Designing Online Communities

Trevor Owens

This was a book that needed to be written, and it is with some degree of sadness that I say that.

Since 02009, I’ve always been on the lookout for research material as it relates to the building and maintenance of web community software. It comes with the territory of having once been a community admin myself, as well as having admired and befriended so many others who accepted the burden of being a moderator. We still bemoan the new world of mass-audience “social media” and all that it lacks. It’s not just the ineffective moderation in how these sites could never possibly match the demand their massive scale produces, nor in the rampant trolling and hate speech that festers from it, but also in the vanishing of the possibilities. The rise of websites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Google+, along with the craze of “your internet self is your real self” that followed in their wake, signaled the end of cyberspace as an endless frontier and turned the Internet into a tool of social control for the powerful and privileged. Things may have gotten better as a few second-generation social networks eased up on the heavy-handedness, but most of the damage has still been done.

I owe a lot to the web communities I first came to know around 02002 and 02003. I quite literally would be dead right now if it were not for them. They were the ones first formed within the halcyon days of cyberspace liberation, and were a damn sight better than what marketing companies wanted “Web 2.0” to replace them with. I quickly realized if I wanted them to still be around, I would need to dedicate myself to preserving and improving upon their tradition. A lot of the social software we used at the time is now outdated; they were complex systems that many of us could not modify or repair to suit our own needs. No matter how much better old forum software might be in terms of organization, it would all be for nothing if we couldn’t make the simplest of adaptations. I quickly searched out whatever sparse research I could find on community software, which was no easy task given how historically recent the whole subject still is. Works of academic rigour only started to come out after 02011, and until then there were only “gurus” and “practitioners.” I sought out authors like Powazek, AJK, O’Keefe, Bacon, and Howard... all the ones that me and the other mods wished we had known about 10 years prior. ... and they’re all here in this book too! Trevor Owens compiled this PhD thesis as a meta-study of over 28 of the rarest pre-02011 books on community software design, in a grand summary of all their methods!

… which is why it might hurt to see them all so viciously torn to shreds.

The history that Owens lays out is one of an ideological tension: how the dynamic between enabling freedom for software users dovetails strictly against the power of the admin. While Owens has some skin in this game as a user of this same software, his perspective is one of the future librarian which must play internet archaeologist to the remains of old community archives. To him, moderation is an ethical quandary in which any one political being with the power to shape or modify an existing discourse puts a strict limit on what the final result of that media can express, even if that power is seldom ever used. It’s a very simple and reasonable argument that Chomsky and Herman applied to broadcast media systems and Owens shows similar filtering models that can be applied here; not only in when moderation tools operate upon threads, or even when the dynamics of database software puts strict limitations on what could be expressed, but also in how moderators employ social dynamics to influence behavior towards specific goals. Like photographs, web communities are not simply a window to a time once real, but are constructions which further construct what they represent, and this poses a whole dynamic of problems to historians who might want to use them as source material.

The rhetorical analysis of these old textbooks is one of ownership and control, and that has remained a relative constant even while social software underwent several shifts in understanding. When the field of web community construction first formed, it was quickly untethered from any institutional backing because of the move to the WWW. Those who wished to work in the burgeoning field had to pitch the merits of their craft to anyone who could employ them: companies, brands, and corporations. From AJK and Powazek to even later players like Howard, these books were not so much contributions to a field of research as they were prospectuses for the author’s own consultation business. (A constraint only Jono Bacon would be free of, and possibly Kraut and Resnick even though they were not a part of Owens’ study.) So when these books talk about what to do for “your” community, it is a double entendre: equally about the community you belong to as it is about the mass audiences and intellectual properties of its patron owner.

This, of course, is awful and completely misses the point of why building such communities is important. I should belong to the community; it does not belong to me. To do otherwise employs the same cart-before-horse ideology of for-profit capitalism within a place it strictly does not belong, which even practitioners like Powazek eventually had to concede that there is just no social media business model that allows profit of any sort. Sadly, the technology itself is what enabled this expansion. The free-spirited nature of the communitarian and BBS eras of cyberspace homesteading was a result of people seeing new possibilities while still being a little hazy on how exactly it worked under the hood. Once phpBB, vBulletin, and others like it were released with community software presented as a prefabricated construction for anyone to use, it began the trend where the content produced by these systems were ownerships by the managers and administrators of each installation. It gave rise to an age of web communities as form of privatized media, tiny dictatorships, and company towns. (We even see the more incorporated aspect of it today in how the job of “community manager” exists, as a thing to be managed.) The MySQL-based developments of phpBB eventually led to Web 2.0, and some admins began dropping the community aspect altogether. Owners gave up the hassle of moderation and settled for WordPress blogs with comment sections for their own social gratification: a practice that had way too many theoretical flaws with it even by the standards of social software theory at the time. The lack of a level playing field between the owners and commenters led the way for increased aggression in its userbase, and we only have to look at comment sections on news websites or YouTube channels today to see the unfortunate result of what happens without communion.

I’ve never before felt such a wild range of emotions while reading about something I cherish so deeply. For the longest time I had grown so attached to the communitarian ethic these authors had provided, even if I was blind to the critical flaws Owens highlights. The betrayal of it isn’t what gets me; in some ways, I knew that part already. I had only placed so much importance on the earlier gurus like AJK because they still talked about their users as, y'know, people; much unlike the more modern post-Web 2.0 writings like Gavin Bell’s Building Social Web Applications (02009, O'Reilly Media) where any given user was simply a target demographic to be mined for metadata which could then be sold off to an advertiser. What gets me is Owens’ suggestion of original sin in the building of social software; how what caused the downhill roll was there from the beginning, and that was the need for control. This... I don't know how to respond to.

I totally understand the way he has to approach the matter of moderation as an historian, a removed and neutral observer to whom absolutely anything is fair game, but even relics once had to live through the problems presented before them. While Owens is at no point wrong in what he proves, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. His analysis lives in a world where trolls and problem users either do not exist or are a necessary part of the overall mosaic, which is completely insensitive to those of us in the here and now. An analysis of moderation tools cannot take place without knowledge of the community rules which they exist to enforce. These regulations are a record of past mistakes and lived experiences, and are necessary to prevent shared spaces from devolving into mimetic rivalries, flame wars, and (now with increasingly alarming frequency) hate speech. Even the superstitious beliefs of old BBS systems for limiting users with connections faster than 300 baud must have been borne out by the observable reality they faced, if they knew the real reasons behind it or not. (Posters with faster connections over-posting compared to the others, making them feel like the playing ground was uneven; or ruining the pace of the, until then, slow-and-methodological conversation.) When I limit the use of a board’s private messaging system to users over the age of 18, I carry in that control a previous history of having dealt with problem-users abusing those systems to sexually harass the younger 13 year old community members. This is what a good communitarian is supposed to do! Do large social networks take that practice and mix up the scale to the point of having an opaque surveillance state? Sure. Do bad communitarians also exist who just run roughshod over it all to be the king of their own castle, like Free Republic's JimRob? Yes, of course, but that's why there is still value in improving the research behind web community software, in order to build up that body of knowledge for everyone. I am sympathetic to what Owens is trying to do as an archivist, but his analysis on moderation tools leaves out how they might be there for a reason other than the Freudian Projection of the administration. Yet he extends this caution to even the threat of moderation, the psychological implications of having moderators around, and even how through design affordances that moderators may want to promote particular kinds of conversation over others. He extrapolates from Burrhus Frederic Skinner and Erving Goffman as they relate to the methods moderators employ, when he should have really been talking about Jürgen Habermas or even Thomas Hobbes.

It's strange, really. If it were Chomsky and Herman talking about how propaganda systems in broadcast media enforce a kind of self-censorship regimen on its network actants in favour of the media ownership, I would totally go “yeah man, they're a fucking hivemind!” ... and that's partly because the majority of the old broadcast media have only ever brought me suffering and frustration. However, when Owens comes along and implies exact same thing to something I actually like, something that has brought me much meaning and joy, the tables turn and I suddenly realize why people hated Chomsky so much for being an annoying little pedant. But... I have my principles, and just because I don't like the conclusion Owens reaches doesn't mean I can deny it outright. This was a book that needed to be written; it's just a question of what to do with it.

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