Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood’s Stack Overflow podcast this week had some interesting things to say about the success and failure of online communities. They cited a recent post by Robert Scoble as well as Clay Shirky’s assertion: “A Group is its Own Worst Enemy”.
Problems they (Joel, Jeff & Robert) raised:
- streams of newbies asking the same questions in wave after wave, causing experts to leave
- discussion (aka chatting) is entertaining but less valuable for conveying/gleaning information than to-the-point one-way posts (as in, Scoble says, good blogs and radio shows). Atwood says the problem is that “the goal becomes the discussion.”
Stack Overflow‘s particular design solution includes:
- putting up barriers up for newbies to protect the old-timers – Stack Overflow does this by requiring a certain number of points before allowing a new user to vote. [This takes balls. Here we are with 4 users today (other than ourselves) and Atwood suggests putting up barriers to entry?]
- giving a means to discuss and debate (ie comments, meta.stackoverflow) but minimizing the chatter visually and discouraging it from the main Q&A content (via guidelines, moderators, point system, etc.)
So, taking issues & features like these under advisement as we grow – that is, if we grow to more than our current 4 users :) And speaking of growth…
…Shirky is fantastically interesting. In a talk he gave at TED way back in 2005 (embedded below), Shirky discusses the Power Law graph and uses it to describe Flickr contributions to a particular tag (like “Iraq”) – the least prolific contributors contribute about 1/100th of what the most prolific contributors are contributing (see the long tail?), the top 10% produce 75% of the value, the top 1% produce 25% of the value, and the bottom 80% of users thus can be said to be contributing “below average” content-wise. He says the institution can make a choice – ignore/bar the trailing 80% or welcome their minimal (but possibly important) contribution. The key he says is to make the technology accommodate this distribution (eg. Linux, vs Microsoft).
So, the question I’m left with: how do we safeguard and protect the top 1% while still accepting and valuing the occasional, minimal, but potentially important contributions of the bottom 80%?
On to the appendix – here’s Shirky 2005 TED talk:
[As a side note, Shirky also touches on Meetup's unexpected phenomenal success with Stay at Home Moms (SAHMs) asevidence that the creators are often the last to realize how a social site will function once live. (Although as someone who has now weathered two maternity leaves, I'd wager that the success of a site that connects online users up in real-world gatherings with SAHMs is not at all surprising to anyone who has found themselves isolated at home day-in day-out with an infant for longer than a week and looking to make new equally-isolated & motivated friends.)]