I’ve been doing online communities for more than 20 years, starting in 1985 when a friend had a BBS. One thing I’ve noticed over and over again is that chat rooms and forums start out fun and then devolve over time for various reasons.
But in 2000 I discovered that blogs had the opposite effect. They got more interesting over time.
Why is that?
I call it the chat room/forum problem and I think I’ve discovered the cause.
See, in a chat room no one is in control. But usually some small group starts one. They are interesting at the start. I remember when a small group of us joined Microsoft’s NetMeeting forum back in 1996. Those were the days! They were fun. Extremely so. Some of us are even still friends today and we always love to talk about the early days of that group.
Because all of us had a common interest (a new product) and we were a small group and we were at the same level at the beginning (all of us were newbies).
But it devolved.
First, wave after wave of newbies came in. They all wanted their attention and you couldn’t tell the experienced users (visually) from the new ones. At first the newbie waves were a lot of fun because we were able to teach new people the tricks we had spent months learning (like how to get a certain brand of video card to work, etc).
But after six or so waves the experienced users started getting tired of answering the same damn questions over and over. See the newbies weren’t willing to search for already-answered questions and, because it was a forum, no one was able to take control and segregate things.
Then it got worse. The bad actors arrived. IE, trolls and spammers. Trolls I can handle. After all, I troll once in a while too. Spammers? No way. They destroyed any last joy I had in participating in the group. Some of us left. Others of us hung on (I did) until Microsoft killed the product. But it wasn’t fun at the end.
Here’s something I’m noticing: my Facebook has the forum problem. It’s getting noisier and noisier. Facebook is trying to solve this problem with filtering and with a new feed, which only shows “popular” items. But it has the Forum/Chat Problem and no amount of lipstick will cure that problem.
As long as you only have your really close personal friends in Facebook, this is NOT a problem at all.
But Facebook’s leaders want to change to be more like Twitter. More open, so they can defend against an oncoming Google and Twitter and Microsoft onslaught of social networking technologies.
But the more public they make Facebook the more connections each user will have, and the more noise each of those connections will bring.
At first this looks like a positive thing, right? Over on FriendFeed people are telling me “we have more conversations.” That’s true, but the more conversations I got involved in the less I found I was learning.
This came full circle tonight when I checked in my “best of day” feed on FriendFeed, picture of that experience here.
I didn’t see any geeks. I didn’t see any tech. I didn’t see anything that was teaching me anything. I had stopped getting much value out of FriendFeed.
But over the past week I’ve found that Twitter is gaining in incoming value, the way blogs got more interesting over time (and if they didn’t, I just removed them from my reader).
Why do blogs bring more value over time?
Because bloggers get smarter over time and they have more experiences to pull on.
I noticed this in talk radio, too. Generally a talk radio host will get better over time. Why? As she or he gets more popular he/she will get better guests, be invited to better events, and become better studied on the topics they are talking about.
In other words, they become an expert.
I find I’m craving experts lately. People who build things. People who do things. People who make things happen. Tony Robbins, when he spoke at the Twitter Conference last month said that Twitter is his knowledge machine. He uses it to import great minds.
The thing is in the early days of a community having serendipity, which is what Facebook and FriendFeed’s forum features bring, make things a lot of fun. After all, it makes finding people who are like minded with you easier.
But eventually the experts (ie, people who are teaching you stuff) get drowned out and you are left with an experience that looks more like the magazine rack at a grocery store than a book shelf at Harvard.
So, what happened on Friday?
Twitter got lists.
This let us throw together a list of experts. For instance, I put together a list of people who have started companies. Compare that feed to your average Facebook feed and you’ll see it in stark black and white: your Facebook feed is “fun” but isn’t teaching you much.
It becomes even more stark when you do a list like my tech news brands list. See, this is NOT a forum! It is NOT a chat room!
No one can enter this community without being invited. Now compare to FriendFeed. We could have built a list like this over there, but it would have gotten noiser because of a feature called “Friend of a Friend.” That drags in people the list owner didn’t invite. Also, anyone can comment underneath any items on Facebook or FriendFeed. That brings people into YOUR life that YOU DID NOT INVITE!
Again, at first, this seems very democratic and very nice. After all, it’s great to throw a party for the whole world and let them drink your wine and have conversations with your kids. But, be honest here, would you rather have a private dinner with Steve Jobs, or would you rather have a dinner with Steve Jobs and 5,000 people who you don’t really know?
Which one would be a better place for you to learn something? Have an experience you can brag to your friends about?
See, tonight I had another experience on Twitter. One that ripped this whole thing wide open.
Mike Lee watched a friend die. Mike Lee is an engineer at Apple. His friend was Vinay Venkatesh, one of the top engineers at VMWare (he worked on the Fusion product). This afternoon Vinay had an accident on his motorcycle in the hills above Silicon Valley.
Listen into Mike’s Tweets:
Tragic, my heart is out to everyone involved.
What do you NOT see?
You don’t see any stupid YouTube-style commenters making light of the situation. You don’t see anyone posting pictures that would be inappropriate.
You don’t see anyone entering a conversation that should be viewed on its own in its own totality.
Twitter does NOT have the chat room/forum problem.
Let’s go back in history and discuss other forums/chat rooms.
I started out with BBSs. They had it. They started out interesting, but then as more and more people figured out how to do BBSs their value both devolved (more noise, and slower lines) and increased (more files to download — files for some reason don’t have the same problem that chat rooms do).
Prodigy? Yes. I was on that back in the 1980s. It started fun and then devolved. Now it’s gone.
CompuServe? Yes. Same thing.
AOL? Yes. In fact it was SO devolved that when AOL joined up with Usenet all the geeks on Usenet gave a collective “oh damn” when their own conversations saw an intrusion of newbies, bad actors, and spammers.
YouTube? Just go to the average video and you’ll see full scale devolution on going.
Digg? Absolutely. Devolved big time.
TechCrunch comments. Yes, but notice that they are now moderating their comments (some posts saw deletions of more than half of the comments), which dramatically improved them. As soon as the moderation stops on comments, they too will devolve and drive out anyone interesting.
My comments? I’m moderating them now too.
But notice that top-level blogs don’t have this problem.
Also notice that Twitter doesn’t have this problem.
If I only want to listen to, say, Louis Gray, there is NO WAY ANYONE ELSE CAN GET ONTO MY SCREEN (on Twitter)!
On FriendFeed? No. Louis Gray’s feed drags in tons of others.
On Facebook? No. Louis Gray’s feed drags in tons of others (even though you need to be “friended” by Louis to see his feed there).
But, Scoble, this makes you an elitist jerk!
Bing! Bing! Bing!
But at least I’m learning something and I’m not being dragged into cat photo land if I don’t want to go there. By the way, if all you care about is cat photos, a forum is a BAD place to be. Someone will post dog photos and ruin it all. Blogs even win here.
I was bent because I saw the geeks leaving and the utility of the forum changing. At the time I didn’t want to internalize what I already knew, that the forum problem was rearing its head. Arrington left because he didn’t like the mob attitude that reared up over there. Brazell left because he didn’t see the utility in FriendFeed.
I fought with both of them, even blocking Brazell because I just didn’t want to taste the medicine they were dishing out. After all, I’ve posted 31,876 comments to my FriendFeed account. I’ve clicked on 21,981 things to “like” them. I’ve shown FriendFeed to dozens of audiences at conferences and consulting sessions. I’ve talked about it with the press. I’ve pushed it incessantly on Twitter (which, I figure, got me unfollowed there by at least 5,000 people).
In hindsight they were right. Why was I blindsided? Because FriendFeed had some features that made it different than other forums in the past. For one, it was decentralized conversation (in old-school forums the conversation was chosen for you. In FriendFeed you could start a new conversation with each item). For two, we had decentralized moderation (I can delete any comment underneath my items, and I can hide any items that come into my view).
But these newfangled features were not enough to keep the geeks after Facebook bought FriendFeed. After the geeks left (I was one, so this story is influenced by me in part) the tide was too much and now it just isn’t for me anymore.
I will still use it here and there and drop in on a conversation when I see something interesting, but that’s less and less.
Anyway, this is a pattern that I’ve seen. I don’t know if there’s anything you can do to counteract it, but this is a dangerous pattern for social software companies to ignore.
And don’t think that Twitter has learned this lesson, either. It is testing a new retweet feature (they used to call it “sharing” internally) that is very controversial.
Why is it controversial? Because it brings people into your view that you didn’t ask to see.
The chat room/forum problem should not be ignored. I’m sorry I ignored it and burned bridges with Aaron (I talked with Mike tonight and he barely even remembers our spat, so we’re cool).
I’ve unblocked Aaron and put him on my lists. Hopefully he’ll forgive me. But will Twitter and Facebook learn from this? Probably not.