You Are What You Tolerate

Derek PowazekWhen large online communities have problems, they are often talked about as if they are new. But usually, the issues have been simmering for a long time and are the result of choices that were made by community leaders long ago.

The foundation of healthy community is really the focus of today’s episode. Derek Powazek is truly an online community veteran. He authored one of the earliest books about our work, Design for Community, which turns 15 years old this year. If you want to be reminded that good community strategy endures the test of time, pick up a copy. Plus:

  • What community professionals can learn from farmers
  • The cause of bad community behaviors
  • Why addiction should be left out of your project goals

Big Quotes

“There will never not be pests – the pests won’t decide to stop being pests – so you have to come up with clever ways to manage those problems. When I was talking to one particular farmer about deer, he said, ‘Oh, you don’t have to stop deer, you just have to make your farm less appetizing than the one next door.'” -@fraying

“Whenever there’s a usage or behavior problem on Twitter, they say, ‘Well, people are jerks and we can’t stop them from being jerks.’ No, of course not, but you can make Twitter a less appetizing place for them to feed their desire to make trouble online and have them move on to the next one. That’s actually completely within your control.” -@fraying

“Small, specific and focused is how you create healthy communities.” -@fraying

“You have to know what your crop is. When I till the soil and I add nutrients and I do all those things, I’m making a really good environment that can actually grow lots of stuff. But there’s only certain things that I want to grow, and if you let the weeds get taller than the crop, they will start pulling too much nutrients, steal the sunlight, and the crop will die.” -@fraying

“Among people sitting around thinking up business ideas, there’s a temptation to view community participation as a natural resource that can be exploited. ‘We just have to make this kind of box and put it online, and people will fill the box for us, and then we can sell the box. Or we can put ads on the box, but all we have to do is make this little box.’ The problem is empty boxes don’t create quality content contributions from people, they just fill with trash. If you’ve ever put a cardboard box out on the street in front of your house, when you come back the next day, it’s not going to be filled with gold, it’s going to be filled with trash.” -@fraying

“[A client might say,] ‘We’re going to make up some fake stuff to seed the community; it won’t matter later.’ And so I go, ‘How would you feel if it turned out that the woman you were dating lied to you about her entire life story? But it’s okay because now you’re married, and it doesn’t really matter because you got what you wanted.’ And they go, ‘That would be horrible.’ And I say, ‘Okay, so why would you start your relationship with your community with a series of lies?’ And then the answer becomes very obvious.” -@fraying

“You can learn a lot about the people who start these sites based on the behavior of their community members, because the community is very good at picking up on the social cues that the leaders put out and reiterating them. … People learn from their leaders and start to mirror that behavior. If you see a misbehaving community, chances are the people who run it have some of those same behaviors.” -@fraying

“You are what you tolerate. Your community identity will be defined by the most extreme cases of the things you have tolerated.” -@fraying

“If you start to design for habituation, then you’re actually not prioritizing the story or how wonderful the thing itself is. … You’re starting to get into some really dark stuff that is not about making people happy or making a great place, it really is just about designing a desire into the user for the next fix. And that’s gross.” -@fraying

“No matter how inventive your social science is, I have more faith in people’s abilities to figure out when they’re being played and then stop playing the game. It might take us a few tries, but I think we get there eventually.” -@fraying

About Derek Powazek

Derek Powazek has been designing, building and managing communities on the web since there was a web. He’s the creator of the original digital storytelling site,, which started as a website, then became a series of worldwide storytelling events, then became a printed magazine, and now is mostly a fond memory. He’s the author of Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places, published by New Riders in 2002. He’s worked for companies like Blogger, HP, Etsy, Tumblr and more dead startups than you can count. He’s now a farmer in Oregon raising chickens, goats and plants. Yes, really. It’s more connected than you’d think.

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