The Chief Community Officer Hype Machine
As we celebrate Community Signal’s 7th birthday, Patrick takes questions from Community Signal listeners and supporters in this first ever “Ask Patrick Anything” episode of the show.
- If everything had worked with CNN+, what would community look like for the platform?
- Would you rather be a working community professional or a community consultant?
- Will we ever see community leaders in the C-suite as the norm?
2023 will be Patrick’s 25th year of community work, so this is an opportunity to reflect on that passage of time. A lot has changed and, surprisingly, some things haven’t.
Joining Patrick to ask the questions and dig deeper is previous guest Jared Smith. They also cover:
- The early promise of CNN+’s Interview Club
- How community moderation tools have changed over the years
- Why community isn’t special when it comes to the C-suite
You have to commit to be successful with D2C products (11:55): “If you build interactive products and kill them after three weeks, it’s hard to prove out anything. It’s hard to build out loyalty. It’s hard to build out a D2C product if you’re not willing to commit.” -Patrick O’Keefe
The magic of the unexpected in media products (13:04): “I think there is something magical that can happen when you take some of the expected nature of television or media, of what we expect is going to happen, and you throw the consumer, the community, the members, the subscribers into that. You give them the freedom to make other things happen.” -Patrick O’Keefe
Operators drive moderator tool development more than platforms (22:24): “[When it comes to moderator tools], it’s often the community of people who need something driving it more so than the platforms themselves.” -Patrick O’Keefe
Developers still focus on the frontend more than the administrative backend (23:35): “It’s a cliché to say that software developers focus on the frontend and the user experience and not so much the admin and moderation experience. That’s a cliché in our business. I think that is largely the case with some exceptions. Those exceptions tend to be people who have run communities themselves or who have a really good foundational understanding of the web from being in it for so long.” -Patrick O’Keefe
If you want to make a difference in moderator tooling, start with the communities that don’t have money (23:58): “I get pitched by developers, and I always tell them that the way to make change in this industry is to make your product available to the people who don’t have anything. The Fortune 500s of the world are always going to have money, and they’re always going to have engineers. They can figure their way around problems and pay for solutions. Most communities, 99.9% of people, don’t have any money. That’s where you make change.” -Patrick O’Keefe
Artificial intelligence isn’t a moderation panacea (24:36): “If you think about it [going back 25 years], forums are not dead and the mod tools are basically the same that we had. Remove user, close thread, things like that, a lot of that stuff. It’s the same. I also don’t think it’s a bad thing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. One of the things about these AIs is sometimes they get it really, really wrong in really offensive ways. You still need that human element to counter that.” -Jared Smith
Banning Andrew Anglin is not brave, it’s obvious (27:09): “When [Elon Musk decides] to unban Andrew Anglin, who’s arguably the most prominent real nazi on the internet, the founder of The Daily Stormer, the most prominent nazi publication on the internet [that makes Twitter a place I am less likely to engage]. … Andrew Anglin can join any platform I own and he’ll be banned. That’s not a brave thing. That’s not a talking point or like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ It’s obvious. It’s not an amazing thing.” -Patrick O’Keefe
Hyping the chief community officer role isn’t helpful (39:46): “We’ve seen these tweets that are like, ‘Half of the Fortune 500 will have chief community officers in the next 10 years,’ or ‘10% of this or all big companies or all the Fortune 100 or the future of companies will be a chief community officer.’ It’s all hype. It’s all nonsense. For the most part, it’s to encourage hype in our industry. I don’t see it as healthy. I don’t see it as good. I don’t see it as aspirational. I don’t see those people as friends or allies of the work.” -Patrick O’Keefe
Be wary of the hype (41:42): “I don’t trust anyone who says chief community officers are the future of community, that there’s going to be one at every big company. It’s always hype. It’s always because they have some financially-vested interest in community work proliferating in that way or at least sounding like your friend. They want to sound like they’re in your corner or they’re your ally because there is some financial incentive tied to that for them long-term.” -Patrick O’Keefe
About Jared Smith
Jared Smith is a manager of software engineering at BoomTown in Charleston, SC, leading engineering teams and encouraging developer career growth, including a ten-year stint working on and eventually leading a team of engineers dedicated to implementing WordPress for real estate agent websites. In addition to BoomTown, Jared runs @chswx (shorthand for Charleston Weather) and the chswx.com blog, where he writes forecasts and disseminates National Weather Service alerts for the Charleston, SC metro area. Over nearly 15 years, @chswx has emerged as a key catalyst in the weather conversation, not only acting as a conduit for sending alerts but also for receiving reports in real-time, improving situational awareness for public, media, and NWS warning forecasters alike.
- Jared Smith, our guest host
- BoomTown, where Jared is manager of software engineering
- Charleston Weather (including @chswx on Twitter), a project that Jared runs
- Wesley Faulker’s appearance on Community Signal
- Wikipedia page for CNN+, the streaming service Patrick helped launch
- A clip from the Interview Club interview with Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Dr. Anthony Fauci
- Bassey Etim on LinkedIn, who has been on several Community Signal episodes
- Mastodon, free, open source decentralized social media platform
- Ryan Hall, a weather YouTuber
- Brad Williams’ appearance on Community Signal
- Invision Community and Discourse, two community software options recommended by Patrick
- Community Signal episode covering Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter
- COPPA, Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act
- DMCA, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:18] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, and thank you for listening to Community Signal. It’s been quiet around these parts recently as we’ve been dealing with a mix of holidays, delays, and locking in guests, and on my end, baby stuff. I’m looking forward to getting back on track with this, our first episode of 2023. 2023 is my 25th year in online community work. I try to avoid episodes of the show that focus too much on me and my work just because I feel like there is a danger for self-indulgence.
But after some private encouragement, I’ve decided to do an Ask Patrick Anything episode of the show. I put a call out to our Patreon supporters and our social media channels asking for questions, and I’ll answer many of them on this episode as well as a few more on Patreon. Rather than asking myself the questions, I have a special guest co-host, Jared Smith, who was a previous guest on the program and an old friend of mine.
Maybe he’ll challenge me or at least push a bit on some of my answers. Before I bring Jared on, I wanted to mention that, in December, we crossed seven years of Community Signal. In honor of our seventh birthday, I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who has supported our program. Thank you to all of our regular listeners and those who subscribe to our feed and share the show with others. I noticed the vast majority of these mentions and it means a lot to us.
Thank you to our Patreon supporters, including Paul Bradley, Jenny Weigle, Marjorie Anderson, Carol Benovic-Bradley, Maggie McGary, and Jules Standen. Your generous support helps keep the show going. Thank you to our show’s producer since day zero, Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley, our recently departed editorial lead for making Community Signal better. Yes, that’s two thank-yous for Carol.
Thank you to our previous sponsors and the guests who have shared thoughtfully and continue to do great ethical work in the wider industry after the fact. Thank you for listening. Now, let’s introduce Jared. Jared Smith is a manager of software engineering at BoomTown in Charleston, South Carolina, leading engineering teams and encouraging developer career growth, including a 10-year stint working on and eventually leading a team of engineers dedicated to implementing WordPress for real estate agent websites.
In addition to BoomTown, Jared runs @chswx, shorthand for Charleston Weather, and the chswx.com blog where he writes forecasts and disseminates National Weather Service alerts for the Charleston, South Carolina metro area. Over nearly 15 years, @chswx has emerged as a key catalyst in the weather conversation, not only acting as a conduit for sending alerts but also for receiving reports in real-time, improving situational awareness for the public media and National Weather Service warning forecasters alike. Jared, welcome back.
[00:02:40] Jared Smith: Hey, Patrick. Good to see you, man.
[00:02:41] Patrick O’Keefe: Thanks for agreeing to do this.
[00:02:43] Jared Smith: Of course. This will be a lot of fun.
[00:02:45] Patrick O’Keefe: I’m going to hand the show over to you now.
[00:02:48] Jared Smith: All right. It’s rare we get to turn the tables on you. We got a lot of good questions from a good variety of folks here. I’ve been taking a look at them. Some of these are just fascinating, so let’s just get into it. First question is from Wesley Faulkner (former guest) and he’s asking, “If everything worked as you planned at CNN+, what would that community look like?”
[00:03:07] Patrick O’Keefe: I think the one positive thing I can say about what we planned is the first iteration did make it out and how many people got to see it because it was killed so quickly. We launched a product, Interview Club, with CNN+, March 29th of this year. It was a live Q&A product where CNN+ subscribers could submit questions that would then be asked by CNN personalities to guests. In the middle of that is where my team and the community live. All those questions came through my team.
That was the Community and Interaction team. We hand-reviewed, there was no AI or automation and no need for it at that scale. We reviewed each question for guidelines that we authored and that were community-minded and not meant to take out tough questions but meant to create a baseline for respect and what you’d expect from a brand like CNN. We would approve and reject questions. We rejected many questions.
We weren’t afraid to do that even for paying subscribers. Then those questions would go to the editorial team or the content team. Sometimes they didn’t like everything we approved, but that’s life and that’s why you need a separation between those two teams because I think sometimes if some of the editorial-minded folks, not just the ones we worked with but anywhere, have their way with some of these live shows, there are certain questions that a host would prefer to ask a guest.
In this case, the community really guided that conversation. Then we hosted I don’t know how many shows using that product. One that I know I should add is that the community would upvote questions. The ones that were asked would at least partially be signaled by the community as far as what was the most important question. Then the content team would make their choices and it was a mix of things.
That product made it out the door. We hosted several shows, probably, if I’m guessing maybe 20-something. The sad thing is we tested 60 shows, 80 shows before live. We did way more testing, over 6,000 questions – moderated pre-launch test questions – than we did live. We had some great conversations. My favorite was Dr. Fauci with Dr. Gupta. Dr. Fauci was great. He said people’s names from the community. You can kind of recognize his professionalism.
I think that’s one answer, but the answer I think Wesley’s after is sort of like, “What would that community look like moving forward?” I think there are some things, and I think we have another question about CNN and where it could have gone and what it meant, but we wanted to get into topicality. It’s natural that conversations have specific topics or areas of interest. Then the progression might be that we bring people together based upon expressed interest in that topic and maybe break people into smaller groups if we could. What would that have taken? Discussion groups, conversations, smaller watch groups that could watch together. We’ll never know.
[00:05:42] Jared Smith: You alluded to that follow-up here. This is from Frank Field. He’s got a perfect follow-up here. Your community work at CNN+ never really had a chance to really get started, so he never got to experience it. What was that community supposed to accomplish for CNN and the members ultimately? What elements of that community do you think would be successful or at least useful for other media to implement? Why do you think so?
[00:06:05] Patrick O’Keefe: At the start, I think what it’s supposed to accomplish for members is just another value-add to CNN+ really because CNN+ came in the market at a relatively cheap or low price point. I think it was $4.99 and you could sign up for half off for life for the first month or so. It was a $2.99, $2.50 price point, whatever it was. I think that was it. It was $2.50 or $5.
You had live programming from CNN. CNN had dedicated content that they were programming on a live basis to CNN+ subscribers. You had CNN’s legacy content, on-demand content, new documentaries, and things of that nature. Then you had this third pillar, which was interactive, which is what Interview Club was. We were trying to build an interactive experience from paying members of a subscription service, which, in the mainstream streaming market, [chuckles] there’s a sentence, is unique for the big players.
You can’t go anywhere on any streaming service that I know of, of the mainstream consumer streaming networks or streaming services, where you can enter text and have it be displayed on the screen right in the service. It’s not revolutionary. Obviously, you and me have been in online communities for a very long time. We met in forums back in ’01. I remember live chats with bands back in Yahoo! in the mid-’90s.
Live interaction online is not new. Some people who worked on this product will call it revolutionary. I will not. It was not revolutionary. It was interesting for a streamer. We did something interesting for CNN because, in that launch, it was the only UGC on a CNN-hosted property. Everything had been pushed off to social networks. I think that coming back to Wesley’s question even, we had deeper aspirations. CNN had a very smart group of community minds. Some of which are still there.
Bassey Etim, who hired me, super smart. David Williams, a longtime person, very smart. My team that we had hired, I had four people of varying degrees of experience in community, and then I’ll throw myself into that pile. We were building allies internally as far as what we could do to drive community deeper at CNN. After CNN+ launched, if everything went well, I think this gets to the crux of Wesley’s question is like, next, we were going to expand into different countries globally.
What I wanted for my career, what I talked about with my boss, is I wanted to make the pitch to be the global community director for CNN+ and build local teams who we’re familiar with the laws and the norms of those regions and have them reporting to the main office, build out this global team that was all building interactive products around the world, never got the chance.
The example I always talked about with bigger CNN because there’s so much we could have done, the fun one I always used to throw out there half-joke, half-serious was I want to bring comments back to CNN.com. What I wanted to do was to make them for CNN+ subscribers. You could go to CNN.com and you could comment on an article, but only if you were a CNN+ subscriber.
That would do all sorts of fun things like it would help mitigate trolling and spam and bad behaviors because there’s that gate to entry. It would give a value-add to people. It would bring them to CNN.com to view ads and then participate and spend more time on the site. I always thought that was fun. I talked about that with some long-timers. They were like, “Yes.” We’d love to see comments back. It was sad when they went away.
[00:09:00] Jared Smith: It’s funny you talk about that because, yes, I remember when there were comments on CNN.com. It’s been interesting to see that there was just a media in general in that mid-2000s where blogosphere was really blowing up. What did the blogosphere have? It had comments and everybody was like, “Okay, it’s not a blog if it doesn’t have comments.” I think you might remember that whole argument there. Eventually, it went to the point where we hit this peak where it’s like, “Oh yes, comments, so absolutely not. Goodbye.”
That was kind of sad because it is kind of cool to see what people think of something right on the post. There were services out there that were designed to bring the conversation back onto the website. The one that I used when I was at ReadWriteWeb was called Echo. That was probably the best-known one. There were a few others. Oh, goodness. There was one that I used on my own personal site that I don’t really remember anymore. I have to go fish out the backups for that. There were a couple of these services that were trying to do that just never really took hold, I feel like.
[00:09:56] Patrick O’Keefe: Would something like Disqus fall in there?
[00:09:58] Jared Smith: Disqus, yes, they started getting in on that a little bit, but they were trying to build a social network through their own comments, which was really interesting. They’re still out there. People are still very much using them. Honestly, I don’t blame them because accepting comments means that you’re accepting input. Then my programmer brain goes on and then you’re accepting input and then you’re accepting potential SQL injections and all sorts of fun things like that as we both know very well from our times doing HPV.
[00:10:23] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, Disqus is still around.
[00:10:24] Jared Smith: Yes, absolutely still around. It’s a solid product. It’s not going anywhere. It serves a purpose for sure. In the context of where things have gone lately, and we’re going to talk a little bit about Mastodon and the like here, I wonder if comments are going to have a resurgence. We’ll get back to that.
[00:10:38] Patrick O’Keefe: I think they will. One thing I’ll just shout out real quick. Sorry to jump over you. Listeners of the show have heard this before. People love citing The New York Times as an example of a retention business that has grown over the years. The New York Times has done very well. Subscriber revenue and retention. We heard it at CNN many times always in meetings where executives would cite this, New York Times as a model or an example of what we could be by going direct to the consumer and not going through, say, the cable and television companies and having carriage revenue be the main source of revenue.
What people don’t talk about is The New York Times has had comments for a very long time and they never shut them down. They may not have them in all articles. They may choose which article to open them on and they may not leave them open forever, but there are always comments there. Then there’s a team, to the best of my knowledge is still well-staffed, that Bassey Etim, a previous guest of the show that I mentioned earlier, built an 18-person community desk at The New York Times.
That may not have appeared to be like this genius move in the first year, two years, three years. Over a period of time, The New York Times committed and stayed there and maybe the investment has gone up or gone down from year to year, but it’s always been there and they never shove those people off. Why did they do that? Well, Bassey said on the show before that they have data that shows that the people who come are more likely to subscribe and retain.
I’m sure they have other interesting data points that give them that thing. If you build interactive products and you kill them after three weeks, it’s hard to prove out anything. It’s hard to build out loyalty. It’s hard to build out a D2C product if you’re not willing to commit over a couple of years, at least if not more, to be successful. I think the tragedy of CNN+ is that it didn’t fail or succeed on its own merit.
We got generous severance packages. A lot of the people I know have been snapped up. Half of my team of four has been. Two more are still out there. If you’re hiring, let me know. I have some great community minds for you. That’s the thing. We didn’t succeed. We didn’t fail. We didn’t do either no matter what anyone says because we really didn’t get the chance. Sorry to interrupt there. Second part is Frank’s question, I think, that I was going to answer.
[00:12:37] Jared Smith: Yes. I’ll tell you, that is exactly it. Three weeks is not enough time to learn anything about anything. There are so many things to say about that. The second part of Frank’s question was, what elements of that community do you think would be successful for other media to implement and why do you think so? I’m just going to jump in and say that Interview Club certainly sounds like something that could have a lot of legs with other media outlets, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.
[00:13:02] Patrick O’Keefe: From our product specifically, I think there is something magical that can happen when you take some of the expected nature of television or of media of what we expect is going to happen. You throw the consumer, the community, the members, the subscribers into that. You give them the freedom to make other things happen. Interview Club, the thing that we fought for on our team and had to push back and I always said this, if this feels like 8:00 PM on CNN, what a failure. You know what I mean?
It’s not that 8:00 PM on CNN is bad. It’s that we’re supposed to be different. Why would people submit questions and upvote questions and tune in live, which is what we’re trying to incentivize, if it feels like just another primetime show on a major news network? Those shows are great. They’re well-produced, whatever. We don’t need to do that. The thing that I would always push back on is that need for structure and it’s a legal conversation.
CNN’s legal team is very large and qualified and smart and I enjoyed working with them. They were great partners. They empowered us to do things that were interesting, but not everyone agreed with that and not everyone wanted to step out of that comfort zone. That would have made a product that wasn’t interesting. I think that there is something cool about the live element.
Everyone does it. It’s not revolutionary. It’s not unique, but how can you take something that’s expected and make it different with the community’s input? I think one thing we were working on that people should think about is the intentionality of actions in a product, especially micro-actions, and what that should lead to as far as notifications. We had upvoting in the community. One thing we were working towards is like, “What does an upvote mean?” because we can only ask so many questions in a half-hour show.
I think the record was 12, but the average was more like 6 to 8. Looking more toward six. When you have a product that’s forecasted to have a million subscribers in a year or two, six to eight questions per show, you’re not going to hit a lot of people, so what do you do? You push them toward upvoting. You make upvoting matter by showcasing people who upvote and by making them a part of that question so that the original asker isn’t the only person.
It’s not about you being online at 8:00 PM when we launched the page. That’s not why you get the attention. You don’t have to. You can have a life. You can have kids. You can have a job. You don’t have to be refreshing. You can still be highlighted because you came in later and upvoted. You can be shown on screen. You can be shown on the site. You can be shown in the credits, whatever it is.
There’s so only so much a host can say credit-wise that they can shout out people, they can mention people, but they only have so much time. The text on the screen, the overlays, the website plays a role. Then, of course, if you upvote a question, in our case, that’s expressed interest in that question. You get a notification if that question’s answered just like you had asked it because, effectively, you had. I would just think about that and how we just give away likes very cheaply these days.
On some platforms, they are cheap like a like on Facebook or a like on Twitter. Maybe they’re not on your platform. Maybe you have a smaller group, a tighter group, a more interested group that’s expressing interest. Don’t give away those micro-actions into the void as simple like nothing or data points that go in a spreadsheet, but no one really cares about, like, tied into something that happens next. That’s what I would say.
[00:16:09] Jared Smith: It’s interesting because a lot of what you described with what CNN+ was poised to do, it reminds me a lot of YouTubers in a sense and some of the community that they are building around their streams. A lot of that is real-time, but a lot of it is not, and several out there that do a really good job of using polls. They solicit their communities across social media. They use polls on YouTube, things like that.
They do a really good job of integrating that. It was really interesting to see that that model in a sense getting into the big time. To do that with cable news and to make that more of a conversation as opposed to what we traditionally associate with cable news is just kind of talk at you. That’s really cool. I think there is going to be a place for that. I really do because these YouTubers, you want to talk about getting loyalty. I run in the weather space.
[00:17:02] Patrick O’Keefe: Very in-the-moment content.
[00:17:03] Jared Smith: It’s very in-the-moment.
[00:17:04] Patrick O’Keefe: Very stale, very fast, right?
[00:17:06] Jared Smith: Yes, exactly. It’s very real-time that can be dramatic. There’s a guy, Ryan Hall. He has this weather YouTube channel that just absolutely erupted in the last year. He gets a million views easily. He makes thousands of dollars to stream and he is incredibly connected with his community. That loyalty built very quickly. He kind of caught lightning in a bottle. There’s a lot of just really interesting case studies out there right now as far as what that looks like. I think that should give some hope to others. He’s doing it as, until recently, a one-man show. It’s interesting. You put a whole full force of producers and engineers and talent behind that. I think that could be pretty cool.
[00:17:47] Patrick O’Keefe: Some would say you didn’t need all those people. It wouldn’t have mattered frankly in my view, just my perspective based on what we’ve seen from the Warner Bros. Discovery post-merger layoffs. I don’t think any of that would’ve mattered. I think it wouldn’t have mattered how big or small we were. It doesn’t matter if the team was too big. It would’ve been gone.
Anyway, I was asked to stay when the first layoffs came out and I chose to take a severance and leave because, honestly, it made too much sense. The package made too much sense. I just had a baby. It was essentially nine months’ leave. I was like, “I just should take this,” because there was nothing interesting happening in the product over the next year. It was going to be very static, the same, but with less staff.
The people that did choose to stay ended up getting laid off a month and a half later, two months later anyway. All I would’ve done was spun my wheels for two months and then got the same package again. One thing I also wanted to shout out from what you said, and I think a lot of YouTubers are good at this and it’s something that we were trying to be very conscious of, is there’s three stages to that Interview Club experience. They’re the obvious ones. The pre, live, and the post.
How do you make that all work? In our case, pre meant you can submit questions in advance. You can upvote questions in advance. You subscribe to be updated on that show, be told when it’s going to be live, et cetera. You can receive some information on what’s going to happen during that show. Live, you show up. We wanted to encourage people to show up and watch the program. That was one metric that we had.
How do you do that? Well, you create a good product, but also you give people something to do. In other words, we made a point of choosing a couple of questions that were submitted live. Didn’t matter how many upvotes they had. If you were there with us and you were watching live, we could tell. We knew that. The question was coming in. We would ask some of the live questions, call them out on the show, thank them for watching live, and give people a reason to come back.
I think there’s so much to iterate on there as far as showing things on the screen because CNN is such a high-level production. We can show things live that don’t go into the finished exported clip, right? Just because we have a list of names on the live doesn’t mean that they have to be on the clip that goes out post-show. Then you get into post and all three stages pull into the notification system that we talked about. You want to know where the show is live even at the moment your question’s being asked.
We wanted to get to a point where you got a notification, a post notification like, “Your question is about to be asked. Tune in now.” It’s tough because there is delays even in a live show. From the point at which we approve a question to when a talent could ask it even in the fastest environment was probably a minute and a half just because of how it has to go through. You have to read it. You have to approve it. It has to go to content. They have to see it. They have to select it to show to the host.
The host has to look at it and read it and then it’s to the guest. Then you have the internet and everything that’s happening also around it. Then post-show, you get into not just putting up the whole feed but also clipping it out to answer watchable clips that we could show and tying that back to the person who submitted the question and the people who upvoted them, letting them know that question clip is available, giving them credit on the question clip on the website and the app, and then deciding there was a battle here or there on what we could share via social media.
Some of us, including me, wanted a dedicated Interview Club Twitter account just because the volume of content we were producing was, I believe, the highest volume of content on CNN+ on a weekly basis because we wanted to get to three shows a day, five days a week. Theoretically, it was a 15-show, seven and a half hours of content each week with theoretically 30 different guests and talent that are all taggable on social media that could retweet and share these clips.
There was a lot of opportunity there to do stuff outside of the product too. Pre, live, post, just think through those stages. Everyone says like evergreen. We had a lot of content that would be evergreen. That’s not the goal as much as just thinking through each stage and making sure that it’s an available post-show and people don’t have to watch a whole kind of clip for 15, 20 minutes, whatever.
[00:21:22] Jared Smith: That’s fantastic. I wish it’d worked out. That was not an indictment on the model. That’s an indictment on something else. This is not Merger Signal. We’ll put it that way.
[00:21:31] Patrick O’Keefe: I’ve spent a lot of time on CNN.
[00:21:33] Jared Smith: Let’s change gears a little bit. Let’s go into your time in the web industry. You’ve been doing this a minute. Brad Williams asks, “25 years is a long time in the web industry, let alone managing online communities. In your experience, what are some of the bigger changes you’ve seen in community moderation today, tools and techniques, et cetera, versus the ‘Wild West’ days of the internet?”
[00:21:56] Patrick O’Keefe: Thanks for the question, Brad. Also, thanks, Wesley and Frank, from earlier. Brad, a former guest of the show, friend of mine, also been working online for a very long time. It’s an interesting question. Focusing on moderation tooling, I don’t want to be pessimistic toward people because there are good companies doing good work and open source developers and just a random person making something cool that are doing all sorts of great things for mod tools.
You hear of add-ons people use on Twitch or Discord. It’s often the community of people who need something driving something more so than the platforms themselves. On one hand, I don’t know what I expect because, ultimately, mod tools are essentially review, remove, ban like there’s some flavor of that to different iterations. When you hear about innovation, oftentimes, it’s like machine learning or AI or some sort of automation. People say, “That’s innovation.”
I don’t know if that’s the case. I don’t know. I don’t know what I would expect to do, but I don’t think it’s come as far as people think. I don’t think it’s come far enough because if I look at– again, we met in ’01 in a forum running phpBB 1. If you look at the mod tools that were in phpBB 1 and then you installed what exists today, there’s differences. Do not get me wrong. There are more options and more cool things.
I don’t want to take away things because there are all these good software developers and things. I like Invision Community a lot. Discourse does good work. There’s all these things. They have come a long way in some ways. In many ways, it’s very similar. Maybe that’s an unfair opinion. Maybe those bells and whistles or things I’m thinking of as bells and whistles are like innovation.
I think those software platforms I mentioned have done interesting things with mod tools. I think there are others who have done interesting things with mod tools. I don’t want to take away from anyone, but it’s a cliché to say that software developers focus on the front end and the user experience and not so much the admin and moderation experience. That’s a cliché in our business.
I think that is largely the case with some exceptions. Those exceptions tend to be people who have run communities themselves or who have a really good foundational understanding of the web from being in it for so long. What are the bigger changes? It’s hard for me to pinpoint one or two. I get pitched by developers. I always tell them that the way to make a change in this industry is to make your product available to the people who don’t have anything.
The Fortune 500s of the world are always going to have money and they’re always going to have engineers. They can figure their way around problems and pay for solutions. Most communities, 99.9% of people, don’t have any money. That’s where you make change. That’s not something you build a business around always. Sometimes you can. There are examples, but it’s not a satisfying answer. People have made a difference and there are changes, but they’re so gradual over a period of 25 years that it’s hard to look back and say like, “Gosh, that’s the big thing,” and so it’s a stinko answer.
[00:24:36] Jared Smith: If you think about it, you said it yourself, you go into a forum today. Forums are not dead and the mod tools are basically the same that we had. Remove user, close thread, things like that, a lot of that stuff. It’s the same. I also don’t think it’s a bad thing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. One of these things about these AIs is sometimes they get it really, really wrong in really offensive ways. You still need that human element to counter that. That’s the main thing.
[00:25:07] Patrick O’Keefe: ChatGPT, will you moderate my forum?
[00:25:09] Jared Smith: I don’t know about that. [chuckles] This is a good segue to a question by the name of this guy, Jared Smith. Weird dude. What I want to know, then I’ll set it up here, is much as Brad is talking about what’s come forward in 25 years and old Wild West of the internet. It seems like just in the last few months after the Elon Musk acquisition of Twitter that there has been a sharp swing in the pendulum towards self-hosted, federated, basically social media on the web again if you think about it, not concentrated in one or two particular places but using protocols over products.
Having been in this for a long time and knowing some of the things that have evolved over time when we got started, COPPA was just the first real stab at regulation and then there have been other things that have come along over time. What’s the advice that you would have for somebody who was never run a community before, but they’re excited about, say, Mastodon and they want to get started running an instance?
[00:26:14] Patrick O’Keefe: I might have just had a Mastodon notification on my audio because I opened Mastodon. You’ve been around for a long time, too. I feel like it’s the web that you’ve always wanted. First of all, you’re someone who misses FriendFeed, correct?
[00:26:25] Jared Smith: It was great.
[00:26:26] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s interesting to me. For those who don’t know, you can look at the Community Signal Twitter or my personal Twitter and see a thread that basically says like, “I’m out of here.” I watched Elon Musk and the decisions he made. I think that it’s just not a place where I want to be. I don’t judge anyone who’s still there. I know you’re still there. You provide crucial information to people in a specific area weather-wise, who might depend on Twitter as a system of notification for their own safety. I totally respect that, so I don’t judge anyone who’s still on Twitter.
For me personally like in this type of things I write and the way that I engage on there or what I’m sharing, it’s very much about just positioning myself as someone who enjoys community work and wants to share about that. I could do that in a lot of places and no one’s going to live or die. When he starts to unban Andrew Anglin, who’s arguably the most prominent real Nazi on the internet, the founder of The Daily Stormer, the most prominent Nazi publication on the internet, when you unban people who have been banned for years who are obvious bans, I would say, Andrew Anglin can join any platform I own and he’ll be banned.
That’s not a brave thing. That’s not like a talking point or like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” It’s obvious. It’s not an amazing thing. When you’re doing things like that, I don’t know that it’s a platform that I personally feel comfortable being on. Things like that made it a little easier for me, but it’s hard because Twitter is the platform I’m most followed on. I don’t want to talk about Twitter. We have a Mastodon question.
I like Mastodon and I enjoy it. I’m enjoying the interaction I get on Mastodon. In some cases, I would say it’s more than what I saw on Twitter for the same kind of messages. I’m enjoying it. More to your question, I want to be clear and say I’ve been pretty direct in saying, and I’ve been there a couple of months now, Mastodon, I think two and a half months, in saying like I’m not going to show up and tell people what to do on Mastodon because we’ve always told people to observe and to learn a space.
To come in and just tell people what to do is not where I want to be. Also, it is very similar to the work I’ve already done and I’m not out of pocket to make suggestions. With that context, I would say that maybe you don’t want to start your own. [laughs] That’s my first part just like we tell people that you don’t always need to start a community. I think that this is doubly true for Mastodon, where you don’t always need to start an instance. Because starting an instance, to me, it’s not the same as starting a hosted community.
It’s not the same as starting a YouTube channel. It’s not the same as starting a blog. It’s this weird middle ground between online community and social network, where a quick summary would be like, “Twitter is very ‘me first.’ I subscribe to this person. They follow me. I can say whatever I want here.” Online communities are shared spaces. They have guidelines. You can’t do a lot of things.
You can do some things. That’s the space and that’s what happens there. If you don’t do those things, you will be thrown out. 99.9% of online communities function healthily. They have things figured out. They don’t have Nazi problems. They just ban them. It’s not a big deal. They’re not at a scale where it really matters. They see you. They kick you out. They move on with their lives. They don’t care if you’re unhappy.
No one cares if you’re unhappy, frankly, because it’s probably such a niche community that even if you complain to your friends, the best you’re going to have to happen is, “Oh, wow, they really did you wrong,” and then you’ll move on. It’s not some major corporation. Mastodon is in the middle because I feel like it’s more community-centric in many ways, and yet the people who are influxing into it are expecting the “me first” thing still.
The software is built that way where it is very like “me first” still because we’re following individuals and not usually conversations or topics or whatever even with hashtags. It can be a pain in the butt. It’s hard. It’s a challenge. It’s thankless. People don’t talk with any regard for Twitter’s moderators that I’ve seen in general if you’re outside the industry. I haven’t seen many kind words about them.
I only hear about them when they mess up. The same is true for Facebook, but these are people who are oftentimes distributed around the world, underpaid, outsourced, undertrained, under-resourced, no mental health resources, all these things that Facebook and these major corporations do to offload this emotional burden of their platforms that they profit from. It’s tough to work.
Know that you want to do this. You want to host software. You want to host open source software. Also, you know this. People have gotten so used to spinning up an app or something that’s just as easy as creating a username and password and adding a domain name and have a whole website that’s updated for me that people aren’t necessarily used to what it means to run software like this. That’s its own work.
You and me came up at a time when the person did all those things usually because they didn’t have any money. We were teenagers and we didn’t have any money, so we installed software. I remember learning what a local host was. I had someone on AIM and I was like, “What the heck’s a local host?” He’s like, “You just put local hosts and you move on.” I was like, “Oh, okay, great.”
Then maybe that’s too much of an inside reference. It doesn’t make any sense to people these days. If you get all that stuff done because the spirit of your question is really like the per-people side of it, I think it’s going to be a challenge. You have to have guidelines. You have to write policies. I would say don’t let another Mastodon instance necessarily influence what you want to be.
I think the beauty of Mastodon is that different instances have different goals and different groups they cater to. Don’t feel like you need to create an alternative instance that does the same exact thing as someone else. You need to follow everyone’s rules, but do learn from others and what they do well because I think that’s part of the beauty of a federated network in the sense that you can see people who have been successful, who you respect, and you can learn from them.
It’s more often than not tied to that open source nature of giving information freely and sharing freely of what we do and what we know and the knowledge that we have. It’s timing a queue, reading reports, applying standards, vetting volunteers, paying bills. There are better articles that are probably more well put together than I’m articulating here because I’m sure there are people who have thought about it very deeply and have run instances for years, but I would just not undersell that hard work.
Don’t get mad at someone and think that you should start a Mastodon instance because you don’t like how someone else runs theirs. If you’re just a user, it’s frankly probably better for you to find someone else’s instance and join that. I think we’ve both created communities by banning people before, where people who are banned go and start a forum of their own. Once they get over how much they don’t like us, they really don’t have much to talk about anymore. Those communities sometimes work, but sometimes usually don’t. Yes, I hate to be a pessimist.
[00:32:44] Jared Smith: I think you’re right up the alley. It isn’t 2001 anymore. It’s not an experiment anymore. There’s regulations. One of the most common pieces of advice that I’ve seen is register as a DMCA agent for your instance. You get safe harbor protection. There’s a lot of things that you and I did not have to think of in 2001 from over just experience that we just haven’t had to deal with.
I know I’ve flirted with the idea. I quickly realized, “Oh yes, I do not want to run another piece of software if I can help it. Nevermind.” The people burden with the administrative burden as well. You probably need to learn. You’re going to need to learn some server admin. I suspect that there are going to be middle-ground products here that will help people spin up niche communities if they want that. I think that’s a great thing.
[00:33:29] Patrick O’Keefe: Some businesses will pop up.
[00:33:31] Jared Smith: Yes, absolutely. I think there’s going to be a whole ecosystem around this, which is fantastic. I want to do a quick follow-up and then we have a couple of questions from Jenny Weigle here. Do you think that the moderation model of moderating a Facebook, a Twitter, a centralized network with millions, billions literally in Facebook’s case, of people on it, do you think that scales well?
[00:33:57] Patrick O’Keefe: No, because it hasn’t, right? There’s this thing that is uncomfortable, which is that they’re probably too big to manage in the way that most people would call responsible. If you have this hardened web perspective or you’re like an academic who studied this for years or you have this more weathered sense of, “Well, if two billion people want to get together, obviously, there’s going to be a percentage of things that happen that are awful,” and you either think that’s acceptable or you don’t and I think that’s a separate argument.
If you go to the average person in probably any country and you were to put something in front of them and say, “Hey, is this appropriate or not? Do you think this should be on the internet?” and you showed them something that’s been on Facebook that’s maybe inappropriate and you showed them a scale of different issues like 10 posts, they probably think those things shouldn’t be on there.
They were, right, until Facebook took them down or dealt with the report or whatever it was. There is some expectation setting that has to happen there around like, “Well, if you want this to exist,” that’s number one. If you think Facebook should exist, if you think it should exist, then there will be some problems unless you want every post-hand approved, which is not going to happen. It wouldn’t work.
It’s not Facebook anymore. It’s not what you think of as Facebook. You think Facebook as you can take a picture and have it go up right away to everyone who’s a friend of yours. That doesn’t work if you have to approve every repost. This is a service. It doesn’t work that way. I’ll reframe this and say I wouldn’t want to work at Facebook. Facebook has tried to recruit me twice. I got a message the day they announced layoffs this year from someone recruiting for Meta for a contract role.
I said no both times. I’m not interested. I wouldn’t want to work at Facebook. I wouldn’t want to work at Twitter even before Elon most likely. I just don’t have an interest in working at something that is such an albatross where there’s so much going on already. These platforms routinely try to turn back the clock. I’d rather be there when the clock was wound. Whatever euphemism or phrase you’d like to say, it’s always harder to chase down something that’s already set as a community norm if not impossible at that scale.
I really find myself being drawn more to things that grow slowly, that grow responsibly, that are willing to say, “You know what? We can tolerate this amount of activity. We cannot take anyone else and we can staff up and we can do more.” That’s what I find interesting. Clubhouse did this poorly too. The invite system was just a sham. It wasn’t staged growth responsibly. It was to create FOMO and get people to sell invites or have a value on invites. I haven’t heard anybody mention Clubhouse in, gosh, long time.
[00:36:26] Jared Smith: Flash in the pan there.
[00:36:27] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, and so I think there’s something to be said for responsible growth, but it’s not necessarily attractive to investors. It’s not attractive if you want to become a unicorn. I do think they’re obviously too big for what most people would consider responsible outside of the industry. Those of us in the industry have this sense of expectations where it can be like, “Well, there’s obviously going to be X percent of bad things. Otherwise, they wouldn’t exist.”
[00:36:48] Jared Smith: I think the other part too is the scale of the bad things and how influential those bad things can be on the public at large when you’re dealing with the moderation challenge, the size of Facebook you were dealing with as we saw here in 2016, literally, nation states using Facebook as a means to influence geopolitics and probably likely well before that too.
As the network gets larger and it gets more influential, not only did the number of issues become worse, it’s just the impact of those issues also becomes that much more worse. It’s about what I expected, honestly, because I hope that we’ve learned something. I hope that Mastodon can actually pave a new path, Mastodon or anything in the metaverse really where you have the moderation decisions are happening on a server-by-server basis like we used to do with forums. Only this time now, they’re talking to each other. I think that’s cool. I think some cool things can come out of that.
[00:37:40] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, definitely.
[00:37:41] Jared Smith: Jenny Weigle has some really good questions here. I want to try and get to at least a couple of them before we sign off here. It’s been a great conversation. I enjoy taking over your show. I think I need to do this more often.
[00:37:50] Patrick O’Keefe: Thanks, Jared.
[00:37:51] Jared Smith: “Which would you rather be,” this is Jenny’s question for you, “a working community professional actually in the trenches managing community or a community consultant and why?”
[00:38:01] Patrick O’Keefe: Thanks for the questions, Jenny. Thanks for supporting this idea of the show. It’s a good question. I guess, on one hand, I’m happy in both roles. I like being called in to fix problems or hopefully help avoid them, so I enjoy that. It’s been pretty infrequent when I take on consulting work. I also advise a couple of startups here or there, so I enjoy it. I guess, at heart, I see myself as an operator, which puts me more in the working community professional camp.
I like to build great community products where I have some skin in the game and I’m not simply building something to hand off. I guess I definitely lean more toward that side. I’m not much of a competitor to the community consultants that are out there that listen to the show. Hey, I take on a job from time to time. I’m always open to them. I’ve tried it in the past. I don’t think I’m good at the acquisition of clients. I don’t like sending those emails or making those calls.
Everyone who pretty much has ever hired me, which includes some big companies and some small ones, has generally come to me, which is nice but infrequent enough where it’s going to be not a full-time thing. I would say working community professional in general, but I’m open to any opportunity that makes me feel good about what I’m doing and the people that I’m helping. I think there’s a lot of ways to make money. I’m very fortunate in the fact that I can be a little choosy from time to time, so that’s my answer.
[00:39:17] Jared Smith: I like it. Jenny also asks, “In your opinion, will we ever see community leaders as part of the C-suite as the norm instead of just rare occurrences?”
[00:39:26] Patrick O’Keefe: I love this question. In a word, no, but I want to expand a little bit. I think those of us who have been around long enough have seen plenty of people say things. Alexis Ohanian comes to mind, who I don’t care for and have been critical of on the show and it’s no surprise, I’m critical in public, say things like, “Chief community officers–” I don’t know what he said specifically. I forget.
We’ve seen these tweets that are like, “Half of the Fortune 500 will have chief community officers in the next 10 years,” or “10% of this or all big companies or all the Fortune 100 or the future of companies will be a chief community officer.” It’s all hype. It’s all nonsense. For the most part, it’s to encourage hype in our industry. I don’t see it as healthy. I don’t see it as good. I don’t see it as aspirational. I don’t see those people as friends or allies of the work.
I don’t think it presents a realistic picture of the work. Community is an amazing discipline of work. I know and you’re a testament to this, but online community has given me a career. It’s given me half or 75% of my closest friends, including you. It’s how I know my wife and I now have a son. Online community is not just work for me. It’s changed the arc of my life. I’m as bought into the real-world effects of online community as one can be.
When you could talk about the professional side of things, we’re not special. We’re not some special thing that’s so much better than marketing or HR or customer service or business development or sales or operations or whatever, engineering, developers. Not all of those folks have high representation, at least as a person sitting with a “chief X officer” title in the C-suite. They report up into one usually, whether it’s the CEO or the CTO or the COO or whoever. There are some chief people officers, right?
There’s this smattering of chief community officers. It depends. It’s a way for a company to either, in the best light, demonstrate a commitment to a particular discipline or virtue signal because maybe that person is C, but they’re not really C. They just have the title and they’re not the same. I hate to sound like a pessimist on this, but I don’t trust anyone who says chief community officers are the future of community, that there’s going to be one at every big company, or any of those things.
It’s always hype. It’s always because they have some financially-vested interest in community work proliferating in that way, or at least sounding like your friend. They want to sound like they’re in your corner or they’re your ally because there is some financial incentive tied to that for them long-term. Oh, do I think there will be more chief community officers or people in the C-suite? Because I think you can tackle the title in different ways.
People can claim to be this or claim to be that. A chief experience officer is something I’ve seen here or there. People can claim like that’s a community role, I guess, whatever. Yes, I think there’ll be more. Why not? Would I take the title? I think if I joined a startup, I would demand the title frankly. A 10-person, 15-person, 20-person startup. If I’m joining a startup at this stage in my career, I definitely am not going to be a director of anything.
Just for the sake of pushing everyone up further in the industry and also looking out for my own progression, I’m going to go asking for chief community officer. Absolutely. Now, if I’m joining CNN, I’m not going to ask for that. First of all, they’re not going to give it to me. Second of all, though, director at CNN means something that a director of a 10-person startup does not in how you sit organizationally once you have access to all these different things, right?
It’s different for each organization because you show me a director at, say, this company, they will be doing more and more interesting and impactful stuff than the chief community officer of this other company. Titles do matter. They matter 100%. We should always fight for good titles for ourselves because that’s how the outside world doesn’t know our work judges us, so I would never say titles don’t matter.
That’s a highly-privileged position to take. For the chief community officer title specifically, I think it is something that has been talked about for years. I’ve done some of it certainly, but I don’t think it’ll be the norm if I had to put money on the table right now. I’m not really a gambler. If we were in Vegas and for some reason, the bet was, “Will chief community officer be the norm?”
What casino am I at? I don’t know. I would put my money on, “No,” in my lifetime. Now, again, I see more of it. I will happily support people who ask for the title. I think it’s great. VP of community, director of community, senior director, senior VP, whatever, these are all very nice, good, admirable senior titles that possibly mean more depending at the organization that you’re at. No, but with that explanation.
[00:44:01] Jared Smith: I’m with you. If an organization has a need for it, they’ll fill it. Not every organization is going to need it. It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. You often see these trips happen with companies that are like, “Oh, we must have this, we must have this, we must have this.” It’s like, “No, you don’t.” There are some companies where the chief community officer would be particularly if you’re building a community product. Yes, I would say that that is probably table stakes, pushing the vetting forward a little bit here. If you’re a manufacturing company that is making parts for airplanes, then probably not. You can probably delegate that out to somebody in marketing.
[00:44:34] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s not the same as saying like a community can’t be its own team. I think that’s a realistic possibility. Ultimately, that team might have to report up into someone. It’s nice. I think smaller orgs have an easier time convincing that. At a startup, I would push for a community to report to the CEO. I wouldn’t want to report into anyone. At CNN, I’m not going to go on and say, “Hey, I expect to report into Jeff Zucker.” It’s just not going to happen, right? You got to be realistic.
[00:44:57] Jared Smith: Where I’m at in my day job, our community reports up through marketing and sales, so there you go. It works great. It works fantastic for what we need. That’s going to do it for the questions, Patrick. A lot of really good stuff here, man.
[00:45:11] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, it was awesome. Thanks so much for the questions, Wesley, Frank, Brad, you Jared, and Jenny. Jared, just thank you so much for agreeing to come on the show and host it for me.
[00:45:18] Jared Smith: Oh yes, no, this is a lot of fun. It’s been a minute since I’ve been on here. We talk all the time. I’ll let the audience in on a little secret. Patrick and I, we have a monthly call. I swear sometimes I feel like we just need to record that into a podcast. [chuckles] Maybe one day. Who knows?
[00:45:32] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, definitely.
[00:45:33] Jared Smith: Yes, man. No, this is a lot of fun. Again, thank you. Thank you for the opportunity. It’s good to be back. I hope we can do this again. It’s a lot of fun. Really enlightening.
[00:45:42] Patrick O’Keefe: I hope that my answers did justice to these great questions. Our co-host was Jared Smith, manager of software engineering at BoomTown. You can find Jared at jaredwsmith.com and chswx.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad. Thanks for listening.
If you have any thoughts on this episode that you’d like to share, please leave me a comment or send me an email. If you enjoy the show, we would be so grateful if you spread the word and supported Community Signal on Patreon.