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There’s a fairly interesting discussion

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 22, 2000

There’s a fairly interesting discussion happening over at Metafilter about PayPal and micropayments. A couple folks have asked what PayPal is….basically, PayPal acts as an online bank of sorts, where all the transactions occur electronically (via Web, email, cell phone, Palm, &c.) between two individuals (or an individual and a business). So, if I win an online auction, instead of futzing with a money order or something like that, I can just log in to PayPal and send the seller the amount I owe her. Next time she logs into PayPal, her money is there. Pretty slick.

With the exception of the above thread, Metafilter lately reminds me of something I read somewhere recently, written in the spirit of Bertrand Russell (I’m paraphrasing here):

“The problem with online forums is that those who have very little to contribute participate the most while those with valuable information to share participate the least.”

Look at Slashdot…I’d wager that 85% of the posts over there are useless, coming from people who either have no idea what they are talking about or are blabbering on just to hear themselves talk (Troll! Me too! First post! M$ WindoZe sux!). That’s fine on a Web site like kottke.org, where the purpose is pretty much to hear myself talk, but in a community setting, members of that community need to take some “civic” responsibility and think about how their personal actions impact the group. Just think of how much more useful Slashdot would be if the posters to the threads took as much care in choosing the right time to participate as the posters to the front page (CmdrTaco, Hemos, &c.) do in choosing the right stories to post.

As for Metafilter, civic responsibility might mean (and I’m just thinking off the top of my head here…as usual):

- Limit your front page posts per day. This allows others to post stories and makes reading a day’s worth of posts more manageable.

- Really think about the value of your contribution to the group. Will people find this interesting? Have they seen it before? Is a news item from Yahoo or Salon appropriate? And probably the most important question: is this post a good topic for discussion?

- When posting to a thread, attempt to stay on topic. Subthreads and side conversations are unavoidable and sometimes desirable, but turning a discussion about homelessness into a two-person chat about who can spit watermelon seeds the furthest isn’t doing anyone any favors. Take that sort of thing to email…making everyone else listen to your inane one-on-one conversation is just plain rude.

- You’re probably not as smart or funny or interesting or insightful as you think you are. I know I’m not….I refrain from posting comments (already written comments, mind you) to mailing lists and online discussion forums about 50% of the time. Most of the time, I just don’t feel like I can contribute anything worthwhile to the discussion…so I read and learn instead.

- Don’t post one-line replies or quips to threads. Mark Twain and Basho were both masters of succinctly stating insightful concepts…you are not. Nothing kills a good discussion faster than a series of one-line responses.

- If you think you truly have something worthwhile to share, share it, dammit! Don’t be one of those with lots of information to share and then not share it. I know people are busy, but every little bit helps. Personally, I’ve been slacking in this department…I haven’t posted anything to the front page of Metafilter in ages, and I contribute only occassionally to the threads. I’m not saying that I have lots of information to share, but I think that what little I do have access to on occasion is interesting at times, and I will endeavor to share it with you when I can.

Blah. That ended up being longer than I expected, and I suspect, based upon the reaction to my last bit of peer criticism that I’m going to get a lot a flak for this. And that’s fine. As a member of the Metafilter community, I’m frustrated because I’m watching something I really value slowly degrade into something less useful by the day. I just had to say something…and maybe it will even do some good, who knows. I just hope Metafilter can stay in stage 4 without too much stage 5 nastiness.

I also posted this because I think interaction in online communities is fascinating. I’m a member of several mailing lists and online discussion groups (as well as the administrator of one mailing list), all different but all pretty much the same as well. Some work better than others, some have self-destructed, others languish under-used. The above post is my attempt to work through some online community-oriented thoughts I’ve been having lately.