Social engineering, Web-style

How do online communities work? One veteran -- Salon's Cliff Figallo -- writes a book with some answers.

By Mary Eisenhart
October 19, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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People love using computers to socialize; that's been evident since the days of the Commodore 64 BBS two decades ago. The lure of what's now going by the name of online community -- whether to discuss a common interest, sling scurrilous insults or battle aliens -- has long been sufficiently compelling that people would brave downright hostile technology for the pleasure of hanging out with each other.

Few have spent as much time in the trenches of community, online and off, as Cliff Figallo, Salon's director of community development and author of the new "Hosting Web Communities." After spending the early '70s living on the Farm, a Tennessee commune, he worked for two years directing nutrition and potable water projects in Guatemalan villages. The resulting experience came in handy in the mid-'80s when he helped set up the Well, a particularly active and long-lived online community, and served as its director.


After six years in that hot seat, Figallo helped develop AOL's first Web chat interface, Virtual Places, then co-designed and managed online discussion for IBM's Deep Blue vs. Kasparov chess event.

Drawn from this experience and providing a wealth of real-life examples, Figallo's book offers useful guidance for managing the human side of the online experience. Acknowledging that the word "community" is impossibly overbroad, ranging from "barn-raising Amish" to "identifiable demographic at which ads can be pitched," Figallo stresses the importance of matching the setup to the needs of the people a site is trying to serve -- whether the ultimate goal is selling product, tending online bar or running the best darn Elvis shrine this side of Graceland.

As Figallo has learned over the last couple of decades, this is easier said than done. We talked recently about the joys and sorrows of technology's human side -- and some survival tips for the innkeepers of cyberspace.


Some people say online communities go through similar phases as the Wild West, in terms of a civilization process: You start with the hardy pioneers, and then along come the missionaries and merchants and teachers, and pretty soon you've got cities and towns. You've been involved in online community well over a decade -- have you seen this sort of change?

I'll tell you, I see the same dynamics today in 1998 in a group interaction in a Table Talk discussion that I was seeing on the Well in its first years. There are always going to be people who see themselves as pioneers, and who are leaders. There are always going to be people who feel at the mercy of the veterans -- "we're the newbies, we're just learning." There are the people who are self-styled authorities. And other people who are friendly and just want to arrive in these communities and make friends and have productive conversations.

I see the same sorts of dynamics of people identifying who they agree with, who they don't agree with, who they like, who they don't like, and then sort of freezing into those conflicts. Those conflicts become the tension within the community that is always there. After just reading the discussions for a couple hours, you can tell who hates who, who likes who, who will probably never agree about anything.


Having seen you dealing with the fallout of some of these conflicts for some time, I'd think you'd be well within your rights to be pretty burned out on online community. What keeps you coming back?

Well, I have taken a couple of breaks -- I was in the midst of taking a break from managing community when I wrote this book.


The book was a seven-month writing project, and at the end of the fifth month, I took this position here at Salon to manage Table Talk. As soon as I dropped back into the role of managing an online community, I had to reconsider everything I had written in the previous months, because I'd started to view it through sort of an idealist matrix, and write about all of the best possible scenarios. And when I got back online I realized, once again, that it's not typical to have the best possible scenarios.

If you're managing a community where you allow people to be themselves, explore and be creative, there are a lot of things that you really cannot control. You want people to be creative; you want the creative people to stick around, because they are really the core of these online communities. They create the discussions -- the conflicts are interesting.

People love train wrecks.


And people love to watch other people behave. Human behavior is so predictable and unpredictable at the same time that it really is entertaining.

It can't get too out of control, or you'll drive people away, but it can't become too bland or it's not interesting. You have to develop techniques for mitigating it when it starts to get out of hand -- where flame wars erupt and are not quenched, where flame wars spread and all people can actually see is name-calling.

That gets very boring after a while. You feel sort of embarrassed, as an observer and a participant, to join a system and to feel like a voyeur watching two people showing the worst parts of their personalities to the world, without, seemingly, any awareness that there are possibly tens of thousands of people reading.


Including their current or prospective employers.

I know. And that's why people have to consider that they might not want to leave that stuff lying around! [laughs] In Table Talk you can delete your postings at any time.

What's the draw of communities?

Concepts of community are very different. Some are based around the serendipity of showing up at the same Web site to try out the same software at the same time. Others are intentionally formed to figure out a problem -- somebody says, "We're going to have a community site to discuss educational reform in the United States." Only people who are interested in that particular topic will go, and you can call that a community.


Or there's this person I talk about in the book who owns a Volkswagen minibus, and apparently has owned one, or maybe a succession of them, for 20 years. He loves that vehicle so much that he put up an entire Web site about it. It caters to the other lovers of the minivans.

Communities can also form around a style -- I'd say that more than anything, Salon's community is formed around a certain ethos that Salon, in its editorial content, represents. It's a little left-leaning, but it also takes swipes and parodies left-leaning culture. It's formed around people who like to read, who like to write, who like to express ideas. Language is pretty much open on Table Talk, but we don't like for one person to raise the abuse to a level where it drives another person from the system.

How do you deal with bullies online?

The best way, I find, is to not take them too seriously, and to set an example of how to not take them too seriously. For me, I don't have to be afraid of bullies, because I'm The Manager [laughs], I'm the sysop ... But there are other people who definitely can be shut down by someone who's willing to use up the greatest amount of screen space possible with their rhetoric.


Some people are especially good at throwing insults. Yet you have to deflate these egos somehow just to keep the playing field fair. Sometimes it falls on the staff to do that; but often there are other people online, other members of the community who are also good at doing that, who recognize pomposity when they see it, who kind of neutralize these people.

It's very easy for people who have a lot of free time on their hands and can spend a lot of time online to dominate an online community -- everywhere you go, you see this one person, and their views, and their ideas. You don't want your community to be so out of balance. A lot of what you do is just try to maintain or restore a social balance without being heavy-handed about it.

I've seen a lot of people change. I've seen people get into online communities and think that the way to establish their identity is to be abusive and obnoxious, and to get attention that way, then eventually discover that they can get as much attention by just being regular and sincere.

I think ignoring people is the ultimate leveling tool. People have different tastes. Some like to see the rowdy comments -- that's the entertainment factor. For other people, it's like fingernails on the blackboard; they just cannot stand it. So the more filtering options you can give to the users for how they experience the community the better -- not only for who they have to listen to, but how they navigate within the different discussions. Those filters will allow people to tune the community to their own needs.


The flip side of that, which you bring up in your book, is that when everybody experiences a different reality, where's the community?

Well, within any so-called community there are going to be a myriad of different subcommunities. The way that the Well worked was that you could link between different topics. A topic on abortion, say, could exist not only in a parenting discussion space, but also in a medical discussion space, and maybe a women's discussion space. In that way you got cross-pollination among different communities.

Now if you haven't got linking like that, you might find that you have a separate abortion topic in each subcommunity, and they might all be going in different directions. They might not ever intersect, and you might have very segregated subcommunities.

You talk about many different types of entities to which the word "community" is applied -- what do they have in common?

I think what the Internet has given us, more than anything else, is a searching tool. It's a way that you can encounter different people -- find out about them, see what they have to say, see what information they put up on the Web, see what their interests are.

You can sort through a lot more people on the Internet than you can by going out on the streets to figure out who would be a likely friend and somebody to hang out with in real life. You can do it wholesale on the Internet.

So when you do have a site that brings together people around a common interest, some of them are going to be more interested in just downloading information than they are in the conversation, and some are going to be totally sucked in by the conversation, and they won't really care to read static content.

If you were someone who had a Web page up somewhere, why might you want to take the next step and build an online community?

Some people do it because there's an interest of theirs that they're so stuck on that they want to hang a shingle out on the Web to attract anybody else who will converse with them about that interest. They set up hobby boards -- these are not commercial sites, they are not going to make any money. I couldn't write this book entirely about how to make money from a Web community, because in most cases, even the largest community sites have yet to prove that they can really make money over the long haul.

Which leads us to the eternal question: Who's paying for this? And what are the viable business models when they're changing all the time? When you charge users by the hour you have an incentive to keep them online; now that most services are flat-rate, it's not necessarily to your advantage to have people tying up your modems or servers all the time.

No. You can see what happened with America Online, when it switched its revenue model. AOL built a lot of its population through keeping people online in chat rooms. And then as soon as they went to flat pricing they found themselves bereft of enough modems, and great crisis ensued. For several months they were fighting just to get modems installed.

As to the business models -- if you're looking at it from the point of view that you have to support yourself, I give examples of how this can be done. You can sponsor the community, which means that the discussion area, or community segment of your site, has to be valuable enough that your company is willing to subsidize it. You have to make money some other way, or donate money and figure that you're deriving enough other value out of it to make it worthwhile. It can be a promotional expense, or if you're a nonprofit it can be a place to engender loyalty to your organization.

The large community sites that I use as examples -- what I call the "Web Worlds," like GeoCities and Tripod and the Globe -- give people the ability to set up free home pages. Those sites get their revenue through the advertising that is posted on all these pages, which get a lot of page views. But the jury's still out on the advertising model.

I think a more logical structure for earning revenue through a community would be to provide people with filters for what they don't want to see, and for what they do want to see. Maybe they should have filters to define what they'd be interested in buying, and ads that they'd be interested in seeing. Maybe turn it on its ear -- rather than having the site say, "We're going to present you with ads we think you'll be interested in seeing, " individuals should be able to say, "I would actually click on ads if they were about this and this, or from these vendors."

You also have to consider privacy. When people are in online communities, they're posting their thoughts and their opinions viewable by tens of thousands of people. At the same time, they're extremely protective of their privacy -- and well they should be. They would not readily give out a lot of information about what they want if they thought it was going to be misused. So it's very important in communities that you make very strong and detailed promises about what you're not going to do with information you find out about people.

You need a high and well-founded trust level.

Trust is all-important to keeping people coming back to an online community where people expose their feelings, their thoughts, their politics, their history. If you can't assure them that their trust is being respected and their privacy is being respected, then you're either going to lose the people or you're going to get artificial behaviors where people are just role-playing. And that can be very confusing, unless everybody's playing the roles. To have people come in and spoof each other about who they are -- there can be a sense of betrayal.

Cliff Stoll used to be fond of saying that online community isn't real. I think there are qualitative differences, but I think it's very real, and causes things to get done in the real world.

I think that it can be, but you have to keep it in perspective. People might initially go overboard in believing how important it is to them. But there is a great community identity that comes with becoming a habitual user. It's almost like having a nationality.

I think it's definitely proven its value, and I don't see how it's going to go away. Today, we can communicate all around the world with people in different locations and different cultures who are basically breathing the same air, dealing with the same huge problems coming down the pike. I don't think that we can solve them on a nation by nation, locality by locality basis. These are discussions that have to be carried on on a huge scale.

We're developing the tools and techniques for moderating those conversations, and I think that will serve us well in the future as we start to actually have to deal with them -- and get beyond just focusing on people's sex lives.

Mary Eisenhart

Mary Eisenhart is a freelance writer and editor whose stories appear frequently on her Valley People Web site.

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