Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been a frequent topic of conversation on Community Signal. Its existence as we know it seems untenable given Trump’s recent executive order and Joe Biden’s criticisms of it. On this episode, community and social media professional David Flores shares some of the history of how Section 230 came to be.
David worked at Prodigy just as they were coming under fire for a post that someone left on one of their message boards. While the initial court ruling went against Prodigy and found that online service providers could be held liable for the speech of their users, this decision served as the genesis for Section 230, and the ruling was overturned by the new law.
He also shares how he entered the field of community management and describes navigating moderation at Prodigy in the ’80s and ’90s. For context, all deleted posts were printed so as to maintain a record. He also discusses conversations with early community platforms and how Prodigy attempted to look after its employees’ emotional wellbeing during times of turmoil at work.
Here’s more of what Patrick and David discuss:
- What was it like moderating before Section 230?
- Editorial standards as a framework for community moderation practices
- The popularity of Prodigy’s message boards
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The basis for Prodigy’s community decision-making (10:28): “[Most of our staff at the time came from the editorial arm of CBS], so they were looking at [moderation] the way you would an editorial decision. What runs in our newspaper? … How do we treat their speech? Is it freedom of speech?” –@dfloresbx
After deciding whether or not to allow the word “suck” on Prodigy’s message boards (10:48): “Over time, those standards became both more loose and more restrictive. We were looking at things on a word by word basis and running all the posts through automation and against lists of not just seven dirty words, but more like 77,000 dirty words and trying to figure out what would be appropriate for our audience.” –@dfloresbx
Printing out every submission you receive (24:51): “When I got hired [at Prodigy], … part of what they did was have us print every message we rejected. It’s possible that when I got there, we were printing everything because there just wasn’t that volume, but at a certain point, the volume became such that every post that was rejected needed to be printed, and then you had to mark why it was rejected. The reason being that someone might contact management and say, ‘Why was this rejected?’ We needed a record.” –@dfloresbx
Bringing a moral compass to your moderation standards (45:17): “I use the phrase morally repugnant because that’s something that we actually used at Prodigy to say we weren’t going to post certain things because they were morally repugnant. … [But now, I go on] Twitter in the morning, there’s probably been a tweet by someone overnight, and it’s likely to be morally repugnant, and it’s just sitting there. Now people are commenting on it, and that’s the entire day’s focus.” –@dfloresbx
The emotional strain of working in community:
“Especially at Prodigy, that was a very intense situation to be in because as a community manager, you’re trying to be friendly. You’re trying to be helpful. You’re trying to relate to the people that you’re dealing with. Your favorite moments are when the community responds as a community and does things that really make a difference in their real lives. Conversely, when things go wrong, you’re that individual who they turn to and say, ‘Well, why did you do that?’ … Well, I didn’t do that. I’m representing the organization that did. That was a lot of the conflict. Your personal self, your professional self, and then not just professional self, but yourself representing this larger organization.” –@dfloresbx (33:25)
“Trump, pandemic, economic disparity, racial injustice, which has existed forever, and then all of those things coming together right here in 2020. It’s a unique time. It puts a strain on everything, and it puts a strain on how we see ourselves and the responsibility that we have with the platforms that we manage. I think most of us are doing the best that we can. We can only do the best we can, and we should always be striving to do a little better.” –@patrickokeefe (42:50)
About David Flores
David Flores is the director of social media at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. He’s also the co-editor of Einstein’s blog, The Doctor’s Tablet. Prior to Einstein, he worked in various community management and editorial roles at news outlets including Everyday Health, tvguide.com, wsj.com, and Prodigy. He came to the world of online community after a stint as a police reporter in suburban New York after graduating from Fordham University. David lives in the Bronx with his wife, Elaine, and their dog, Dexter.
- Sponsor: Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community
- David Flores on Twitter
- Albert Einstein College of Medicine
- The Doctor’s Tablet
- David previously worked at Everyday Health, TV Guide, wsj.The Wall Street Journal, and Prodigy
- Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act
- Anette Beebe on Community Signal
- Cubby, Inc. v. CompuServe Inc.
- Stratton Oakmont, Inc. v. Prodigy Services Co.
- The Wolf of Wall Street
- John Coate on Community Signal
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you for listening to Community Signal. We’ve been talking a lot lately about Section 230, the law that empowers US-based community builders to moderate content, but what about the world that existed before it? One of the catalysts for 230 was a lawsuit against Prodigy, where the court found that because Prodigy had community guidelines that they enforced, they were liable for comments made in their message boards. David Flores was working in moderation at Prodigy as these events unfolded and he joins us for this episode.
Thank you to our supporters on Patreon including Carol Benovic-Bradley, Serena Snoad, and Maggie McGary. We appreciate the support. If you’d like to become a supporter, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle.
David Flores is the director of social media at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. He’s also the co-editor of Einstein’s blog, The Doctor’s Tablet. Prior to Einstein, he worked in various community management and editorial roles at Everyday Health, tvguide.com, WSJ.com, and Prodigy. He came to the world of online community after a stint as a police reporter in suburban New York after graduating from Fordham University. David, welcome to the show.
[00:01:34] David Flores: Thank you, Patrick. It’s good to be here.
[00:01:36] Patrick O’Keefe: Section 230, we talk about it a lot on this show, and it’s a pivotal law for the US community builders and one that, frankly, we may very well take for granted. At this point, the law is 26 years old. In the US at least, most of us feel very comfortable managing communities and applying policies that fit the standards that we have set, but that’s not the case throughout the world.
If either Biden or Trump have their way, it may not be the case here much longer. If you’re listening to this show and would like a refresher on 230, check out our recent episode with attorney Anette Beebe, where we talked about common misconceptions and about Trump’s recent executive order. When we talk about the legal cases that led former representative Christopher Cox and former representative, now senator, Ron Wyden to write 230, we talk about CompuServe and Prodigy.
The 1991 Cubby, Inc. v. CompuServe Inc ruling found that CompuServe was not liable for defamation for content they hosted because they did not bother to review it. They didn’t moderate and they didn’t put in the effort. Then, in 1995, there was Stratton Oakmont, Inc. v. Prodigy Services Co. That ruling was different because the court found that Prodigy was liable because they did three things. One, they had standards, they had community guidelines, two, they enforced those guidelines, and three, they screened content using software. In other words, Prodigy tried. Prodigy gave a damn and CompuServe didn’t, and that led to Prodigy being held liable.
Thankfully, our representatives at the time saw this as a problem. Section 230 was enacted in 1996 and it invalidated the Stratton Oakmont, Inc. v. Prodigy ruling and encouraged the growth of the internet and of this profession and the rest is history. A bit of trivia: if Stratton Oakmont sounds familiar, it’s because the company was featured in the 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street.
The post that Prodigy was sued over, or at least one of them, was made in 1994 by a user that claimed that Stratton Oakmont and the president of the company, who was the character Jonah Hill, loosely portrayed in the film, had committed fraud. It’s an oversimplification, but The Wolf of Wall Street gave us Section 230. Which brings us to you, David. You were at Prodigy when this was happening. You worked at the company from 1989 through 1995. How aware were you of that case?
[00:01:56] David Flores: I was pretty aware of it. I wasn’t right on top of it, but as a community manager there, we were aware of all of the things that were going on in terms of legal action, that sort of thing. The case itself actually doesn’t take place till just about the time that I leave. I left Prodigy in ’96, so this was all brewing in that time and my primary responsibilities by that point were no longer to moderate things like the money message boards, bulletin boards. I was aware of it in this general sense of, “Oh, this is happening.”
By the time I got to my next job after Prodigy, by the time I got to that job, I actually was able to say to the Wall Street Journal, “Look, if you’re going to establish an online message board, here’s Stratton v. Oakmont and these are the rules we are going to be held to, so I was definitely aware of it.
[00:04:54] Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned to me before this show, I don’t know, memory, it was a long time ago, you felt like you might have moderated or been involved with a post or some of the posts in question?
[00:05:02] David Flores: I want to say likely, it’s possible.
[00:05:05] Patrick O’Keefe: Likely. It’s interesting because we remove tons of posts every day and it’s like you touched history there. If you moderated that and post, if you were involved in that, you touched history and that forum post or that message board post actually is probably among the more meaningful message board posts ever moderated, one might say, which is funny to think about.
[00:05:25] David Flores: That’s true. When you invited me to do this, I had to go back and jog my memory and look at some websites and look at some things, and I realized, “Oh yes, I worked on that. I worked with that.” I wasn’t necessarily the lead person on these things, but I was there at those times. I’ll be honest. I didn’t go all the way through the case of Stratton v. Oakmont in the time frame that it took in, but I know that I did moderate messages on the money bulletin boards during that general period. From ’89 to ’95, I’d certainly been in there at some point.
[00:05:57] Patrick O’Keefe: Now at the time, you had moved on, you mentioned a little bit, but you are aware of the case. Did it feel like a threat to the work you had done? You’d been involved in Prodigy for several years. You had a deep fascination in online communications message boards. You obviously would take a job at Wall Street Journal that would put you in a similar role. Did it feel like a big deal at the time? Did it feel like something was changing and that it could threaten the work you were doing?
[00:06:23] David Flores: I don’t remember it that way. I do remember it as being something to be aware of and to certainly be in consideration of. If there had not been a Section 230, I’m not sure exactly what my role would have been going forward. There’s no need for moderation. Do they need moderators? That I certainly would have thought of, but it always seemed a little bit ahead of where I was. I wasn’t focused on it in that sense. It was something I knew I had to be aware of, and keep an eye on.
In terms of at Prodigy itself, I don’t remember it being like the daily update on where the case was. There would be messages, there would be communication around it, but Prodigy also by that time was actually as a business just facing so many challenges that we were just dealing with all those specks, and fighting off AOL or trying to compete with AOL, or other competitors thinking about what’s going to happen when this thing called the World Wide Web takes over. Those were our concerns. Section 230 was in that batch of concerns.
[00:05:40] Patrick O’Keefe: I would like to take a moment to tell you about our generous sponsor, Vanilla.
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Section 230 clarified moderation, at least the legal basis for it in the US. Before Section 230, it was a different world. I have to imagine it’s possible that Prodigy obviously had attorneys and this might’ve been something that came up with them. I’m just curious, before Section 230 moderation when you were doing that work, was it an uncertain thing, was the ability to remove content? Was it something where that was a question internally, whether or not that should be done?
My guess especially after the CompuServe case, but just in general, did it feel, not like the wild, wild west I guess, but did it feel like it wasn’t solid ground? Like you thought it was good, you thought it was right, but it wasn’t solid or what was the environment? Did it feel like something that could be risky?
[00:08:55] David Flores: I wouldn’t call it risky. I would say that we were in the process of trying to figure it out ourselves and that there wasn’t really an industry around it. As far as I know now. There were conversations probably had way above my pay level, but there wasn’t as Prodigy was talking to AOL, was talking to CompuServe, was talking to GEnie about how they were handling content on a daily basis. It definitely evolved, from when I got there in ’89 to by the time I left in ’95, I think I might’ve mentioned this. We had not so much conversations around whether or not to moderate content, to remove things, or how we handled it, but more along the lines of what do we allow?
One of the more famous conversations I remember hearing, and I guess probably being part of was around the word suck, would we allow the word suck? This was a real concern and part of that was I think partly because of Prodigy’s genesis, which was Prodigy was a combination of CBS, IBM, and Sears at the outset and they were called Trintex. Eventually, they became Prodigy when CBS dropped out but there were still CBS personnel, people who had come there from the editorial side of CBS. Those people were actually making some of these decisions.
They were looking at it the way you would as an editorial decision. What runs in our newspaper, and it wasn’t so much these people aren’t communicators, they’re not professionals. How do we treat their speech? Is it freedom of speech? What’s the questions there? I think that was what was happening. It was largely we’re going to try and figure this out.
Over time, those standards became both more loose and more restrictive. It was we were looking at things on a word by word basis and running all the posts through automation and against lists of not just seven dirty words, but more like 77,000 dirty words and trying to figure out what would be appropriate for our audience.
The one thing I think that made all of those online services unique was that unlike today, where people pay for a lot of online communication through their attention and advertising, back then people paid $9.95 a month or whatever it was to be on Prodigy. They were considered paying customers and so that relationship was a little different there. That led to how we thought about these things.
[00:11:36] Patrick O’Keefe: Prodigy’s message boards were a big deal. There weren’t as many options, this idea the modern internet, that wasn’t what was there. If you wanted to talk to people, this was one of your primary options. It was one of the most popular features of the service, if not the most popular, right?
[00:11:54] David Flores: Yes, that’s correct. I don’t know that they necessarily always wanted it to be that way but that’s what it was. I think as a service itself, they really were hoping shopping would be the salvation of the service. They were an early online shopping alternative, but the technology just wasn’t there.
[00:12:10] Patrick O’Keefe: At one point, I want to say I’ve read that you were charged an hourly access rate to access the message boards, or maybe just the service as a whole?
[00:12:18] David Flores: Oh, wow.
[00:12:19] Patrick O’Keefe: I just came across something. I think that– AOL used to be a certain number of hours so I guess Prodigy might have been like that, too. I came across a news article, I read that the message boards were such a popular driver that people would pay for that, because it was a unique thing at that time to be able to talk to people in this way.
[00:12:35] David Flores: You’ve stumped me a little bit there because there were different pricing models that went around, right?
[00:12:40] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. I didn’t get online till ’95 which was early-ish. That’s not like that’s late. When we dialed up the first time it was like we had a modem US Robotics, and it was certain…It was like X number a month and you just dialed up. It wasn’t hours. It wasn’t that. I think it might have been a company called IDT if I recall correctly.
[00:13:00] David Flores: That sounds familiar. That was the thing. They were always trying to figure out, how do we monetize this usage? It was like, “We’ve got usage, we’ve got users, but it’s costing us so much money to have these users here. How do we make those two things coalesce?” One of the more infamous decisions that they made was to actually charge for emails beyond a certain amount each month. That’s because email probably was the most popular thing or it was one of the most popular things. You had five accounts, I believe, per household, you got the floppy disk, or later on, the CD-ROM that allowed you to create your Prodigy household. In your household, you had five people, and those people all have email addresses. At a certain point, there was a decision to charge and I’m going to probably get the pricing wrong but something beyond your first batch of emails that you roll out, you’re going to pay like twenty-five cents an email.
[00:14:00] Patrick O’Keefe: You’re right. You’re totally on the mark. It’s on the Wikipedia page. At least if the Wikipedia page is correct. You’re allowed 30 email messages for each month, and then twenty-five cents for each additional one.
[00:14:10] David Flores: Right. Imagine your household, everybody can only send five free emails. Then you got to start yelling at one another about like, “Oh, my God, you’re sending twenty emails from your account.” That did not go over very well. I remember that. That’s one of those things that I certainly remember, in terms of the reaction.
Email and community go together very strongly. A lot of what happens and a lot of these cases that we’re talking about, they’re because someone sent an email to someone else that created an action on a message board, on a bulletin board, that then required either intervention or a decision to be made. That then leads to lawsuits, legal actions, what have you. That’s how those two things go together.
[00:14:58] Patrick O’Keefe: There’s a line on their Wikipedia page; I’ll just read it. I assume it’s accurate. That’s assumption sometimes with Wikipedia, but here’s what it says. It says, “To control costs and raise revenue Prodigy took two separate actions. First, in January 1991, Prodigy modified their basis of subscriber plans by allowing only thirty email messages free each month while charging twenty-five cents for each additional email message, a policy that was later rescinded. In the summer of 1993, it began charging hourly rates for several of its most popular features, including its most popular feature the message boards. This policy was later rescinded after tens of thousands of members left service.”
To your point, it doesn’t sound like it was very popular, according to the encyclopedia record of the internet here.
[00:15:37] David Flores: I couldn’t remember if the metering happened at the beginning or at the end. Now that you’ve mentioned it, yes, that certainly sounds like what took place as far as I can remember.
[00:15:48] Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned the word suck and really figuring out what would be the standards, what was going to be deemed appropriate. There was a November 1991 issue of PC Magazine that said the following, “Prodigy’s advertising and policy of editing, bulletin board messages to conform to its standards of good tastes have made it the most controversial of all the online services reviewed here.” In that feature, they reviewed AOL, CompuServe, GEnie, and Prodigy. I’ve read that piece and I thought it’s funny to look back at that and see moderation as…and it creates controversy now. I don’t want to say that it doesn’t but that moderation was such a controversial thought then.
[00:16:29] David Flores: Yes. It was certainly a controversial thought in the sense that, again, people were very new to all of these. You think about where conversations online or conversations in real life all have these rules governing them. Conversations in real life before the online message boards come about are I talk to you, you talk to me. I send you a letter you send me a letter. I give you a phone call, you call me back. It’s all self-contained and the rules are there one-on-one with the two parties involved, mostly.
Then this happens. Now you have people communicating with one another, but in these new public spaces that have rules around what can be said, what can’t be said. I think a lot of people for them, they just related to it in a sense of saying, “Well, wait a minute. I’m paying money. I’m coming here. You’re now telling me I can’t say that.” For some people, even just the slightest change was too much. For others, they all responded to it differently. I think it was a new concept. It was like, “What do you mean, I can’t say that?”
[00:17:44] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s go back a bit. How did you find out about the job at Prodigy?
[00:17:48] David Flores: I was a newspaper reporter coming out of college. In college, I had two internships, one at a newspaper, one at a financial magazine. What I found most fascinating being at the newspaper was being able to read the AP Wire and see new stories come across on a computer. I didn’t even have a computer at that time, I don’t think. I was just like, “Whoo, this is cool and new.” Then my last class in college, I read this textbook. I don’t remember what the name of the textbook was, but I can still see it. This is a red textbook with white lettering.
I’m at the last paragraph. I don’t even think I need to read that chapter but I’m just scanning it. There’s this line about this new company that’s going to put news online called Trintex. I’m fascinated by that. It’s like, “Oh, CBS, IBM, Sears.” That sounds really interesting. Fast forward to about two, three years later, I’m working as a reporter in suburban New York, a police reporter. I’m having some early job dissatisfaction and just thinking like, “Where do things go?”
The person I’m with at the time says to me, “Well, you’re tired of this. Why don’t you look at this job?” She shows me ad in a paper and it’s actually the paper I work for, and it turns out to be Prodigy. I see Sears and IBM. I connected all in my head and I say, “Yes. These are the guys that they were talking about in that textbook. I want to know about that.” I go in for the interview and I’m hoping for a writing job, an editing job. What they have at the time were community moderation jobs, and they’re like, “Well, maybe you could move into editorial.” That did not happen. I did become a community moderator and that’s how I got there.
[00:19:39] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s such an interesting way to find this work. Did they call it community moderator or there was the actual terminology at that time?
[00:19:47] David Flores: I’m going to say no but I don’t remember exactly what it was. I’m just trying to think of the correct term. We were bulletin board managers, I believe. Bulletin board managers would be what I think we were called. There was probably a more formal type, but everything was bulletin boards. We were bulletin board managers or editors or something like that.
[00:20:07] Patrick O’Keefe: By the time you started there, did you have your own computer at home?
[00:20:10] David Flores: Yes.
[00:20:11] Patrick O’Keefe: I mean, in ’89 that was a massive like– I’m aware when my parents bought our first computer in ’93. It was Apple Centris 610 with a laser printer and a 17-inch monitor, beast of a monitor.
[00:20:21] David Flores: Ooh, laser printer.
[00:20:22] Patrick O’Keefe: It was a major purchase for our family. This was a thing we were buying, and that was going to be the thing for a while. I mean, it was an investment to have a computer.
[00:20:31] David Flores: Yes. Oh, definitely. It totally was. I remember having bought the computer, having had it delivered. I’d gotten an American Express card through college. I remember that they were like, well, you can set up a monthly payment through us and you can have a computer and I thought, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” It’s not something that my parents are going to have to finance. I can do it myself. I’ll give it a try. What I most remember about it was that it came in boxes. Those boxes contained the computer and the hard drive. It was a Tandy, can’t remember which one T maybe 1000 I can’t remember what it was. You had to actually take out the hard drive and install the hard drive in the PC and then boot it up, there were all these warnings about shorting things out and grounding yourself and I’m not a mechanically-inclined person, I can do some things but I’m not electronically inclined. It was nerve-racking to put the hard drive into the PC and then turn it on but then once it went, it was like, “Okay, I can do this.” So, yeah.
[00:21:37] Patrick O’Keefe: I remember that when we got ours, my dad actually had someone he knew who was a principal at a high school, come and set ours for us. Like take it out of the box and plug the different parts into one another.
It’s interesting though because people who were doing this work than a lot of them their first really serious use of a computer was this role like. That was the on the job training. They showed up in here was a computer. I had John Coate on the show who was at The WELL, he said that his first time using a computer was when he was hired to be what essentially was community manager of The WELL. That was his first day at a computer. That’s kind of funny.
[00:22:16] David Flores: Yes, surprise. I believe that. A lot of the people that I worked with, early on in Prodigy, they were editorial people, they were people who had experience in broadcast. Their relationship to online computing, it was still novel at that point. An interesting thing you mentioned being the kid, a lot of what I remember at Prodigy was that there would be kids who were setting up their parents’ accounts for them because the parents didn’t know but the kids understood, and that led to some interesting situations in terms of moderating content because the kid really controlled account. The parent was just sort of the cash end of the deal. That was definitely interesting.
[00:23:00] Patrick O’Keefe: My favorite app on our computer when I got it for a while was the Apply tutorial that shows you use the computer, which seemed like the most ridiculous thing. Then one day, my younger brother who was very small at that point, he did something in the files, he changed a file name, he deleted something that broke it and it never worked again. That was it. There was no more Apple tutorial because they had like a fun tutorial that was almost like a game. I don’t know what it was called like, I’m sure if I Googled it, I could find it but that was it.
[00:23:30] David Flores: Well, it was all precarious. It was like, “My gosh, if I hit this button on this computer, it may never work again.” That just seemed to be a daily occurrence. Now I’m connected wirelessly. I’m sitting here in front of a laptop that’s nowhere near my connection to the internet. It’s just working and I’m talking to you over the laptop. Back then none of that happened without wires cables, three or four guys like standing around and maybe a hamster on a wheel somewhere. Then you hope it all worked.
[00:24:07] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, I mean, it’s not so long ago that I was using a service called CallWave, I think it was. What it would do is we’d be dial-up. We take up the phone line, my parents were never going to buy a second phone line that just wasn’t going to be in the expense. That wasn’t in the budget. That service would tell you if someone was calling and would disconnect you from the internet and let that ring through. That was a big deal. It wasn’t so long ago, frankly.
[00:24:31] David Flores: Yes, I’m vaguely remembering that now. Yeah.
[00:24:34] Patrick O’Keefe: Speaking of old tech, you told me that moderation, at least at the beginning, I guess, involved printing and printing posts out. Can you talk about that a little bit?
[00:24:43] David Flores: Sure. Again, when I got there, there were maybe a handful of moderators already there ahead of me. When I got hired, it was sort of part of Prodigy had this huge hiring spree and I remember seeing like hundreds of people in our room for orientation and there were several of us who were moderators, community managers, that’s how we started out. They were still trying to figure out just what they were going to do. Part of what they did was to have us print every message that we rejected, only the rejects. It’s possible that when I got there, we were printing everything because there just wasn’t that volume, but at a certain point, the volume became such that every post that was rejected needed to be printed out, and then you had to mark why it was rejected.
The reason being that the thought was someone might contact management and say, “Why was this rejected?” We needed a record of why was this rejected. You’re dealing with several human beings, each of whom is interpreting a rule that they’ve been given that’s not necessarily completely set in stone. Sometimes things got rejected. Maybe they should’ve been rejected, but the reasoning was a little shaky there. That again gets back to the nature of, we were all making this up to a certain extent.
[00:26:10] Patrick O’Keefe: Wow. Printing out the posts, it’s good documentation. I’m guessing that when you hit a button if you took something down, it was just gone. That was almost record keeping as well.
[00:26:20] David Flores: Yes, that’s true. I should have mentioned that. Once something was deleted, it was, as far as we knew, gone. There was probably some way to retrieve it. Everything was built on IBM technology. It certainly wasn’t as agile as what we deal with today and things were on servers somewhere in a big room. In fact, at one point there was this giant clean room, meaning it was just like white and bright and sort of every movie in the nineties where they housed all the computers, that’s where a lot of those posts sat. If you deleted something, it was gone from that thing as far as we knew, but maybe with the effort of a couple of people over a couple of days, they could find it. It was better to just print it out.
[00:27:10] Patrick O’Keefe: When you moved on to The Wall Street Journal, one of the software companies you worked with was WellEngaged. You mentioned earlier the industry figuring itself out. That was an early player in the community software space. It came out of The WELL, which was a pioneering online community that started in 1985, and before the show, you told me that you remembered asking for more moderator control than they were used to as The WELL truly ran on a community model. Talk about that a little bit. What was that about? What do you think was different with what you were trying to accomplish?
[00:27:44] David Flores: I think that what was different was that we were, at The Journal, obviously not providing message boards around forums around every subject. We were strictly limited to money. I don’t even know that we did politics at that point. My recollection is that it really was financial and that was we were trying to have as much control over those message boards as possible. We weren’t trying to control what people said, but we definitely wanted to keep on topic. I can’t remember exactly what we were asking for, but we were asking for the control of being able to maybe move a message from one board to another, to keep things clean and organized but my recollection is that I think we were actually an early client, so they hadn’t even really fully geared up to have all the things in place. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to, but we were asking for things that they would probably need later and we just happened to be early on.
[00:28:51] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s interesting because I recently had to participate in a process that was essentially reinventing the wheel that is community software; not necessarily by choice. I wouldn’t say that was what I was advocating for was to reprogram everything but it’s like those basic functions, the ability to change categorization or taxonomy or sections. It still comes up now we just have this need to make things our own and to create many more choices, even when maybe it’s not needed. Back then, it was.
When I really got serious about community was probably ’98, ’99. It was not understandable to figure out how to host a community. It was not an easy thing. It was very difficult. With The Journal and when you’re choosing software, I remember when virtual hosting came out, when you didn’t have to have a server, when you could pay for $10, $20 a month, $30 a month, $15 a month. I think DollarHost was the first host I ever used in 2000. My parents paid for it, buying my first domain name. That was a big deal. Like that opened up something and then when things like UBB came out that led to open source alternatives like phpBB, which was free and easy and open-source, and you could install it and WellEngaage and those early, early platforms. There wasn’t a lot of choice and it wasn’t like it was an environment where you had so much engineering talent where everyone had a tech team that you could say, “Hey, write this thing, or make up this software.” You were limited in a sense. I would think that for the few bit of software providers that were out there, they had a lot of clients who were interested. I don’t know if they could all afford or wanted to make that budget available, but there wasn’t a lot of choices back then.
[00:30:37] David Flores: Correct. The thing that stuck out to me at that time was how fortunate I was that The Journal was investing in that software, investing in having that relationship because I knew that I was working with really talented people who had the freedom and the ability to do this work pretty quickly. That was not the case for everyone. It was still this– You were in this period of time between Prodigy, and AOL and the World Wide Web and internet message forums, which were not hosted by any one particular company, and you could move them on your own. All of that it was just in this very in-between time. I knew that it was a good thing that I was able to work with people who clearly had even a longer relationship to online messaging than I had because they came out of The WELL. That was fortunate.
[00:31:37] Patrick O’Keefe: We talk about self-care regularly on the show, and it’s a phrase that is in the vernacular now more than ever before and in every profession and community being one of those. I found it interesting when you told me that in 1993, after a round of layoffs, Prodigy actually brought in an organizational psychologist to talk to the community moderators and their manager about the stresses of, in your words, representing Prodigy as a community manager. What was that like? Was there an understanding for this work and the stress that you were going through or that people who do this work are going through? It’s an interesting thing. I think that might be the first time I’ve heard anybody doing that, at least that anyone’s told me. It’s interesting to hear about it.
[00:32:19] David Flores: I’d forgotten about it, to be honest with you.
[00:32:21] Patrick O’Keefe: Clearly it wasn’t an ongoing program more of a one-time thing. [laughs]
[00:32:25] David Flores: It definitely was not something I remember going on for very long. With all of the changes that Prodigy was going through and even some of the pricing things that we discussed, that created a lot of pressure and a lot of tension, in terms of being the representative for the message board, but also being the representative for the company. You hold these two positions, and I think that still goes on to a certain extent, actually, a large extent with social media.
In my current role, I represent a college of medicine. That’s who I am to anyone who contacts me on that account on Twitter. In addition to that, I’m also representing myself in terms of as a human being but mainly my representation is of this professional venue. Then I’m also contacting and sharing messages back to the organization that say, “We have a question. We have an issue. We have a problem.”
Especially at Prodigy, that was a very intense situation to be in because as a community manager, you’re trying to be friendly. You’re trying to be helpful. You’re trying to relate to the people that you’re dealing with. Your favorite moments are when the community responds as a community and does things that really make a difference in their real lives. Conversely, when things go wrong, you’re that individual who they turn to and say, “Well, why did you do that?” The question is, “Well, why did I do that?” Well, I didn’t do that. I’m representing the organization that did. That was a lot of the conflict. Your personal self, your professional self, and then not just professional self, but yourself representing this larger organization institution.
[00:34:18] Patrick O’Keefe: Obviously, with the internet and more people on it and more attention and more consolidation and platforms, it’s become even worse. On Monday, there was a series of high profile bans executed by YouTube and Twitch, and Facebook, I think was part of that too. Without naming any names, I know someone who’s working at one of the companies announcing these bans, and they were like well, they’re going to set their social to private for a while because they’re anticipating abuse and a lot of it. This happened also, flashes to mind is when Twitter decided to finally fact check Trump recently, the person who was the head of site integrity has that title at Twitter was called out by the President on the President’s social media feed saying, just unkind things that we know, lead to all sorts of abuse and threats and in the worst cases, doxxing, and other things that people do. It’s only really gotten worse. It hasn’t gotten better. I think that’s the internet as a whole. It makes the good things better and bad things just tremendously worse.
[00:35:19] David Flores: It’s especially so for women and people of color. You’re already on edge and now you’ve got this other thing that goes on top of that. When I heard that news and I read that I just thought, “Oh, that poor guy.” You also realize it could be worse or that he could have had it going on for much longer than that. It’s tough being in that role. Someone who is in a smaller role at times has even more isolation from the rest of the organization. I know what you do. You know what I do. You understand when I say certain things, that as a community manager, this means that.
That’s not always the case within an entire organization. You may very well work for people who aren’t online all the time, and that’s okay. That also means that your role, you’re not just representing your professional self as this is our organization. Sometimes you’re being called on to actually make what seems like policy and that’s when you have to really step back because you’re not necessarily that person or you’re not that person.
Unlike the person you mentioned at, I believe, Twitter who maybe has that authority. If you don’t have that authority, you’re now just making the best decision you can and hoping that that would work out. It can be a little isolating and feeling like, “Well, I’m the only one here who does this and I’m the only one that understands it.” Having said that, I have to say I’m grateful for the support that I get at my current job as a social media manager. I’m just grateful that I’m working with people that actually get what I’m doing and even when they don’t give me the room to work and operate and find out where I’m supposed to go with things. It’s hard.
Certainly, you see these decisions that are being made that now have national political implications, the Facebook boycott. There are some social media managers that argue, “Geez, this isn’t our role. This isn’t what we should be doing. It’s not.” Then there are others that have like totally, “Yes, but if our job means anything, we do have to have an opinion. We have to have a say in this.”
It all comes together. There’s no place where you say, “Okay. Well, I’m just free of politics and I’m free of concerns about social issues.” That place doesn’t exist, at least as far as I can see online and in message boards. Now, I do know message boards that say, “We’re not going to have that conversation. We’re banning political conversations.” That’s a choice. Even then, if you watch them, there comes a point where they still have to make that decision that, “Okay, I’m talking about the economy. Is that political?” Well, it depends how you see it or I’m talking about health. What’s the most political thing that’s going on right now? Wearing a mask. Can we have that conversation? I don’t know. It depends on what your policies are.
For an online community, you have to read that room and say, “Okay. This is how we’re going to do it here.” Now, when you get out into Twitter, and Facebook and then you have larger issues and questions. I don’t run a Facebook group but I would imagine that all of those things, apply in a Facebook group. You’re just moderating that content. You’re saying, “This is our group. This is what we talk about. This is who we are. We don’t talk about this. We remove that.”
I do know people who belong to some Facebook groups where it’s very much like, “Yes. That’s the conversation we’re not having. That’s where we’re going to be and we’re going to stay away from that because it makes the rest of the conversations untenable because all we’re here to do is talk about cats or cooking, or whatever.” That’s an important thing. It’s just also a reminder that as a person, you do bring that with you as a community manager.
I recently was talking with a colleague who works at another school. One of the things that I realized in talking with that person was that they were feeling isolated. They’re working for people who maybe didn’t fully get what was happening and she was catching flack about some of the things going on in terms of responding. You realize that for some social community managers and that sort of thing, it can be isolating. It can definitely be isolating, and it’s good to have forums like this, online message boards, that thing where you can go, and at least realize, “Okay. These people understand what it is that I do for a living. They understand the pressures. They get what I’m dealing with on a daily basis.”
Let’s be honest, it’s that way for any profession with any amount of human contact involved whether you’re a physician, or a politician, or whatever. You actually have to find your group. It’s paradoxical because if you are a community manager, at the end of the day, you may really just be like, “I don’t want to talk to any more people,” and yet you still need to find some people to talk to you about what it is like to deal with other people in an online community. That’s that kind of that bit of a paradox there, right?
[00:40:51] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. I get it because I manage a small online community. I have for 19 years now. The same community. I started it; I still am responsible for it. I banned politics early on and it’s just not a community where things crop up. It’s about the martial arts and people tend to just want to talk about the martial arts. If you look at my personal channels, and if you knew 2016, 2015 Patrick, you would know a different Patrick because up until that point, I felt that my primary work in this profession was to bring people together around common interests and let them discover how much they should hate each other later. After they already know each other, let them come together over sports or the martial arts or programming and not suck up 80% of our moderator time digging through what they think about politicians. Later if they become friends in other contexts, they can then see, “Okay. I actually need to hate this person because they’re stupid.” Vice versa that’s how I saw my role but as Trump rose up in 2016, I think for the first time my life I felt the need to really be public about things and felt it was for me anyway a stand-up and be counted type of moment to say, “Hey. This is terrible. I can’t not say anything about this.”
Since then, my feed is just a disaster of politics. It’s just for the last four or five years, it’s a disaster of politics and just constantly talking about what the heck is wrong with people and what’s going on in the world? Again, why are masks political? Why is this guy doing these things and why is half the country okay with it, and just everything that’s going on. I say this as a white person. I say this as someone who has lived a fairly privileged life.
I haven’t had to deal with some of the challenges that other people have based upon their gender or their race or economic status or any of those things. But like, man, Trump, pandemic, economic disparity, racial injustice, which has existed forever, and then all of those things coming together right here in 2020. It’s just a unique time. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s a unique time. To your point, it puts a strain on everything and it puts a strain on how we see ourselves and the responsibility that we have with the platforms that we manage. I think most of us are doing the best that we can. I don’t really have anything to say. I don’t have anything extra to add to that, just that we can only do the best we can and we should always be striving to do a little better.
[00:43:15] David Flores: All that. Certainly, as a Latino online, I have my opinions and I have my sense of the world. Since 2016, I have had to be, I felt, more political in my personal communications because I can’t imagine not being. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a question of survival. It’s not a question of whether or not I want to feel more comfortable or whatever.
[00:43:45] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s not a fun choice. It’s not like you’re just choosing to play a game here.
[00:43:49] David Flores: Yes. I have to speak out. It can’t be all of what I do because there’s this need to express my frustration with what’s going on, but also recognize that there is certainly a professional aspect of this. Where I try to be conscious of this, as I’m tweeting is to say, “I’m going to share messages about George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, how immigrant children are being treated in this country, the state of race relations, and also just how America is going forward as a nation.”
I’m also still interested in and fascinated by this field as a field but the two things have come together now. This is where it’s very different from maybe where things were in 2015, where you can keep things very separate. Facebook and Twitter, some of us knew that politics were impacting those message boards, those communities, but what we did not know was how it would get amped up and how it would suddenly become a key component of a major change in how things that previously were considered morally repugnant were now stated as daily facts. I use the phrase morally repugnant because that’s something that we actually used in Prodigy time to say we weren’t going to post certain things because they were morally repugnant. That now gets– I basically go onto Twitter in the morning, there’s probably been a tweet by someone overnight, and it’s likely to be morally repugnant and it’s just sitting there. Now people are commenting on it, and that’s the entire day’s focus.
On the other hand, I still have my professional interests and my job, which is to not just talk about those things, or maybe not to even talk about those things so much at all in my professional career. In terms of my profession, my professional career is representing Albert Einstein College of Medicine on their accounts, but my profession is social media and community messaging. That’s where I think these controversies such as Twitch banning certain people, YouTube kicking off certain accounts.
Those are actually really relevant not just to the day’s politics, but also to what I do for a profession, what I do for a living, because where do those accounts go? Where do the followers go? Should they have ever been there in the first place? These are all questions that we grapple with. It’s frightening, and fascinating, more frightening than fascinating. I hope one day it will be more fascinating than frightening, because we’ve corrected but right now, no.
[00:46:58] Patrick O’Keefe: Sometimes I wonder if I’ve tweeted myself out of opportunities and jobs, but that’s okay. That’s where we’re at. David, you’ve managed to bring it right back around to Prodigy. I think I’ll wrap it up here. I’m so grateful for you, allowing us to benefit from your experience and knowledge. Thanks for taking the time.
[00:47:16] David Flores: Sure. You’re welcome, Patrick, and thanks for having me. I thought this was a very interesting conversation and glad we could talk.
[00:47:23] Patrick O’Keefe: We have been talking with David Flores, director of social media for Albert Einstein College of Medicine. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. Thank you for listening.
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.