Walking the Line: Digg, Communities & the C Word

You’ve got a way to keep me on your side
You give me cause for love that I can’t hide
For you I know I’d even try to turn the tide
Because you’re mine, I walk the line
-Johnny Cash

Blonde 2.0 has a great summary and discussion of the Digg censorship business.

The challenge for any web community is to give the users who create the content a sense of ownership and investment in the community, without getting sued or letting your community descend into chaos.  Users who populate a community acquire a sense of ownership.  A sense that grows stronger over time.  This is a good thing, as it creates loyalty and nurtures organic growth.  Once a community grows to a certain point, however, a couple of things happen.  One, you start making a little money.

Two, you have to walk a fine line between being too restrictive and too permissive.  A lot of users want a no-rules policy.  A lot of users will leave if chaos and conflict are completely unconstrained.  It’s a fine line, and you simply cannot make everybody happy.  You have to figure out what the largest percentage of your audience wants and then try to maintain it without being autocratic.

On ACCBoards.Com and the other web communities I developed, our mission statement from the first day has been to create a “family friendly” environment.  We did this because we knew that the majority of our target user base would be more comfortable in that environment.  It was about growth more than morals.  Over time, the moderators’ standard became “if a young person shouldn’t read it, you can’t write it.”  We made some people mad.  We made more people happy.  It’s math.

Sports, like technology, is a passionate topic for many.  To address this, we make a distinction between the message and the way the message is delivered.  I have been consistent that almost any opinion is OK as long as it is delivered and defended properly.  No personal attacks, and no extreme language (although we have filters to take care of most of that).  It can be hard to police that standard, because there is a significant sub-group of users who interpret a contrary opinion as an act of aggression.  They cannot separate the message from the writer, and all hell breaks loose.  I almost always side with the contrarian in those cases, and tell the others to stop attacking the opinion and refute the opinion.  I believe that someone who attacks someone for their opinion generally does so because they are psychologically bound to their position and, when they lack the ability to logically refute a contrary opinion, they have a psychological panic attack.  But that’s a topic for another day.

The point is that community leaders have to walk the line, so users feel like peers, not subjects.  I think we’ve done a pretty good job at ACCBoards.Com, as evidenced by the fact that a newish moderator tried to kick me off the site I created the other day, because he didn’t like something I said.  I honored the community by telling him that I’d stop posting for a while, as opposed to reminding him of the history of the site.  The rest of the community largely took my side in the argument.  Self-policing resolved the issue, which is what you want to happen.

Then there’s the intellectual property problem.  I get emails every couple of weeks complaining that some photo is being used without permission, that someone is stealing bandwidth by linking to images or that someone is being mean (those who haven’t talked to a lawyer) or committing libel (those who have).  I generally try to mediate the problem, and most times people are cooperative.  What I try hard not to do is go on the boards and start issuing mandates.  I learned a long time ago that when I do that, I soon have a mutiny on my hands.  Kevin Rose learned that this week.

But (and this is important), if I felt I had to choose between taking something down without discussion or betting the company on a case I might lose (either by losing or by cost attrition), I’d do it.  In a second.  A Digg with no encryption key posted is better than Digg out of business.  An hysterical group of users is never going to conclude that- the combination of anonymity and human nature won’t allow it.  It’s up to the community leaders (read owners) to make that hard decision.

For these reasons, I don’t think people should be so hard on Kevin and the other Digg folks.  Granted, they would likely do things differently if they could start over.  But getting demand letters from big operations with a pile of lawyers behind them is no one’s definition of a good time.  When you’re walking that line, sometimes you wander on one side and sometimes the other.  A nasty letter can blow you off course.  Users have to understand that.

I agree that there’s a lesson to be learned here.  Hopefully, it will be a lesson for owners and users alike.

Thanks to Guy and Jim for commenting on my last post, and to TDavid for linking to it (and getting my back).

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