Online Sea-Change

Here's the background on this dilemma. Around 2002, 2003 I was really getting into this whole "internet" thingo, I had been on Yahoo GeoCities for a while, migrated my site to Live Journal, then onto MovableType. Around this time, I got frustrated with not having the granular control (that comes with being a control freak) over how PERL and MT templates just didn't gel. After searching I came across this internet forum called SitePoint - full of handy tips about PERL, which led to me learning PHP, which pushed me towards B2/Cafelog, which then went on to be WordPress, which drives this website - tah-dah.

Bored Yet? OK, well that isn't the end of the story. When I left my "day job" to take up this web development malarky full-time, I rediscovered SitePoint and the forums and began to participate. Later I moved to Melbourne, which coincidentally is where the SitePoint offices are located, and as part of my current job I really lifted the participation level - eventually to a point where my contributions were deemed worthy enough for someone to ask me to join the Forum ranks (volunteer) as a "Mentor". Late last year I further became more of a SitePointer, so to speak, when I co-authored a kit on Search Engine Optimization that was published by the company.

I continued my participation, but started noticing - as one does when they get a glimpse of what lies under the skin - the sheer volume of spam and fluff that the SitePoint forum crew were dealing with.

There were several discussions internal to the SitePoint forum members where different approaches to dealing with both attracting spammers and fluffers were thrown about and some various approaches agreed, but without any real and significant change in strategy or brave measures to tackle the underlying issues - effectively business-as-usual with more emphasis on moderation and flagging. I should state at this point that the other forum staff, administrators, team leads, advisors and mentors do a remarkable job, and many of the other section of the forums are still providing high-quality content and solving problems every day - it's just that the areas of interest to me are also big targets for low-quality contribution.

At that time, I started wondering why a few other forums and QnA sites (which the forums at SitePoint essentially are) had a much better handle on with the quality issue.

Well known sites like WebMasterWorld were almost devoid of spam/fluff, but they have had to resort to pre-moderation - a high-touch approach that requires adequate resourcing to accommodate. Quora had only just come on the scene and became known for its high quality content, and the StackOverflow network of sites was providing real value to its community.

Now, I can't speak to the success or not of the approach of WebMasterWorld (beyond extreme moderation), but sites like Quora, and StackExchange where questions are posted and answers are rated/voted up means that the cream floats to the top without anyone having to page through cruft to get to the best answers. This type of approach *just makes sense* to me. Now it's true, without moderation, this approach can still get stuck in the quagmire of crap - you only have to look at Yahoo! Answers to see how quality is hard to maintain.

Some of the more successful forums and discussion/information sites have used closed-community approaches, membership-only access - so called 'Walled Gardens'. While this semi-elitist path obviously allows for a green garden without the weeds, it doesn't exactly foster true information and knowledge sharing. How many times have we conducted a basic search to be provided the answer by someone who was willing to share? I distinctly remember my frustration at the may times a simple web-related search had the answer found on websites like Experts Exchange, only to find I had to be a paying member to reveal the answer!

So then comes the question about what i get personally from participation in social/community forums. I'm like others who start with the need to seek, then share knowledge. Like others, I do like the modicum of kudos that comes with achieving a measurable amount of worthy contribution, whether it's via a badge of honor, number of stars or chevrons next to a username, or how many votes/follows/whatever one might get - but that's a side-bonus, and a basic human personality trait to have selflessness of the act of giving be recognised. That being said, my real driver is to further my own knowledge, expand and challenge my perspectives and contribute where I can be of value. Unfortunately, I no longer feel that SitePoint is the best venue for me to continue in this regard.

So the most important thing a community site can do is attract the kind of people it wants. A site trying to be as big as possible wants to attract everyone. But a site aiming at a particular subset of users has to attract just those-and just as importantly, repel everyone else.
Paul Graham

The linear forum bulletin-board doesn't feel like the best approach any more when your attempt to provide a clear signal gets lost amongst the noise. Voting or ranking of answers, essentially crowd-sourcing validity and agreement might not be the ultimate answer, but there doesn't seem to be many alternatives that have proven successful, so finding one that I can feel comfortable participating in is going to be tricky.

All this navel-gazing may seem a little egoist and arrogant from the outside looking in, and probably even more likely to be over-analysed and self-indulgent, so if you've read this far then hopefully you'll appreciate this summary through the use of Lolcat:

This is my opinion of your opinion

PostScript: Defn: "sea change".


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