Can registration and email alerts hurt online communities?

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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


-- R Tate, March 4, 2003


Well... I tried to make the bboards at 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 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.

-- Michael Bluett, March 22, 2003