Online Communities Gone Bad (and getting them back on track)

After my appearance on the podcast Masters of Scale, a lot of people have written to me for advice on managing their communities. Here’s one request and my response, which I posted with permission, in the interest of making the internet a more civilized place.

Things had gotten so bad in this founder’s community, that even employees were thinking of leaving. The team felt hamstrung by their users. He explains:

When we first started our community I was in there posting every day setting the tone. Over the years as the company scaled I chose to spend time on other things beside posting in the forum. Gradually over time things got bad…then really bad…now horrible. 5-10 members of the community have started berating everyone in between posting useful content. Do you have any principles or experiences I can draw upon to think about how to solve this?

Yes, I wrote back, this community has run amok. A garden needs both fertilizer and weedkiller. But most of all it needs a gardener. Go back in and participate as much as before. Community manage with a heavy hand. Promote good people, respond to them.  Make them shine. Build good admin tools to silence bad actors.

You have to take a “iron fist in velvet glove” approach; warn borderline cases, and discuss their behavior with them. Often they can be rehabilitated. But for those who will not change: ruthlessly delete the accounts of abusive people, irrespective of their contributions. Keeping 5-10 bad people have undoubtedly lost you dozens, even hundreds, that you don’t even know about. They’ve stifled other people who are still participating and darkened the atmosphere of the whole community.

Community management is art, not science. There is no black and white when dealing with people. Choose your community team carefully, and find people with good instincts. Have all members of the team participate in the community. And be present there yourself.

Announcing Yes VC

After 8 amazing years investing with my brilliant colleagues, the fun, funny and genius investors at Founder Collective, and after Jyri’s two years working with the great, brilliant, soulful and amazing team at True Ventures, we — Jyri Engeström and Caterina Fake– are busting loose, breaking out, getting down and starting up our very own fund, yes indeed, it’s Yes VC.

yesvc_logo

We’re doing Pre-Seed, as it’s called these days, and Seed investing — investing in great, visionary, early stage companies. We’ll be raising up to $50 million. We’ve got some amazing LPs already and are seeking a few more. We’ll invest in about 20–30 companies over the next several years. We’ll roll in our investments in OrchidSpell and Gaze. And we’ll be continuing to look for world-changing companies like the ones we’ve invested in in the past, like EtsyKickstarterStack Overflow, and Cloudera. We’ve made over 40 investments as angel investors and with our respective firms, but it’s just a start. The opportunities we’ve missed because of not being able to put in bigger checks, and follow on, were giving us a feeling of No.

Years ago, I gave an interview on Inc. magazine about the struggles of getting my first company off the ground, as an unknown and fledgling entrepreneur, and the amazing breakthrough we had, getting into PC Forum, and getting Esther Dyson on board as an investor. At the end of that interview I had said something that later became one of those Pinterest graphics:

“When the world says No No No No No, and you hear a Yes, go towards that Yes as hard as you can.”

I have swum in The Sea of No, which is an inevitable part of the entrepreneurial journey. Sometimes the No means “you’re on the wrong track”. Sometimes the No means: “no one wants this product or service”. Sometimes the No means: “pick something else to work on”. And sometimes the No means, “you’re just not cut out for this”. If you’re a startup that’s only heard Yes, who’s never been rejected, who raised money with no effort, who slid easily into the warm waters of infinite funding, free lunch, foosball and no discipline, you either got it just right–which almost never happens!–or it’s a cause for concern. But when The Beach of Yes appears on the horizon of The Sea of No, where you, the spent swimmer, has been struggling to stay afloat, you might just be–finally, finally, finally–on The True Path.

So. We’re excited about this. Major changes are afoot in the workings of the internet and in society and culture at large. Suppressed voices are finally being heard. We are looking at the end of cars. And though we once believed the internet was about the equitable distribution of power, we have lived through a massive consolidation of power. If people like you don’t get involved in disrupting the new power and building the future, rapacious trolls, megacorps and mercenaries will have their way with all of us.

Is the internet once again reinventing itself as a free and open place where users own their words, and voices and identities? Will we be able to live free of businesses that lure us in to harvest and sell our data? Is it safe to wade back into the water? Is now the time to enter the fray? We think so, yes.

All the things we love–humanity, community, possibility, opportunity–are once again ascendant. Let’s make the future, let’s do great things.

Yes? Yes.

When the internet is over

When the internet is over

“When the Internet is put into storage with the 8-track, things will be different. People will talk about stuff again, or go shopping at a store, or journey to someone’s house to watch a film. Who knows? No one can guess what form it will take, of course, but like Christianity, Wiki-Google’s days are numbered. It is up to us to make sure its time is short.”

– I.F. Svenonius

If you haven’t already, get yourself a copy of Censorship, Now!

 

Getaround Hostile to Sharing, Trust

Getaround

Getaround is a new service that allows people to share their cars. The company installs software that locks and unlocks the doors using their app, enables the car to drive. I have used it twice now, it works well

But Getaround does something truly un-sharing-economy friendly: they force everyone, including car owners, to log in using a Facebook ID. There is no ability to log in using an email address. This goes against any kind of “sharing” that might take place between the car sharers themselves, as Facebook accounts go to a single person. A family, or car co-owners, cannot share their car on Getaround, unless they all use the same Facebook account. Having a Facebook account used by more than one person violates Facebook’s terms of service.

Worse, forcing people to subscribe to other company’s products in order to use their service–and sign the terms of service with another company, especially one with a dubious record of respect for their users–is user hostile behavior.

When asked, Getaround says they are doing this because they don’t want to be responsible for trust and safety themselves–they want to rely on Facebook to do that for them. The makers of Getaround don’t really understand how reputation systems work–reputations can’t move from one system to another. You can be an ax murderer in real life, but if you ship quality products on time, you can maintain an outstanding A++ WOULD BUY AGAIN reputation on eBay or Etsy. Nothing on Facebook determines if someone is a reliable driver, there are no mechanisms for feedback on someone’s honesty or responsibility, cleanliness or consideration of others. And you can make a new Facebook account as easily as you can make a new email address.

You can tell what company’s values are by what they focus on, and what they take the time to build. Getaround doesn’t seem to value user sharing and user reputation. Other sharing services put a higher value on users ability to share and on their users reputation.  AirBnB, for example, allows email logins, and has built their own advanced and thorough reputation system specifically addressed to the needs of their community. Getaround car owners cannot share responsibility for a car on their service and absolve themselves of trust and safety responsibility as to their users reputation.

A better sharing economy service would not do that.

Champerty, Gawker and Peter Thiel

Peter_Thiel_from_Fortune_Live_Media-e1410971290253.jpg

It’s hard to pick a side in the Gawker-Thiel-Hogan lawsuit, reported today in Forbes. Billionaire Peter Thiel appears to be funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media, but the lawsuit and its outcome are a mere sideshow to the main story which is that this case is a terrifying development for those of us who value a free, democratic media. What is most frightening about this lawsuit is that the press has always played a significant role in defending the small and powerless against the big and powerful. Gawker has played this role in its own tabloid style, but Thiel’s funding of this lawsuit shows how money can protect that power through third-party litigation funding. 

Lawsuits like these can have a chilling effect on the rest of the media industry, said First Amendment expert Peter Scheer, as they may encourage other wealthy individuals to back litigation against media companies that run unflattering stories about them.

“That’s often the purpose of these cases,” said Scheer, the director of the First Amendment Coalition. “Winning is the ultimate chilling effect, but if you can’t win the case, you at least want the editors to think twice before writing another critical story about you.”

Champerty, as third-party litigation funding used to be called (and should probably be called again!) was formerly a crime, but the commercial litigation finance industry has been growing in recent years . It’s most commonly used as a form of speculation, in which “investors” seek potentially lucrative lawsuits, from which they receive a percentage, or as a means of protecting and expanding a company’s business. But the Thiel funding, coming as it does from a billionaire, is not an investment, but the settling of a personal vendetta  against a media company by someone with the money to drive a company to ruin through litigation.

Generally, people avoid frivolous lawsuits because it often exposes them to as much scrutiny as those they sue, so what is significant about this case is that by funding Hogan behind the scenes, Thiel could get his revenge, escape exposure, and influence the outcome of the case. Hogan’s lawyers made decisions against Hogan’s best interests, withdrawing a claim that would have required Gawker’s insurance company to pay damages rather than the company itself–a move that made Nick Denton, Gawker Media’s founder and CEO, suspect that a Silicon Valley millionaire was behind the suit. Gawker Media may or may not survive the suit in which Hogan was handed down a judgement of $140 million, which the publisher has appealed.

My hope is that the high profile of this case will hasten legal reform. The ethical dodginess of this type of funding is well known–after all champerty was once illegal.


Further Reading:

Gawker-Thiel-Hogan lawsuit article on Forbes

Why Denton thought Thiel was behind the lawsuit article on re|code

Arms Race: Law Firms and the Litigation Funding Boom article in American Lawyer

“There has always been discomfort about the role of money in the profession,” says Geoffrey Miller, co-director of New York University School of Law’s Center for Civil Justice. By adding investors to the litigation ecosystem, “are we losing something?” he asks. “Do we degrade our professionalism? Do we create in the public’s mind the sense that law is all about the money?”  Well, yes.

Comments Sections: A Clarification

Nick Bilton: One of the realizations I’ve had about startups is that they take on the DNA of their founding fathers or mothers. Caterina Fake told me when they started Flickr that they wanted it to be a pleasant experience and a happy platform. So with the first few thousand photographs that were up there, all the employees at Flickr wrote all these really nice notes. Even if it wasn’t the most beautiful photo, they’d say, This is the most beautiful photo I’ve ever seen. I love the framing. It created, from the beginning, this very happy place.

There are many true things in Nick’s statement in an article about Twitter in Fast Company. We very consciously created the comments section of Flickr, we did want Flickr to be a happy place, and for a long time it was. We wanted people to behave in a civilized way, and they did. We did not want to comments to devolve into glib pronouncements, snarky putdowns and ad hominem attacks as they so often do. We wanted real connection, appreciation and human flourishing. However, we never exhorted people to say something was beautiful that was not beautiful, and Flickr, and I, and the team were all deeply committed to the idea that you honor the wholeness of people, and that your comments be thoughtful. The team was encouraged to participate in all the conversations, because it is the founding team that determines how the software will behave, who set the tone, define the limits of what is tolerated on the service, which I wrote about in Wired.

The idea was the opposite of blanketing the comments sections with compliments, superlatives or “Likes”.  We tried to think about the photos we were looking at. Say something thoughtful. And that was what we were with great effort building into Flickr’s comments sections, which can easily become transactional, liking, and hearting,”Great!””Beautiful”,”Love it”! and on to more liking and hearting. Thinking about things takes time. It’s a slower internet. It’s a better internet.

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