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Tonight I was finishing a custom Perl module for a foodie community site I hope to start. The module, for operating on user accounts, was based on a data model that cribs liberally from the user table you outline in Philip & Alex's Guide to Web Publishing. People sign up, confirm their account after receiving email, and then need to be authenticated to post and do certain other things in the community. They can get email alerts for various things.
After I was done programming, I read an intriguing essay by Joel Spolsky, the former Microsoft Excel team programmer and Israeli paratrooper who runs his own software company. Spolsky presents a reasonable review of some online community systems, including Slashdot, LUSENET, Usenet, IRC, F***edCompany, and of general online community operating quirks, like discussion threading and subthreading, email alerts, registration, read-message hiding and so forth.
Joel's essay made me rethink everything I had been working on. He makes a few interesting points about online communities that I do not think you address directly in Philip & Alex's (which in any case you refer to elsewhere as "ancient history"). I'm curious for your thoughts. Among other things, he says
- Requiring registration strangles new sites by making it too hard to post. "Achieving a critical mass to get the conversation off the ground [is] important to prevent the empty restaurant phenomenon: nobody goes into an empty restaurant, they'll always go into the full one next door even if it's totally rubbish," he writes. Registration is one more thing new users have to learn, and it drives away at least 90 perent of those who might have posted. Abusive and otherwise lame posters seem to have no trouble registering and re-registering as need be.
- E-mail alerts can also be poisonous to new forums because people are less likely to return and see other threads they want to jump into. They'll either get the answer on email or just return to the original thread. "Philip Greenspun's LUSENET has this feature and you can watch it sapping the life out of young discussion groups," he writes.
- In a really cool twist on your trick of presenting "site unavailable" messages to troublesome users, Joel deletes troublesome messages for everyone except the original poster. So unless you clear out your cookie or switch computers, you'll never realize he has nuked your post. (I think he only mentions this trick in the e-mail version of the column, heh.)
- Moderation ala Slashdot is too hard to learn and breaks the flow of threads. I know your system did not include mass moderation and wonder if you have a general opinion.
-- R Tate, March 4, 2003
Well... I tried to make the bboards at greenspun.com as easy to use as possible by not requiring registration or authentication and the result has been chaos. It was easy for people to achieve critical mass, true, but not easy to build a civil online society. Hmm... my personal experience is that if I don't get an email alert from a site I tend to forget that I ever asked a question there. Joel's idea of giving troublesome users are customized view of the site (where their postings are there but apparently not generating discussion) is one that I always wanted to build but never did. I've never liked the idea of asking users to moderate (a la Slashdot) because (a) it hairs up the user interface, and (b) it is the publisher's job to edit!
The Discussion and Scaling Gracefully chapters of http://philip.greenspun.com/internet-application-workbook/ are more up to date with my thinking and experience than Philip and Alex's Guide (really needs revision).
-- Philip Greenspun, March 21, 2003
Philip has previously written about anonymous postings: "First, anonymous postings and fake email addresses didn't come from Microsoft employees revealing the dark truth about their evil bosses" in the Data Modelling part of the SQL book (under the heading "The Discussion Forum -- philg's personal odyssey").
My take on registration is that the major forums I know and use require registration. The most interesting comments are those from people who are motivated to improve or maintain their standing in a forum:
I have never used the "remind me to come back to this forum" feature apart from when I am the sole moderator.
- Webmaster World seems to attract users who relish and cultivate their status on the forum, better selling themselves as experienced SEOs.
- The ODP and the related Resource Zone both rely on experienced editors who want to maintain the appearance of being helpful and knowledgeable in front of their peers.
-- Michael Bluett, March 22, 2003