In the mid 90’s the community where I spent the most time online was Alen Yen’s ToyboxDX. This site was the epicenter of the Japanese toy collecting world, and naturally in our pre-twitter, pre-blog, pre-social networking world, the message board there was where all the action was. This was also a pre-wikipedia world so research was much trickier and that message board was invaluable for those of us trying to figure out what toys which companies released and when. I still have good friends who I first met soaking up details about rare chogokin and sofubi there. We had built a vintage toy nerd utopia… and then the Transformers kids showed up with their unrefined discussion about toys made in the 80’s. People threatened to leave the site because it had become a cesspool of US released plastic toy talk. It was a nightmare as you can imagine.
Until someone had an idea – what if, all Field of Dreams style – we could build something for those Transformers dorks that would be more appealing to them and would get them out of our faces. We made a special “Transformers” section of the message board (along with an “off topic” ghetto) and instantly the problem was solved and the classic toy threads returned to their previous unmolested toysnob glory.
In the years since then I’ve thought about this strategy time and time again when working with communities online. Adjusting where someone hangs out is easier than adjusting how they hang out. It’s not about getting someone to talk about something else, rather finding the right place for what they want to talk about.
We see some of the same conflicts a lot today with the comments on blogs. I have a love/hate relationship with comments. I love the interaction, I love breaking down the barriers between reader and writer and I love the unpredictable magic that can come from the right combo of people chiming in. At the same time, comments can often be quickly filled with the lowest common denominator of internet troll which serves no purpose other to detract from the original author’s work – and that’s on a good day. Anonymous comments, which serve a real pupose, can turn a excellent blog into a wretched hive of scum and villainy. And moderation doesn’t really help that, it just turns it into a constant battle.
Boing Boing recently killed comments entirely, opting instead to launch a message board where readers can chime in, or even create their own threads. I think this is an excellent move and I expect to see many other sites follow their lead. The brilliance here is akin to the Transformers forum I spoke of earlier – no one is trying to change the habits of the readers/commenters, so much as change where those habits manifest themselves. A built in message board, like what BoingBoing has implemented, keeps the original posts clean while still allowing readers to interact and be a part of the ongoing story. And better yet, lets them “have a say” so to speak, by letting them create their own threads about things they think might have been overlooked.
But best of all – this all happening in it’s own area rather than on the front page of the site, keeps one experience pure without infringing on the other. There are sites I can no longer read, regardless of how good the main content is, because the comments are such hellswamps – this could be the solution.
I hope blog publishers all over the web see the beauty of this adjustment and it becomes the norm. Fingers crossed.