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Reflections on Online Communities

Note

On this discussion Michael H. Pryor notes that I’m violating the Joel on Software quoting policy. However, I believe that:

  1. Both Joel and the Law Professor he is quoting are wrong on ethical grounds. See my essay “The Case for File Swapping” for some things that are wrong with the current copyright law, and links to more.
  2. This article in part may be considered a critique of Joel’s article. As such, one can say that “fair use” law allows me to quote substantial parts of it.
  3. I’d rather build on an existing effort, than write my own incoherent article from scratch. Joel should take it as a compliment because “Copying is the sincerest form of flattery”.

I realise that “A man’s will is his honour.”. However, sometimes people wish for very irrational things. Many of the clauses in the EULAs of software products are either not enforceable or even not ethical, and I don’t feel that I need to respect them, even if they exist.

Introduction

This essay gives my thoughts about Joel on Software’s Building Communities with Software. The full original article was sent to the Joel on Software subscribers by E-mail, while the public web version had less content. I will respond only to the public web version.

Dates

Published:
12-November-2005
Last Modified:
18-April-2007

The Essay Itself

Joel Spolsky wrote an essay titled “Building Communities with Software” back in March, 2003. He explained there the motivation behind his web forum and why it is so good.

In this text, I’d like to comment on some of the claims that Spolsky made in the essay. First you’ll have to make sure that you’ve read it.

Comments on the Review of the Existing Online Forums

On IRC, you can’t own your nickname and you can’t own a channel -- once the last person leaves a room, anyone can take it over. That’s the way the software works. The social result was that it was often impossible to find your friends when you came back the next day, because someone else might have locked you out of your chat room and your friends might have been forced to choose different nicknames.

This is true for some IRC networks (especially EF-Net) but is not true for many others. In some IRC networks (such as Freenode) one can register one’s nickname using a service named NickServ, and one’s channels using a service named ChanServ. This eliminates most of the bot wars that plague other IRC networks.

I’ve been chatting on Freenode for many months now, and the presence of these services, and its general atmosphere, make talking there an absolute joy. I have had very few problems there.

E-mail

Could you make a feature where I check a box that says “email me if somebody replies to my post?”

A. This one feature, so easy to implement and thus so tempting to programmers, is the best way to kill dead any young forum. Implement this feature and you may never get to critical mass. Philip Greenspun’s LUSENET has this feature and you can watch it sapping the life out of young discussion groups

Despite what Joel said being able to monitor the replies to one’s thread by E-mail is a very useful feature that should be enabled by default. Otherwise, people may forget to check what they posted. Also, his argument is weak, because once someone visits the page to see the reply, he can also do other things.

For forums that aim to give help with a technology, such a feature is a must, because a person should be notified when something happen, instead of having to visit the forum times and again. (As someone on the Joel on Software forum noted.) But even for community software it is a good idea. I know of several flourishing forums that have this feature.

The problem with Joel’s argument is that people cannot monitor O(N) communities, i.e in proportion to as many as they like. Instead, it is much more scalable to monitor a constant amount of resources - normally your E-mail inbox and RSS feeds. Recently I started to rule out various forums because they don’t provide RSS feeds or have an email feature, and I believe most people do too.

Branching

Q. OK, but can’t you at least have branching? If someone gets off on a tangent, that should be its own branch which you can follow or go back to the main branch.

A. Branching is very logical to a programmer’s mind but it doesn’t correspond to the way conversations take place in the real world. Branched discussions are disjointed to follow and distracting.

Some forums I frequent have a lot of branching and they are very nice. That way, replies to posts are answered as branched posts, instead of as replies to the topic that come after many other replies.

Promote Topics with the Most Recent Replies

Q. Your list of topics is sorted wrong. It should put the topic with the most recent reply first, rather than listing them based on the time of the original post.

A. It could do that; that’s what many web-based forums do. But when you do that certain topics tend to float near the top forever, because people will be willing to argue about H1B visas, or what’s wrong with Computer Science in college, until the end of the universe. Every day 100 new people arrive in the forum for the first time, and they start at the top of the list, and they dive into that topic with gusto.

The way I do it has two advantages. One, topics rapidly go away, so conversation remains relatively interesting. Eventually people have to just stop arguing about a given point.

Two, the order of topics on the home page is stable, so it’s easier to find a topic again that you were interested in because it stays in the same place relative to its neighbours.

I wholeheartedly agree. Forums that promote topics with the most recent reply to the top, are incredibly annoying, and I usually stop frequenting them after a short while. Usually, my conversations there disappear to oblivion.

About Posts Confirmation

Q. Why don’t you show people their posts to confirm them before you post them? Then people wouldn’t make mistakes and typos.

A. Empirically, that is not true. Not only is it not true, it’s the opposite of true.

Part one: when you have a confirmation step, most people just click past it. Very few people reread their post carefully. If they wanted to reread their post carefully, they could have done it while they were editing it, but they are bored by their post already, it’s yesterday’s newspaper, they are ready to move on.

Part two: the lack of the confirmation step actually makes people more cautious. It’s like those studies they did that showed that it’s safer, on twisty mountain roads, to remove the crash barrier, because it makes people scared and so they drive more carefully, and any way, that little flimsy aluminium crash barrier ain’t gonna stop a 2 ton SUV moving at 50 mph from flying off the cliff. You’re better off, statistically, just scaring the bejesus out of drivers so they creep along at 2 miles per hour around the hairpins.

I disagree here, especially when the forum is using markup. (see below). Previewing the post allows one to check if the URLs are OK, and not too long or that they have dangling characters, and to review the post. A good posting mechanism should have an optional preview feature.

Other Comments

Markup

The Joel on Software forum has absolutely no markup except for URLs being highlighted. I think that nevertheless, some forums should allow some markup. In their case, what they should have is plain and simple HTML, without any of the following idiosyncrasies:

  • Link the following words to a URL. (at least not without giving any option of the “<a” tag).
  • Line breaks (\n characters) cause a new line to start at the post. (very annoying!)
  • A very limited HTML syntax. Support as broad as syntax as possible optionally converting tags to more sane tags, but don’t force the user not to input them.
  • Weird tags like square brackets instead of angles.

HTML is very easy to learn and one can get the hang of it pretty quickly. Many times, people post markup from web pages they created with HTML, and they’ll be annoyed if they can’t post it as is.

Forum Operation

Make sure the forum works, that each topic has a permanent page, and that the preview and all functions work. There are many off-the-wall forums that tend to not function correctly in various browsers, and have many idiosyncrasies. It is a good idea to use a stock forum like PHP-BB, YaBB, etc. that are well tested and extensively used.

Avoid a Horizontal Scroll Bar

Avoid horizontal scroll bars. Trim long URLs in your posts, and make sure that people don’t overflow with large codes in “<pre>…</pre>” sections.

Spam Measurements

Make sure your forum has measurements against spam. Bayesian filtering or a different spam filter is a good idea. A must is the rel="nofollow" attribute which will render comment spam useless.

Don’t be Cryptic

Once a comment I posted to a Movable Type-powered weblog was rejected, without giving me any idea what was wrong with it. I had to use my intuition to understand that the reason was the shortened URL I placed there instead of my long URL which I was afraid would cause a horizontal scroll bar. This was indeed the case, and after I replaced the shortened URL with the full one , my comment was accepted.

But why wasn’t the reason for the rejection of the post given? That’s a bug! So don’t be cryptic - if something is wrong let the user know exactly what that is.

Permanent URLs

One thing I dislike about the Joel on Software forum is that the URLs don’t remain the same. Instead it seems tha the number of posts is appended to them. That way, one often finds that threads he has already read are marked as unread again. This is annoying.

A better solution would be to display the number of comments added since the discussion was last visited by that specific reader.

Acceptance of Posts

Accepting good posts is a must for a forum. Furthermore, giving the poster a proper feedback for why his post was rejected, or what he can do to remedy it is also necessary. I almost gave up on publicising my posts in Slashdot because they routinely rejected many posts to my essays that I consider to be very good, while accepting some incredibly weird, rehearsed or low-quality news items.

Now, in Slashdot, the post notice just say “rejected”, without any reason why. So I don’t know how to better improve. An editor I contacted about it commented that they don’t want to do it because people then will ask questions about it which will start a dialogue. However, this causes the most avid contributors to give up on Slashdot, and move to greener pastures.

And the dialogue is extremely important. You can always block or ban people who keep bothering you with extremely low-quality articles, but you shouldn’t let the ambitious contributor be left with a simple “rejected”. They want to improve and they want to know why you didn’t like their post. So this is not a feature - it’s a bug. Several communities - notably Advogato and the Joel-on-Software forum, accept almost all posts by default. This can be often very nice.

A different thing happened to me with kuro5hin. For once the moderators there reject posts that are just links to existing articles on the site. This makes it necessary to format the existing essay in the subset of HTML accepted by kuro5hin, to forget about getting traffic to your site - a lot of hassle.

However, even after I did all that, my article was rejected by the moderation of the users because they felt that:

  1. The paragraph in which I described myself was too long (while being intended for the regular article, and still being a small amount of the article) - a Style over substance fallacy.
  2. That I was not eligible to post such an article because I had not been very active in the site before - an Ad-hominem fallacy.

As a result most of them decided that they wanted to reject my post on the grounds that it was low-quality. I completely gave up on kuro5hin from then on.

The People

Which brings us to another important part: the people who are present and make up the community.

Finale

During my time, I had and still have to deal with a lot of idiosyncratic forums. I hope what Spolsky wrote and what I wrote here will help people build nicer, better and less dysfunctional online forums.

Coverage