoping that things would just relax a bit.
[00:39:14] Patrick O’Keefe: Are you familiar with “Eternal September” or “the September that never ended”?
[00:39:17] Josh Millard: Yes.
[00:39:18] Patrick O’Keefe: For anyone who hasn’t heard of it, when I had Howard Rheingold on, he talked about Eternal September, which was basically that Usenet, think of them as online forums, they had–
[00:39:29] Josh Millard: Let’s not explain Usenet. Let’s not try.
[00:39:31] Patrick O’Keefe: No, we don’t have time. Basically they’re online forums and they had norms. Then, when freshman would go to college every September, they would discover Usenet. They would come on Usenet and then they would be taught the norms. This was okay. People can make this work, there were not so many people coming in that you couldn’t teach them the norms. One September, AOL, through a marketing campaign, basically dumped three million people on Usenet. It’s called, Eternal September because that was it, they couldn’t teach the norms, they couldn’t keep up anymore, to teach people the norms coming on to Usenet. It’s a funny piece of history but just talking about this, it makes me think we’re in a cycle of eternal election [laughs] here where it’ll never end. We’ll just have to deal with this influx of people and people who are already there on the community who want to talk about politics, which for a community that doesn’t focus on that, are such a tremendous drain on your resources.
[00:40:19] Josh Millard: Absolutely, and it’s taking attention away from other parts of the site, not fundamentally, but enough to be obvious if you look at the numbers. There’s so much activity happening in the ongoing political discussions, that you see a fall off on the activity in other discussions. People who might otherwise be hanging out on FanFare and talking about a movie or a TV show or a podcast, may spend less time doing that because we’re trying to keep up with whatever the hell is going on in the US this week or today.
They’re spending their free time following the politics thread or participating in the politics thread instead of other stuff on the site. That really bums me out because politics is the least interesting thing on MetaFilter, for me. I think it’s good that it’s there, there’s no way we could say “We’re just shutting it down,” because I think that’d be a mix of unrealistic and irresponsible. Honestly, it’s still not what I go to the site for, exactly.
I’m glad it’s there as a resource when I want to find out what’s going on but if I didn’t have to moderate politics threads, I’d read them a whole lot less because most of the time, I don’t want to spend my energy on that. I’d rather see cool stuff that people found on the web or interesting discussions of essays people posted or looking at what’s going on over on the music sub-section of the site and seeing what people have been recording lately. I certainly have less energy for that because of the politics stuff. I don’t spend as much time just having fun on the site, as I would in a more normal circumstance.
[00:41:36] Patrick O’Keefe: Do you think it’s harming MetaFilter? We talked about trust in the community and how people view the site as this real thing and they have strong relationships. Is it harming the site, how people view one another, how they trust one another, how they speak to one another?
[00:41:48] Josh Millard: I think it’s done some damage there, just because it’s so difficult to not put each other on edge and get at loggerheads with each other when you’re dealing with politics stuff. MetaFilter leans pretty left, demographically. It’s generally a pretty liberal, progressive user base, not universally and there are certainly people who are identifying as more politically conservative.
Basically, in the non-Trumpist vein who hang on the site, there’s rarely a lot of contention on the site when something ridiculously awful comes out of the Trump administration because basically everybody agrees that’s some awful bullshit. We tend to see more difficulty when people are splitting hairs or add conflict with each other over details on the left. The primaries were difficult last year because there were a lot of people who felt really passionately about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and there were people who felt really passionate about Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. A few people who felt really passionately about Jill Stein’s and there is a point where basically we all have relatively similar goals but there’s these details of how to accomplish them or which things to give on versus to stand firm on and speculation about outcome. There’s lots of arguing about the primaries as they went along from both directions on the Bernie/Hillary thing. That was very difficult and people lost their shit with each other sometimes and got entrenched.
I feel like there’s some of that that still lingers on but more generally, just people are on edge. It’s a very difficult time, even aside from arguing with each other about political stuff, there’s also a lot of people on the site who are members of various minority or disadvantaged communities, who are justifiably just really worried about the state of things right now. We had Brexit happening before that and there’s a lot people on the site who have direct ties to the UK who were pretty flabbergasted by that set of developments.
Then, we had the Trump election in November and that just doubled it down and for a lot more people on this site who are US citizens. It’s a thing that, absolutely, it’s been damaging to MetaFilter, in a way. I think it’s probably been damaging to the psyche of tons of people and tons of communities in the United States and around the world. When stuff is bad, it’s hard on people. Stress levels go up. Anxiety levels go up. Everybody’s cortisol is probably through the roof.
[00:44:06] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s been bad for everything, right?
[00:44:07] Josh Millard: Yes.
[00:44:08] Patrick O’Keefe: [laughs] The internet. It’s been bad for the internet.
[00:44:10] Josh Millard: What do you do? It’s been bad. It’s done damage. There’s been, essentially, psychological trauma on a mass scale and that affects MetaFilter as much as anywhere and that’s part of what is so challenging about this not seeming like something that’s suddenly going to go away. It would be one thing if there was a very clear scope of how long things were going to be bad but we’re dealing with a presidential term here that we’re seven months into and it’s been [laughs] really, really horrific.
Presidential terms are four years and then there’s an election and if they get re-elected, who knows what comes after that within the parties. There’s no obvious, clear endpoint for things being bad the way they’re bad right now. That is, in it’s own way, more difficult, more of a challenge, and more potentially damaging even than just what’s happening on a daily basis. Because it’s one thing to say “Wow. This is shitty,” and it’s another entirely to say, “This is just going to keep being awful,” and not have a sense that, “I can just bear down and tomorrow, things will be better.” When you feel tomorrow’s just going to be the same, that’s a difficult thing to deal with. It wears on people, it wears them down, it tires them out, it makes it harder to be generous, harder to be charitable, harder to stop and say, “You know what? I’m having a a bad day, I’m just going to walk away from this instead of digging in, in a fractious way.”
When every day is a bad day, [laughs] it’s harder to find that reserve of patience and generosity. I think it’s a very difficult thing, it’s a really strained circumstance we’re finding ourselves in and it definitely is going to continue being a challenge for MetaFilter.
[00:45:42] Patrick O’Keefe: That uplifting note seems like a great place to end the program.
[00:45:47] Patrick O’Keefe: I do feel pretty confident that when the next election cycle comes up, if this election year never ends for you over there, MetaFilter will still be there to talk about the 2020 [laughs] elections.
[00:46:00] Josh Millard: Absolutely, and there’s upsides to this, I don’t want to just sound completely doom and gloom about it. It’s difficult but it has produced a lot of really good energy on the site, it’s produced a lot of coming together to deal with these difficult things. There’s been organizing activism, people going out and getting ready for protests and looking for resources, getting in touch with their senators and representatives, educating each other on what can be done and how you can protect people, how you can try and make your voice heard.
In the sense that it creates this challenge, it also does produce, I think, a sense of recognition that we’re all in this together. It produces a drive towards civic involvement that’s really important right now. That’s a healthy outcome, that’s a positive thing, in so far as you have dark clouds and silver linings, there are some very silver linings in all this. That is one of the things I try to focus on and help people facilitate and put our collective energy on that side of things, not just sitting around saying, “Wow, things are bad,” but saying, “What can we do, what’s next?”
[00:47:00] Patrick O’Keefe: There we go.
[00:47:02] Patrick O’Keefe: There’s some hope in there. Josh, thank you so much for stopping by.
[00:47:05] Josh Millard: Thanks so much for having me.
[00:47:07] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Josh Millard, owner and moderator at MetaFilter. Visit Josh’s personal blog at joshmillard.com and follow him on Twitter @joshmillard. Check out his paintings at art.joshmillard.com. He also programs retro video games; we’ll include a link in the show notes. For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad. See you next week.
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.
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