This week’s theme seems to be developing into the metrics of “engagement” and the rules of thumbs to describe participants, lurkers, and fanatics. Since opening my first Blogger blog in the spring of 2002 (which quickly went dark as I tended to run my mouth off and was horrified one of my reserved Swiss employers would freak out if they read it), I’ve been looking at the differences between blogs and forums and the impact they have on that fuzzy liberal-tinged buzzword: “community.”
Community, for those of you born after 1998, was the power word of the first web revolution. It always conjured up images of community gardens, Morris Dancing festivals, church bake sales and youth soccer tournaments, but I digress.
Community was theoretically engagement in the form of a dialogue between the reader and the publisher and readers and other readers. I got into it as an operator in 1995 when Thorne Sparkman and I decided to launch an online magazine for saltwater fly fishing called Reel-Time. Thorne found an email list archival tool called HyperMail and had it hacked to serve as a crude threaded discussion platform. One of those discussions was named “BBS5″ and it was very popular. I won’t go over the whole tale of Reel-Time — it’s over ten years old, has tons of traffic, is ranked first in Google for its key terms, and has a devoted “community” of people obsessed with saltwater fly fishing. There was an article written about one of our attempts to get people to meet face to face — on a beach in the middle of the night in October — that is pretty funny. You can find it here.
Reel-Time embodied a threaded forum, or BBS (bulletin board service, a hang-over term from the days of dial-up community when someone would run a community on a PC and people would dial into it one at a time). This is the format made infamous by USENET newgroups, and the basis for such legendary communities as the W.E.L.L., The Source, CompuServe, etc.
The interesting thing about a threaded forum is that it is a Maoist construct where everyone is on equal ground. Sure, contemporary software can grant different levels of power to different classes of users, but the content is pooled as opposed to “pulpited.” Meaning, anyone can start a thread or discussion, anyone can contribute, and no one’s postings is given prominence in terms of display or prioritization.
The first threaded community constructs were completely classless — the tools lacked any semblance of moderation capabilities, so me, as the “moderator” had to manually go in and surgically delete offensive remarks with no powers to ban members of the tin-foil hat league. Trying to run a community with no “god” powers was like trying to run a Vermont commune full of peaceful hippies with a few Charles Manson’s mixed in. BBS-5 eventually collapsed under the weight of anonymous flamers, forged identities, and general mayhem. So we migrated to another commercial platform which royally sucked and drove most of the committed posters to another site, where the same issues reemerged.
Eventually, thanks to Mark Cahill at Vario Design, we moved to a php system, VBulletin, and everything has been good ever since. We designated about ten “super” users as moderators, giving them some administrative powers so they can move spam posts into a rogue’s gallery, and keep the garden, as J.P. Rangaswami refers to it from the Chris Locke days (Reel-Time was born out of a project I collaborated with Chris, aka RageBoy, back in 1994 at InternetMCI).
Here’s the money graf: blogs are not communities. While there are comments and trackbacks they are not the place to build communities of engaged participants for the simple reason that the blogger, not the commenter, owns the pulpit. While there are group blogs where multiple writers share the same space (Boing-boing is the model there) there are no massive group blogs where 10,000 users vy for attention. In fact, the snake-display model of a blog — with comments hidden until one clicks through the headline to the permalink — is totally opposed to the thread and post model of a forum.
I write this as I:
a) look at forum technologies for a corporate project
b) think hard about Reel-Time and our fail efforts in offering our most active participants blogs (which we called Flogs — for Fishing Logs).
c) wish there was a better format for displaying comments in line or at least more visible in the context of the master post. (there is, I am too stupid to implement it.)