The foundation of healthy community is really the focus of today’s episode. Derek Powazek is truly an online community veteran. He authored one of the earliest books about our work, Design for Community, which turns 15 years old this year. If you want to be reminded that good community strategy endures the test of time, pick up a copy. Plus:
- What community professionals can learn from farmers
- The cause of bad community behaviors
- Why addiction should be left out of your project goals
“There will never not be pests – the pests won’t decide to stop being pests – so you have to come up with clever ways to manage those problems. When I was talking to one particular farmer about deer, he said, ‘Oh, you don’t have to stop deer, you just have to make your farm less appetizing than the one next door.'” -@fraying
“Whenever there’s a usage or behavior problem on Twitter, they say, ‘Well, people are jerks and we can’t stop them from being jerks.’ No, of course not, but you can make Twitter a less appetizing place for them to feed their desire to make trouble online and have them move on to the next one. That’s actually completely within your control.” -@fraying
“Small, specific and focused is how you create healthy communities.” -@fraying
“You have to know what your crop is. When I till the soil and I add nutrients and I do all those things, I’m making a really good environment that can actually grow lots of stuff. But there’s only certain things that I want to grow, and if you let the weeds get taller than the crop, they will start pulling too much nutrients, steal the sunlight, and the crop will die.” -@fraying
“Among people sitting around thinking up business ideas, there’s a temptation to view community participation as a natural resource that can be exploited. ‘We just have to make this kind of box and put it online, and people will fill the box for us, and then we can sell the box. Or we can put ads on the box, but all we have to do is make this little box.’ The problem is empty boxes don’t create quality content contributions from people, they just fill with trash. If you’ve ever put a cardboard box out on the street in front of your house, when you come back the next day, it’s not going to be filled with gold, it’s going to be filled with trash.” -@fraying
“[A client might say,] ‘We’re going to make up some fake stuff to seed the community; it won’t matter later.’ And so I go, ‘How would you feel if it turned out that the woman you were dating lied to you about her entire life story? But it’s okay because now you’re married, and it doesn’t really matter because you got what you wanted.’ And they go, ‘That would be horrible.’ And I say, ‘Okay, so why would you start your relationship with your community with a series of lies?’ And then the answer becomes very obvious.” -@fraying
“You can learn a lot about the people who start these sites based on the behavior of their community members, because the community is very good at picking up on the social cues that the leaders put out and reiterating them. … People learn from their leaders and start to mirror that behavior. If you see a misbehaving community, chances are the people who run it have some of those same behaviors.” -@fraying
“You are what you tolerate. Your community identity will be defined by the most extreme cases of the things you have tolerated.” -@fraying
“If you start to design for habituation, then you’re actually not prioritizing the story or how wonderful the thing itself is. … You’re starting to get into some really dark stuff that is not about making people happy or making a great place, it really is just about designing a desire into the user for the next fix. And that’s gross.” -@fraying
“No matter how inventive your social science is, I have more faith in people’s abilities to figure out when they’re being played and then stop playing the game. It might take us a few tries, but I think we get there eventually.” -@fraying
About Derek Powazek
Derek Powazek has been designing, building and managing communities on the web since there was a web. He’s the creator of the original digital storytelling site, Fray.com, which started as a website, then became a series of worldwide storytelling events, then became a printed magazine, and now is mostly a fond memory. He’s the author of Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places, published by New Riders in 2002. He’s worked for companies like Blogger, HP, Etsy, Tumblr and more dead startups than you can count. He’s now a farmer in Oregon raising chickens, goats and plants. Yes, really. It’s more connected than you’d think.
In order of reference:
- Genius: $56.9 Million in Funding, 6+ Years to Add a Report Abuse Button by Patrick
- On Seeding Communities by Derek, one of my favorite online community articles ever
- Don’t Create Fake Accounts on Your Community and Don’t Lie to Your Members by Patrick
- Where Your Community Is on Day 2,000 Has a Lot to Do With Who You Were on Day 1 by Patrick
- The Aristocrats, a very dirty joke (fair warning)
- I Don’t Build Addictive, Habit-Forming Online Communities by Patrick
- Slurm, the soft drink from Futurama with the slogan, “It’s Highly Addictive!”
- Fertile Media, Derek’s community product design consultancy
- Derek’s personal site
- The Milk Barn Farm, Derek’s farm
00:04: Welcome to Community Signal: The podcast for online community professionals. Here’s your host: Patrick O’Keefe.
00:16 Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you for listening to Community Signal. Our guest today is Derek Powazek. Derek has been designing, building, and managing communities on the web since there was a web. He’s the creator of the original digital storytelling site, fray.com, which started as a website, then became a series of world-wide storytelling events, then became a printed magazine, and now, is mostly a fond memory. He’s the author of Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places, published by New Riders in 2002. Derek has worked for companies like Blogger, HP, Etsy, Tumblr, and more dead startups than you can count. He’s now a farmer in Oregon, raising chickens, goats, and plants. Yes, really. It’s more connected than you think. Derek, welcome to the program.
00:57 Derek Powazek: Good afternoon. Thank you for having me.
01:00 Patrick O’Keefe: Thanks for coming on. So you have a background in journalism and you told me before the show that small, free, weekly alternative newspapers have perfectly prepared you for online communities. How so?
01:10 Derek Powazek: Well, let’s see. I think for a lot of us working online, because it is a new medium, we come into it thinking we’re inventing things out of whole cloth, but my background in free alt weeklies really prepared me very well for things like blogging and online journalism because free alternative weeklies were the original ad-supported, colorful-voiced media. In a sense, they were the community blogs before community blogs. We were doing journalism, we didn’t charge at the door, and we charged for advertisers, and that’s basically the same model that a lot of free online media has now. I also think having a background in journalism prepares you well for working online because the old adage in journalism was, “If your mom says she loves you, get a second source.” So it’s good training for knowing how to go find sources, get people to talk to you and really engage with your readers in a community setting. The difference, of course, is now online, it happens much, much faster.
02:21 Patrick O’Keefe: That does ring true because here we are, episode 17, 18 of the show, and probably five or six people have had journalism backgrounds, and not just the guy works at the New York Times. [chuckle] Just in general community professionals, there’s lot of journalism backgrounds, fine arts. It’s one I’ve seen a few times, so yeah, it definitely seems like there is a common thread there. Of course, a lot of the community professionals that we’ve had on the show came up in a time before there were, I don’t know, more tailored academic programs to doing this sort of work, whether that be some sort of social media-focused study in college or something community-related which exists in some cases, that wasn’t there. So journalism and fine arts seems like they fill the gap nicely.
03:06 Derek Powazek: Right. And what we learned in doing journalism was how to pair ideas and words and pictures together to tell a story, and that is basically the story of every webpage. That’s what we’re doing is trying to tell those stories. It also helps that about the time when the web was coming around, all the journalism jobs kind of went away. So we all had to find some place to use those skills.
03:29 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, it’s funny. The guest after you, who I won’t say ’cause I’ll leave it to be a surprise, but she has a journalism background. [chuckle] She graduated with a journalism degree and actually uses it to write and that’s how she applied it, but she actually went into web development in the 90s because that was kind of the hot thing. And then, now she works in community for the last six, seven years. So yeah, it’s definitely a common story.
03:49 Derek Powazek: And when I think back to running an alt weekly paper, it was very much what we do online now. I’d get in a room with a bunch of creative writers and we talk about stories, and that was managing a community, and then we publish the newspaper and I walked around… This was in Santa Cruz, California, and we’d walk around handing out copies of the physical paper or something, a joy that people today probably aren’t familiar with. But then, we were talking to our readers and that was that second larger community that we were managing and it was all very real-time and in person, but those skills are the same online now.
04:29 Patrick O’Keefe: You are currently applying your deep community building experience to a chicken coop and goat shed…
04:34 Patrick O’Keefe: … in the Oregon countryside. What can community professionals learn from farmers?
04:40 Derek Powazek: Oh my God, so much. So I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because after 20 years of building digital things, my wife and I, a year and a half ago, moved to a rural town in Oregon, not far from Portland, and we are raising chickens and goats and vegetables and all kinds of things like that. And I thought that these two things would be entirely disconnected from each other, and it turns out [chuckle] that there’s a lot of overlap. So we’re all familiar with designing a perfect community system where you think you know exactly how people will use it and then they do something completely unexpected. And there’s no better way to prepare for that than to have chickens or goats because, day one, when we got the goats, the first thing they did was find the weak points in the fence and escape. And they’d be excellent UI testers. I built a giant chicken coop for our small flock and painstakingly made all these nesting boxes and they would still lay eggs wherever they wanted. And it reminds me lot of managing virtual community, where you think you know how people will react, and then they always find ways to surprise you. So bringing this to, specifically, community management, I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot lately and I wanna do a little more writing about it, but so much of our work around community comes down to, “I wish people wouldn’t behave that way.”
06:06 Derek Powazek: And what’s interesting when you talk to farmers is, specifically around pest management, none of them ever say, “I wish aphids wouldn’t eat my plants,” because they’re aphids and that’s what they do. And I’m starting to think about the idea of pest management as a metaphor for building online tools. No farmer ever said, “I wish the deer would decide to stop eating my crops,” because that’s silly. Deer don’t do that. And in the same way, you will always have problem members of a community or people coming in from outside who are there to destroy. They’re there to eat your crops and damage the fragile ecosystem that you’re trying to create, and they can’t be reasoned with, and I think online that’s the same deal. So instead of sitting around saying, “I wish people would be good,” which is a lovely thought but very naïve, I think it’s more important to talk about pest management techniques. There will never not be pests, the pests won’t decide to stop being pests, so you have to come up with clever ways to manage those problems. And when I was talking to one particular farmer about deer, he said, “Oh, you don’t have to stop deer, you just have to make your farm less appetizing than the one next door.”
07:32 Derek Powazek: And of course, that made me think of Twitter because whenever there’s a usage or behaviour problem on Twitter, they say, “Well, people are jerks and we can’t stop them from being jerks.” No, of course not, but you can make Twitter a less appetizing place for them to feed their desire to make trouble online and have them move on to the next one. That’s actually completely within your control.
07:54 Patrick O’Keefe: It also reminds me of just the idea that being the second largest community, right? Or being numbers three through 10, maybe, in a space, is not always a bad thing.
08:04 Derek Powazek: No.
08:04 Patrick O’Keefe: Right? Because that number one community, that number one whatever it is, is really the target, and that’s something that Twitter has to deal with.
08:13 Derek Powazek: Yes, Twitter and I would say Facebook as well have the blessing and the curse of being the very best place to do a certain kind of thing. And when you’re that place, that means you become much more of an active target and the kind of ‘make yourself better’ so people go down the road. There’s really not the smaller, competing Facebook, right?
08:34 Patrick O’Keefe: Right. They’re all dead. [chuckle]
08:36 Derek Powazek: Well, yeah.
08:37 Patrick O’Keefe: In different verticals and niches, they survive and they thrive, but that whole mainstream Facebook thing is very tough. Unless you break it down in different countries, of course, when there are different social networks that lead various regions of the world.
08:50 Derek Powazek: And I think that… One of the things that I always come around to is small, specific, and focused is actually how you can create healthy communities, and business people hate hearing that because if you’re gonna take several million dollars from a VC firm, you don’t wanna come back to them and say, “We are gonna become the very best place for this tiny specific community,” because that’s… Business-wise, you always want bigger and more general. So, that’s why nobody’s trying to beat Facebook at their own game at this point. Instead, they’re watching Facebook for the larger communities within it and saying, “How can we make a place that is more specific to this user group,” and I think that’s a really great way to build communities. It’s not always a great way to build businesses, but the sad truth is community has never really been a huge business opportunity.
09:47 Patrick O’Keefe: And when I talk to a lot of people who are relatively new to this space, one of the things that they say or they try to do is to please everyone. I guess not please everyone, but cater to everyone, like, “We want everyone in our community,” and that really reminds me of the whole pest control idea because if you cater to everyone, then you really don’t end up with anyone because part of the people you cater to are those pests. And so, just a great skill, a great ability, is to be patient enough to work with people who demonstrate that they are worth spending that time with, but also then to be able to recognize the pests that are particularly destructive and then kind of jettison them out of the community or mitigate them however you can.
10:31 Derek Powazek: Right, and I think to totally drown the farming metaphor, you have to know what your crop is. When I till the soil and I add nutrients and I do all those things, I’m making a really good environment that can actually grow lots of stuff. But there’s only certain things that I want to grow, and if you let the weeds get taller than the crop, they will start pulling too much nutrients, stealing the sunlight, etcetera, and the crop will die. So when you’re running a community, say, for example, one of my favorite use cases because it is so specific, is Ravelry, which is the knitting community that’s fantastic, and my wife is a member. If you go in there to talk about something that’s not horrible, it’s just not the point, I go in there to talk about printmaking, that’s not the point of that community. That’s a weed, right? And your job as the manager of any community is to be able to tell the weeds from the crops, and saying that something’s a weed doesn’t mean it’s bad, it doesn’t mean those people are horrible, it just means they’re outside of the scope of what you’ve set up this garden to grow. And that’s where you can gently encourage them to go create a garden of their own.
11:50 Patrick O’Keefe: Before the show, you mentioned to me that so much work in community is about cleaning up messes after they happen, and that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way if you put time into developing systems that address common challenges right from the start. This reminded me of Genius.com and the recent criticism that they have faced for their handling of abuse, their approach to annotating the web, and the negative ramifications of that. Personally, I find it troubling that they’ve only just now added a report abuse button, after six and a half years and at least 56.9 million in funding, and it didn’t happen until after a letter from a member of Congress. Previously, they asked for people to make abuse reports in public by adding a comment to the potentially inappropriate content. To me, that’s not much of an abuse reporting system, that’s a way to discourage people from making abuse reports. What’s your take on this story?
12:40 Derek Powazek: They’re so interesting. So just to start from the end of your question and work backwards, reporting abuse in public, are you kidding?
12:49 Derek Powazek: That’s like saying in a classroom, the way to talk to your teacher about a problem you’re having with another student is for you to stand up in the back of the class and point at someone and say, “That guy is trouble.” Right? That’s a way to create problems, not fix them. The thing about Genius, they’ve always been a dodgy company so they started out with, I think, a really great problem to solve, which is, if you are into rap music… First of all, what are they saying because that’s really hard to keep up with. So I do a search online, I find their lyrics, let’s say. The second step is, well now, there’s so much embedded jargon and kind of insider speak in those lyrics, what do they mean? So wouldn’t it be fun if I know what one line means and you know what another one is, and I can highlight mine and say, “Oh, here he is referring to blah.” In some cases, booty can be a reference to treasure, whatever it is. And you can do the same and then we can share knowledge. So this is a great idea, right? But they immediately did it in a creepy way by reprinting all the lyrics without permission, which means it is a copyright violation, which means they’ve started their business on the illegal side of the line, which I think communicates their approach to many things. But they worked that out, they licensed the lyrics, they got it together and…
14:18 Patrick O’Keefe: They did, and one thing that bothered me so much was… I totally agree with you on the lyrics, and lyrics on the web were kind of a wild west sort of thing for a while.
14:27 Derek Powazek: It was a gray area, yeah.
14:28 Patrick O’Keefe: And they should’ve licensed from the start, I totally 100% agree, but I think what bothered me even more is that after they took substantial amounts of VC money, that they then held out for as long as they could from licensing those lyrics. Once they had the money, right? It wasn’t just a few kids starting a website, once they had millions of dollars, then they tried to push it forward, tried to have attorneys, maybe tried to make a fair use argument, which was always going to be tenuous at best, and then they finally did it. Like you said, I think it definitively betrayed a certain ends justifying the means sort of approach, and I guess we’re seeing that play out again now.
15:05 Derek Powazek: So… I agree. Yeah, it communicates a lot about their decision-making process, let’s say. But in the end, I think Rap Genius is actually a great example of a specific use case with a specific tool and a specific community who found value in it and enjoyed it and created something that was truly useful. The problem, as I was saying before, communities work with specificity, VC’s don’t like that. They like tools that are everything to everybody so thinking, “The bigger the pie is, the more we’ll be able to extract money out of them at some point.” Which is why Uber comes out and says ridiculous things like, “Oh, we’re not a ride-sharing service, we are network system of real time, blah… ” No, you rent cars, just say what you do. So they’re gonna take their annotation tool and apply it to everything, and so, you immediately lose the specificity of the community and you lose the use case that made it relevant and you just become a tool for bathroom graffiti. If you want a real world metaphor stand-in for what is web annotation, it’s sitting on the pot with a Sharpie in your hand and scrolling on the walls. I don’t think that’s anything to aspire to necessarily. It’s the open Petri dish approach to community development, which is if you open a Petri dish and leave it on your counter, you will grow mold, but it won’t be very useful or interesting. You’re not gonna get penicillin that way.
16:45 Derek Powazek: So I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with web annotation, but they’ve stripped out the parts that made Rap Genius a success, they’ve made the tools so general that it lacks any clear purpose, and whenever you put a community tool out onto the internet without any clear purpose, it is just a magnet for abuse because there’s no rule set, there’s no community around it, there’s no context. It just becomes, “Oh I’m just gonna scroll on the wall because I can.”
17:16 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, I think for anyone who’s spent any amount of time in moderation or community, one of the things that has to come to mind is someone who’s looking for their pound of flesh because they haven’t been able to do something, right? They haven’t been able to leave that comment. So it’s a case where Genius, to me, is at such a scale, community-wise, where they have so many contributions and they have a community team or they have people with the job tittle, community anyway, so take that how you wanna take it. And then they have all this funding, and for them to launch a feature like this without thinking about what should be, I don’t know, a fairly obvious abuse case, I think it’s problematic. And you mentioned that Rap Genius had something going, had a specific community, had quality annotations, that’s my opinion, is that… I spend time on the site, I know… And I just wrote about this, as you know, and I spent a lot of time reading through the annotations for News Genius and also reading community reaction in their forums. And one thing that several members with a lot of IQ points, which is Genius’ reputation on their website, several people are unhappy with the level of quality of the annotations being made with the web annotator and under the News Genius name.
18:26 Patrick O’Keefe: So these are community members, volunteers, and just regular old community members who contribute, who are essentially saying that, “Why are we holding News Genius contributions to a different standard than we’ve been holding Genius contributions?” And so, there are voices in the community who are asking those questions and who are making those observations and saying, “This is deluting what this community has become over these last few years.” And so, it’s interesting to see that take place because there are people who love this new turn and love the web annotator and News Genius and sort of however you wanna view the quality of those annotations, but then there are people who have been around on the community for a long time who are disappointed in this turn of events.
19:07 Derek Powazek: Right, which means they’re… Not only is Genius burning the web in general, but they’re also burning their existing community because, of course, any place you use your time and talent to contribute to, when you see a flood of bad stuff come rolling in, that’s gonna turn you off as well. But here’s my glass half full on this: Don’t worry, this kind of general web annotation idea has been tried countless times over the last 15 years and it’s never worked. It has never worked, Third Voice is dead. Even Google tried this with Sidewiki; dead. You just can’t make a general tool like this and have it work. And so, I think as much money as they have behind this, what we’ve seen so far from them, the general reaction to it, this won’t work for them either. It’s just one of those deep pit ideas that keeps coming back around every few years on the web, and people throw money down the pit, and then they’re surprised when nothing happens, and then they go on to the next bad idea. I don’t think this will be a thing a year from now.
20:20 Patrick O’Keefe: Regarding the story, you sent out a series of Tweets where you said, “Community always forms around content. Any business idea that is all community with no content is exploitative and doomed to failure.” And then you continued, parasitic would have been a better word there, “Businesses that create community tools sans content are parasites on the web.” I’d love for you to elaborate on that thought a little bit.
20:41 Derek Powazek: Well, it’s related to the Genius thing. I think, among people sitting around thinking up business ideas online, that there’s a temptation to view community participation as a natural resource that can be exploited. We just have to make this kind of box and put it online, and people will fill the box for us, and then we can sell the box. Or we can put ads on the box, but all we have to do is make this little box. The problem with that is empty boxes don’t create quality content contributions from people, they just fill with trash. So if you’ve ever put a cardboard box out on the street in front of your house, when you come back the next day it is not gonna be filled with gold, it’s going to be filled with trash. And so, what I always advise our clients and other people I talk to is the box is important, but you can’t have it be empty, you have to start it off with something. And when we’re talking about community online, what you have to start it with is content because there’s no better filter to find the people that you wanna find than talking about what this place is for. And there’s example after example of people putting those kinds of empty boxes out, and then being surprised when they’re filled with something that they didn’t want, and then it’s kind of your choice and opportunity how you respond to that.
22:10 Derek Powazek: So the idea of a web annotator is an empty box. It’s just, “Let’s give people this new superpower,” which is to put their words wherever they want on the web, “And hope that they use their powers for good.” And some will, but a whole lot more won’t, and the one’s that do it badly will drive all the good participants out immediately. And lest you think I’m throwing stones from my glass house, I started a business, seven years ago maybe and I made this exact mistake, which is why I know that it’s a mistake. I started a company called Pixish, and the idea was people could create calls for submissions… Rewinding. My wife I started a magazine called JPG magazine, where we grew up a community of photographers, we took submissions, people voted on the submissions, and then we published a printed magazine out of the output of this virtual… So, it’s a virtual community leading to printed magazine, and it was incredibly successful. After that, I thought, “Well, that was a complicated set of tools I built for putting in a call for submissions, getting the submissions, having community voting, etcetera, etcetera. Wouldn’t it be great, wouldn’t it be a boon for all those other people who wanna do that kind of thing if I made this system where anyone could do that?”
23:29 Derek Powazek: So, I started a company called Pixish, where anyone could come in and do a call for submissions, have them come in, be public, the community can vote on them, and then they could choose a winner and buy whatever it is from that person. So I created a tool without a specific use case, and I put it out because I was very excited about it, and so what did I get? I got a whole bunch of, “Design my logo for me and I’ll give you two bucks,” kinds of projects. So when the designers came to this height and that all they saw was garbage projects, they went, “This is a garbage site.” So I had built a really good set of tools and then I forgot the core thing that JPG did right, which was Heather and I as photographers putting out our work, having that content as a seed, and really being present in the community and having that presence communicate the trust where people would then submit to us. You take away the seed content, you take away the trusted community leaders, and all you’re left with is this empty tool. And so, of course, it was abused and so, of course, it failed spectacularly and it was offline a month later. So that’s what I mean by you have to start by putting out the kind of content that you wanna see people produce.
24:51 Derek Powazek: And if that stuff, whatever it is, is of sufficient quality and finds the people who care about it and is inspiring enough to those people, they will respond in kind and that is the seed that the community forms around. But if all you do is put out the tool without any seeds, all you’re gonna get is mold.
25:11 Patrick O’Keefe: So speaking of quality content and seeding, you wrote one of my favorite community articles of all time, called On Seeding Communities, and this passage is what I love, “My number one role for community building is do not lie. The internet is very good at ferreting out liars. Community building is all about trust, and once you lose trust, it’s gone forever. Do not lie to your community. Ever.” And I’ve shared this post with people many times, cited it on my blog. I searched at least five different times and even quoted that line offline to people before. It’s such a core fundamental role, and yet, time and time again, people make that mistake. People think they will get away with it, that their community or their audience is maybe dumb enough to miss it. I guess that won’t ever change because there are always examples that are held up of people who lie to their community and found success, like reddit, and they think it will work for them. But what they miss is that reddit is actually the exception, not the rule. The idea of lying to your community, it’s a recurring theme, it’s human nature. I don’t know if it’s going to end, but it just seems like we have to keep repeating it and I think that’s frustrating to every legitimate, good community builder out there.
26:23 Derek Powazek: It is. And let’s be honest, there’s always the incentive to cheat. And lying to your community, specifically what reddit did was make up fake members and then have those fake members participate to create the illusion of lots of users participating in the site.
26:41 Patrick O’Keefe: And I kind of feel like we’re looking at Genius in a similar way now with abuse, where people are going to look at that and think, “Oh! Okay, we will do that as a startup. And when we’re big and we have this influence, then we can worry about it.” And that’s always… That example is problematic.
26:54 Derek Powazek: It’s cheating and it’s tempting because it’s a shortcut, but the thing people forget about community spaces, or maybe they don’t forget it but they like to pretend that’s not true, is that it is about forming relationships. And so, when I’ve had to have this conversation with clients, as soon as I rephrase whatever they’re suggesting as if it’s a relationship question, then the answer becomes very obvious. So it’s, “Well, yeah, we’re gonna make up some fake stuff to seed the community, but then, it won’t matter later.” And so you go, “Well, okay. So you’re married, how’d you feel if it turned out that woman you were dating, when you were dating your wife earlier, lied to you about her entire life story? But it’s okay because now you’re married and it doesn’t really matter because you got what you wanted, see?” And they go, “Well, that would be horrible.” And I said, “Okay. So why would you start your relationship with your community with a series of lies?” And then the answer becomes very obvious. I think part of the issue is we’re still only a couple of decades into this whole idea of massively networked social spaces that everyone’s a part of, and so there’s some obvious stuff to us, because we do it for a living, that is not obvious to everyone yet.
28:11 Derek Powazek: Which are things like, when you are interacting with Joe username, that is a person on the other end of the line, and so the things you say to the username behind the safety of this glass, that’s actually still a real person and it’s very easy to forget that. And there’s some really powerful social studies based on that, but they just prove things like, “Yeah, you put someone behind the wheel of a car and all of a sudden, they say things they wouldn’t say to the other person if they were standing in front of them.” People react online the same way you do in your car, which is because you have a fake sense of security. It’s easy to turn that other person into the other and not consider them a human being. I am an optimist, so I think we’re gonna outgrow that. We just have to get better at maintaining these kinds of relationships. Until then, community professionals will sometimes have to remind people of the humanity of the people on the other side of the screen.
29:08 Patrick O’Keefe: And there’s this old, I don’t know how old, probably as long as it’s been around, [chuckle] advise that people give generically about posting online. It’s like, “Don’t say it if you wouldn’t say that to someone’s face.” Or, going even stricter, I guess, “If you wouldn’t say it to your mother or you wouldn’t want your mother to read it,” or these types of things that imply this sort of offline engagement. But that doesn’t just apply to users of these spaces or community members, the way you explained it there really made me think about how it applies to the people making the decisions. Like the people themselves behind the scenes deciding how to start this community or how to start this service and how to seed it, they are not approaching it in that same way. They’re not approaching it looking as if they were talking to that person face to face and so, they’re kind of falling into that same trap.
29:52 Derek Powazek: Yeah. And I like the line that you had in your post today about Genius, which was something along the lines of community members learn to behave from the community leaders so whatever behavior the community leaders present… Now I’m rephrasing. But you can learn a lot about who the people who start these sites based on the behavior of their users, their community members, because the community is very good at picking up on the social cues that the leaders put out and reiterating them. So when you wonder, “Why are reddit communities so hostile and weird and kind of aggressive?” Honestly, it’s because of the people who run the site, and who started the site, and have a kind of hostile, weird, aggressive relationship to the community and each other and media in general. People learn from their leaders and start to mirror that behavior. So if you see a misbehaving community, chances are the people who run it have some of those same behaviours.
31:00 Patrick O’Keefe: That’s a hard picture. Look in the mirror. [laughter] It’s a harsh answer, but it’s true. And it’s funny because I was talking to someone about the whole reddit thing, and I ended up writing a post about it, but just the idea… I don’t know. It’s just any number of issues. The volunteer revolt, the issue with offensive subreddits, and kind of the revolt over freedom of speech, and all those things, and it’s like, “What’s happening was set in stone 10 years ago, not yesterday.” It didn’t just happen, they set this course in motion. Yes, they lied to the community. They also pushed this super hardcore free speech agenda, and so, eventually things come around. [laughter] And so now, you have that same exact thing being used against them and it’s not a huge surprise for people who have been managing communities, but I think a lot of people who, may be well-meaning come into it saying things like, “This is gonna be free speech! We’re gonna allow everything!” And then everything and free speech, they tend to mean things that you don’t want at some point. Eventually, down the road, people abuse that speech and then you’re like “Oh, let me draw this back.” But you’ve already kind of made that promise, you have this commitment to your users, and of course, they don’t like it when you rescind it.
32:03 Derek Powazek: Yeah. The line I always use with clients and others is, “You are what you tolerate.” So your community identity will be defined by the most extreme cases of the things you have tolerated. So if you get a bunch of friends in a room, and someone stands up and tells a super dirty joke, and then everyone else in that room goes, “Oh! This is the place to tell super dirty jokes,” that is now the identity of the place. So that’s why it is so imperative for community managers to maintain the community guidelines that they’ve set up, whatever they are. If you’re creating a place that is for dirty jokes, then by all means, applaud the dirty joke and that’s the dirty joke place. But if you’re there for another reason, and probably most of the people who might pay a community manager to maintain a community, they’re probably not there for The Aristocrats. You have to lock down that stuff so quickly because it will feed on itself and then you become known as the place for that. So the moment reddit said, “Well, we’re not going to let the kiddie porn in because that’s illegal, but pretty much everything else goes,” they became the place for that stuff.
33:22 Derek Powazek: And what kills me is there are some actual really wonderful, little slivers of community here and there that have kind of eked out a spot in reddit, and I wish they had some place to go because it’s like trying to maintain a little island of civility in a chaotic pirate world. Eventually, the pirates are gonna wind up on your island. Just to totally drown a metaphor.
33:45 Patrick O’Keefe: The dirty joke metaphor reminds me of something Will Smith said, he said, “Look around at your five closest friends,” I think it was 5 closest friends, “that’s who you are.” [laughter] So if you don’t like who you are, then you gotta get new friends. You gotta switch up the people standing around you. And that’s directly applicable here. I run a small, by general industry standards, community targeted at the martial arts, and we’re coming up on 15 years in May. And it’s a lovely community, I love it, I am proud of it. It’s a wonderful place filled with wonderful people. They talk to each other, just thoughtful. They disagree respectfully. People come in there with sensitive issues. We had someone a while back who… Their instructor was hitting on them. Right? And he’s much older than her. And just the way they respond is so thoughtful, so kind, so helpful. And it’s like, I look at that now and managing the site isn’t even that hard. It’s not even that difficult. And the people might look at that discussion… The discussions they have there and think, “This is an awesome community. How did that happen?” It’s like, “Well, 15 years ago… [laughter] I decided that this stuff wasn’t gonna be okay.”
34:47 Patrick O’Keefe: And the same guidelines, more or less, that we had 15 years ago, we have now. And it takes not just having guidelines, but on a day to day basis, saying, “Okay, this is not in line with the guidelines. Okay, this goes,” and then kicking those people out if I have to. It’s just that on the ground minutia, detailed community work that, as you said, and I think it’s just an amazing lesson for people to remember, is those things get locked in so quick. It just… The culture, the standards, the societal norms, they get locked in right away. It’s not the first five years, it’s the first five weeks. [chuckle]
35:21 Derek Powazek: I was gonna say the first five minutes.
35:23 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, five minutes. It’s right then, it’s that moment there when you start. And it doesn’t mean you have to get it perfect from the start, but that you have to have some foresight. You have to think about the types of content, the types of people you want to attract versus, as you said earlier, just having the empty box. You need to fill that box, put some streamer on it, put some lights in there, something, and just kind of guide people. Because if you don’t, more often than not, when we talk about these sorts of communities that have gone off the rails, it’s because the people who are loudest are either objectively awful or awful within that community space. And so, their voice share is so loud, even if they’re not the majority, that they just dominate the conversation and scare away everyone else.
36:07 Derek Powazek: Right, just like the party with the dirty jokes. The small group of people in the back of the room who are like, “Oh, I thought we were here to be nice to each other. [chuckle] Apparently we’re not, so I’m just gonna quietly leave.” By the end of the night, all you have are the people who are like, “Oh, the dirty joke room! Fantastic. Here’s where I’m hanging out.” That’s why I keep saying, “What you tolerate is what you are.” And that can be really hard, especially for new communities that are so desperate to get participation, that they kind of allow anything to go for a while because they’re just really worried that nobody’s gonna use this beautiful space that they’ve created. And unfortunately, if you do that, if you allow people to veer away from the community guidelines or from just the stated purpose of the place, you’re doing two things: One is you’re scaring away those people, but you’re also showing, “Oh, the rules don’t matter here.” So even though there’s a no smoking sign at the top of the wall, if you see everybody here is smoking, then you go, “Oh, this is the rule breaker place.” So even when they later say, “Okay. Hey everybody, I know I let you smoke before, but now you can’t,” you’ve already established it as the place where rules don’t matter, so why should anyone pay attention to you?
37:18 Derek Powazek: And I think that’s kind of the boat that reddit has found itself in now. And frankly, Twitter, to some extent as well, because Twitter’s rules always said, “Hey, no abuse and harassment,” and they just didn’t do anything about it when it happened. So now, 10 years in, when they’re coming in to say, “Oh, remember that thing we said? And we let you ignore it for a while, but now, really, honestly, no abuse and harassment,” they’re already known as the place where… Like it’s a late night TV joke now that people on Twitter are awful. So turning that around is a million times harder than having just enforced it from the get go. And I would argue that enforcing it from the get go doesn’t actually hurt your growth potential, it actually helps it because it shows potential community members, “This is a place where people are watching, where how we treat each other is important, and where the company is gonna have my back if I have a problem. So I’m gonna feel more interested in participating here, not less.”
38:21 Patrick O’Keefe: Last month, I wrote an article titled, I Don’t Build Addictive, Habit-Forming, Online Communities. I have just had enough of people within this space referring to addiction as a respectable, worthwhile goal. The funny thing was that within hours of me finishing that piece, and before it was published, you shared a photo on Instagram of an HBO ad that encouraged people to, “Stream every episode of HBO’s addictive shows.” You commented that, “Only people who have never battled addiction think that addictive is good word use in marketing copy.” Some will look at this and dismiss it as a non-issue, people self-describe as binge watching these shows after all, so what’s our problem? [chuckle] Why are we so sensitive?
39:06 Derek Powazek: I have had struggles with addiction, I have had friends who are in AA, some of my favorite people have had their own addictions. And whenever I see the word addictive or habit in marketing copy specifically, it just turns my stomach. And the funny part is that was on the Apple TV, so it was the HBO app on the Apple TV. How many HBO shows are about terrible addictions and the horribleness of addicts? Wow.
39:39 Patrick O’Keefe: I think I’ve only watched two HBO shows, and now that you mentioned it, at least one of them is definitely tied to addiction. [chuckle] I bought Boardwalk Empire. And it’s like… Yeah, that’s all about alcohol and other vices. And yeah, it’s so funny you’ve mentioned that.
39:51 Derek Powazek: And I have heard that word and seen, in business context, in private meetings, people say, “Oh yeah. Well, we wanna make this an addictive place.” Well, okay, you have to use flowery language in a business meeting to get your point across. That’s fine. But it’s when that seeps out into your public marketing copy, then I think we’re blurring some really weird lines, and I just think it’s kind of a dangerous way to market anything. There’s a joke in Futurama that was, “Slurm, it’s dangerously addictive,” or something. It’s deliciously addictive, something like that. And that was a joke, but we’re actually seeing that kind of advertising now. My problem with it in the business context is building habitual usage is sometimes a good goal, that is the effect of creating a really wonderful product. So it’s like sitting down to write a movie and saying, “I want people to walk out of the movie theater saying, ‘That was a really good movie.'” Well, of course you do, that’s why you’re writing a movie. That’s not a technique, that’s just a side effect of making a great thing. So I’d rather see businesses and companies talk about how great their thing is and why it specifically is great, rather than talking about the result of that thing, which is, “You will really enjoy it.” Right? Does that make sense?
41:19 Patrick O’Keefe: It does. It does. There’s a difference there in the words you use, and it communicates the intent of what you’re trying to accomplish, creating something with quality versus creating something purposefully to be addictive or habit-forming. I’ll say that sometimes, when I read an article written by someone in this space, and they use those terms, it reminds me of a tobacco company. And I would say like, “I didn’t get into this space to work [chuckle] for a tobacco company, that’s not why I started in community.” And that’s actually the one example of addiction that I have seen, is my grandfather being addicted to cigarettes, as I’ve mentioned in that article, and it’s like, I don’t wanna see those words. And I think, like you said, there is… I think… I don’t know. You used a hashtag, it was like respect word usage or respect something. It was the meaning of the words, I forget. [chuckle] It was funnier than that, but yeah, there is that part of it, using language that makes sense, respecting the words. And also, it does speak to intent and what you’re trying to accomplish.
42:12 Derek Powazek: Yeah. The interpretation I was giving before of feeling like you have to see the next episode of a TV show is a good thing, right? That means the last episode was really great and you want to. But if you start to design for habituation, then you’re actually not prioritizing the story or how wonderful the thing itself is. Now, you’re just making a game and there’s some really evil stuff you can do, like every Pay-To-Play iPhone game, like the design considerations around slot machines and selective reinforcement and how psychologically powerful that can be. Now, you’re starting to get into some really dark stuff that is not about making people happy or making a great place, it really is just about designing a desire into the user for the next fix. And that’s gross, that’s not why I got into this either. That is drug dealing, essentially. And I don’t think… The people like us who are attracted to community, it’s because we see how wonderful people can behave to each other in large groups. We can see the good that it does society in general and individuals to be able to find people of like minds to find support, to get help when you need it and to support each other. We didn’t get into it to be pushers. [chuckle]
43:36 Patrick O’Keefe: Right, right. And in this space, there’s a lot to talk about social science, and about psychological effects of different things and how you can use those. And again, that’s not inherently bad in and of itself, but I think when you set forth with the goal of manipulating those things, there’s a responsibility that comes with it. Like I’ve heard people talk about tapping into people’s fears and insecurities in relation to community, [chuckle] and I’m thinking, “No, that’s not what I want. I don’t want that.” And there’s also an element to this that might be a little ego driven. I was talking with another veteran community professional, I won’t say his name because it was a private conversation, but he said that it’s very tempting when people are addicted to something that you have created and they’re using it and they just can’t stop using it. “It can be dangerous,” in his words, “to fall in love with the adoration of addicts.” And I thought that was a really good way of saying it, and to tie into your drug pushing metaphor, people who are taking drugs or buying drugs, they might say they love their dealer but that’s not necessarily the healthiest relationship.
44:37 Derek Powazek: Right. The one positive spin I can put on this is I think human beings are also very good at developing tolerances. And so, the worst kinds of addiction design behavior that we’ve seen, and here I’m thinking about things like iPhone games that start you off for free and then, of course, they’re actually designed so that the game play gets more and more frustrating until you buy the thing that fixes the game play until it gets more frustrating again. Those things are very effective in the beginning and then people develop tolerances to them very quickly and we start to see them for what they are. So no matter how inventive your social science is, I have more faith in people’s abilities to figure out when they’re being played and then stop playing the game. It might take us a few tries, but I think we get there eventually.
45:32 Patrick O’Keefe: Derek, this has been a great chat. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
45:36 Derek Powazek: It was very much my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
45:38 Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Derek Powazek, founder and CEO of Fertile Medium, a community product design consultancy, fertilemedium.com. You can find Derek’s personal site at powazek.com, P-O-W-A-Z-E-K.com. Finally, follow the adventures on Derek’s farm, the Milk Barn Farm, at milkbarn.farm. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. You can find me on Twitter @patrickokeefe. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and we’ll see you next time.
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