A decade of forum advice from Something Awful


(Jeff Atwood) #1

When we started Discourse, I began by studying a bunch of forums that have been around for 10+ years to figure out what they did right. And I’ve always enjoyed this ten year retrospective from Something Awful.

Some real gems in here. What do you see that you agree with here? What do you see here that you disagree with?


A Retrospective On Ten Years of SA

Hello. I’m Tom Collins, famous for typing more words than anyone wants to read. Today marks ten years of my time here, and I’d like to take a moment to reflect on it.

I’ve never been a good one for memories of ‘forum events’, so this isn’t going to be a retrospective of SA forums history. Really, that wouldn’t be interesting if you hadn’t been there, anyway. Who gives a gently caress who banned whom in 2003, or what fat goon flew to wherever to marry some other fat goon?

Sure, I remember stories of things that happened around here, but really until the creation of YOSPOS, I was just another goon. I had a very low postcount for my time here and no real recognition from any other posters. I used to be known as “Death Incarnate” – the name seemed cool when I was 14, but it got old fast.

Instead, it’s going to be my observations on forums themselves after ten years of posting on SA and other forums, and why I still choose to read and post here more than anywhere else. I’m crossposting it in YOSPOS and GBS to get two different perspectives on the issue. Thanks for reading.

1. Moderation is crucial.

Moderation is the backbone of a forum. Forums with weak moderation become rife with NWS content (where it isn’t wanted), inappropriate or lovely threads, spam, and other crap that makes the forum useless. Overly strong moderation leads to a culture of fear, because inevitably it leads to random bannings that are based on drama between users rather than on forum rules.

In the end, you need to have a core group of mods that are actually a little bit distanced from the posters, who can interpret the rules of each subforum correctly – with just enough “wiggle room” to allow good posters to get away with bending the rules, and to allow poo poo posters to be banned even if they haven’t outright broken one. They can’t fraternize with the posters too much, or they’ll start playing favourites, a surefire recipe for drama.

SA has done reasonably well on this count. I’m not going to name any names, but generally I’ve found the moderation here to be sane, and to deal with drama amongst themselves in an appropriate (and usually hidden) fashion. I don’t want this to be seen as me sucking up, so don’t take it that way – but note that I recognize SA as having had fairly consistent and balanced moderation for a decade, which most other forums can’t say.

2. Monetization of posters is just as crucial.

Forums are expensive to run. Server hardware and service contracts aren’t cheap; bandwidth isn’t cheap; administrative staff isn’t cheap; and when it’s something that takes enough of your time to be your fulltime job, it also needs to pay the bills, which isn’t cheap either. The king needs his tax.

Many forums resort to whiny donation drives, or switch to subscription models to keep the place running. I registered back when the forums were free, when the glory of the Dot Com era was still a warm enough memory that people thought it would be possible to support something of this size purely on advertising. It’s not, though.
Setting a basic price point on an account accomplishes two goals: it turns people into paying customers right from the start, so that they value their account. It also keeps out people who would just register new accounts every day, and thereby makes banning an actual punishment – you’re out your ten-dollar “investment”.

The further monetization, through platinum accounts, avatars, and the like, is good in that it offers users the choice of donating further for goods that have perceived value but cost the forums nothing to give. Letting people buy gifts – or insults – for other people turns the act of giving the forums money into an actual tool for social interaction, which is valuable.

The new cancer thing, well, people’s opinions are mixed on that. All I can say is that if it’s needed to keep the place running, and the admins feel it’s a good method for upping the quality of posts, then it’s a valid experiment. We’ll just have to watch and see how it goes. I was more in favour at first, but as of late it’s just encouraging RFA losers to come and post in good forums and poo poo the place up, which is the opposite of the intended purpose.

I’m just glad that this isn’t the kind of place where every other month a huge “DONATE!!!” sticky thread appears, and the same few people fling a few bucks at it each time to keep it going. Those methods aren’t sustainable over time.

3. Being a source of memes is fun, but it’s also debilitating.

The first big meme that SA launched (even though we didn’t actually start it) was All Your Base. SA always had a good group of photoshoppers, and PS threads were probably some of the funniest and best threads in the early days of the forums. AYB actually got some real-world fame, and since then we’ve always had a bit of a hand in perpetuating Internet memes.

Forum-specific memes are good because they allow new posters, once they’ve got a handle on the current memes, to contribute in a fashion that ‘fits in’ with established posters. On the other hand, it’s pretty annoying for a new person who nobody’s heard of to show up on a thread and post a loving fiestacat. Ultimately, they get run into the ground, and the best thing for everyone to do is to recognize when that happens and move on before it becomes too annoying.

Producing the really sticky sorts of memes that spread around the Internet today requires a faster-paced discussion medium than SA offers, however. When Moot left SA (well, whatever happened) and created 4Chan, he spawned a discussion format more conducive to making memes than SA is. If memes are made by throwing poo poo against the wall to see if it sticks, /b/ has the process down.

Really, it’s probably for the best that we’re not actively trying to be a source of memes; they get overplayed far too quickly to really be much fun. What lasts longer is having a culture of people that run with things – if someone posts a photoshop thread, having people around that want to run with the idea rather than shouting it down leads to a much more funny and enjoyable forum.

Thing is, it’s always going to be a lot easier to shout someone else’s attempts at humour down – heckling, essentially – than it is to actually go and produce your own attempts. When you do produce your own, you’re also running the risk of having others heckle you, so it can be a little daunting to try. A healthy balance of heckling and running with it is essential to maintain quality.

4. Specialized subforums are a mixed bag.

A long, long time ago, there were far fewer forums than there are today. I’m not going to give you a grand history lesson of what forums were first, mostly because I don’t really remember what order they all came in. But what’s important to note is that over time, the forums have become more and more “organized”. GBS used to be full of posts on every subject – from e/n to cars to computers to Photoshop to stories of people’s lives to short fiction to general hilarity.

I know it’s a tired old thing to say that “GBS used to be better”, but…. GBS used to be better. For me, it was the forum of choice for perhaps six of my ten years. I’d pop over to SH/SC or AI ever so often, but for a long time GBS had the humour and the freshness that made SA what it is.

Over time, though, things were broken out of GBS. There were too many car threads, so AI was created. Too many E/N threads, so E/N was created. And as each of these categories of posts was removed from GBS, you ended up with less material that was actually appropriate for GBS. What’s left? Posts based on news, subject-specific megathreads that are too small to sustain their own subforum, the occasional Photoshop thread.

It’s not terrible. It’s as good as the general boards of most other forums are. But it’s not what it once was, and I’ll miss the idealized GBS of my memory.

On the flip side of the coin, the subforums can be amazing. For example, AI is a bastion of good car advice, the hardest kind to find on the internet. They’re a great, close knit yet welcoming community. YOSPOS, my present home, is a fun community of FYAD-Lite s***posting that couldn’t really exist inside of any other forum. You can’t have that without breaking out of GBS, but once you break it out, you can’t have those posters, those jokes, and that spirit in GBS any more.

Maybe it’s inevitable that as the place grows, GBS slowly becomes a shell of what it once was. That’s fair, and really we should be glad that it’s still as relatively decent as it is… though sometimes the comments in there are pretty loving atrocious. We’ll get into that later.

5. Regdate bias is inevitable, but it’s pretty loving retarded.

It doesn’t really matter how long someone’s been around once the range is as long as it is here – it only matters that they’ve been around, lurking, for at least six months so they have the lay of the land. After that point, the gloves are off, and cool people will be recognized for being cool (and losers for being losers).

I’m sure I’ve tried to get respect for my regdate in the past, but it’s a misguided, weak attempt at an argument from authority. Just because someone’s older or been around a forum for longer doesn’t mean they know anything, or that they’re cool in any way. That has to be earned, by posting well and by making friends in the community. You can do that in two weeks if you’re good enough at it.

However, I gotta say, most of the ‘00s and ‘01s who have stuck around are pretty cool characters. There can’t be that many of us left. Cheers to those guys.

6. Don’t poo poo where you eat: piracy and porn are awesome, but it’s clear they had to go.

So there’s a seldom mentioned part of the forums history: DPPH, NMP3s, and the Bittorrent Barnyard.
You see, once upon a time, this place was a lot more liberal concerning file sharing than it is now. The porn forum, Don’t Post Porn Here, was first (back then it was mostly picture sets, none of these fancy movies!), and the music forum No MP3s Here followed. They were both quality forums with good posts, and the culture of file sharing on here was very condoned as long as it didn’t extend to software of any kind.
The Bittorrent Barnyard followed suit, utilizing external trackers but officially permitted for the purposes of sharing music, movies, and TV.

Not to get into any of the drama of it, but ultimately the decision was made that they had to go. I believe it was one of the wiser decisions the forums ever made, despite the fact that those subforums were a huge draw for new members. Keeping them around would have led to more drama and legal headaches than anyone would have wanted to deal with. Luckily, those forums and the communities in them have been completely and utterly destroyed without a trace, so we don’t have to worry about them anymore.

I think that any forum that wants to have quality discussion and humour does need to focus on those subjects, and avoid trying to be all things to all people. The influx of members onto SA who were here just for the file sharing forums resulted in tons of idiots who had clearly never used a forum before and were looking for some kind of Napster-like experience, leading to a lower quality posting experience for everyone else. Some of them have no doubt evolved into decent posters over time, and the rest have left or been banned. All in all, it was fun while it lasted.

7. Drama doesn’t profit anyone.

There’s a tendency for many humans in social interactions to blow misunderstandings out of proportion. Online, we lose the benefits of vocal intonation, facial expressions, and body language, which leads to a language barrier that can’t be crossed without either getting really wordy and really honest, or getting really good at reading between the lines. Realistically, people are bad at both of those.

Couple the tendency to go overboard with the lack of normal social graces caused by everyone being faceless behind their computers, and you can have a festering pool of flamewars and s***posting. Moderation can solve this, but only if the moderators are inhuman enough to be able to do it without rising to the trolls and their flamebait.

It’s important for people to take a step back before plunging headlong into some drama with their ill-informed ideas. Usually, people get this idea that they’ll be rushing to the rescue of a thread, like a well-read bouncer at a bar separating two combatants and solving their quarrel at the same time. In practice, they just stoke the fire and turn a two-way argument into a three way one, and perpetuate the problem.

I’m all for honest and in-depth discussion of an issue, but it’s crucial that people avoid ridiculous interpersonal arguments that don’t accomplish anything.

8. The Goon Stereotype isn’t true.

The Goon Stereotype is a 23-year-old fat white American male with poor hair, worse hygiene, and no sense of style. He has some form of autistic-spectrum disorder, possibly self identifying as Aspergers. He likes Anime, bad electronic music, and hacked-together electronics. He has no social skills, is a virgin, and masturbates three times a day to the worst pornography imaginable while eating Cheetos. He works a poo poo job, drives a poo poo car, and thinks he’s better than everyone else in the world.

Those goons exist. There’s probably hundreds of them. But most of us are just… people. A slice of society; there are hot people on here and horrible people, rich and poor, young and old. If anything, it’s far more diverse than anyone realizes, though understandably with a bias towards white or whitewashed Americans who are the target demographic.

It’s bad for us to have such a negative image of the average poster, because it can encourage people who don’t fit the stereotype to act as though everyone else is beneath them. Really, what does it matter who a person is in the “real world”, compared to what they post online? It would be better for us to judge more on a person’s projected character than on the insights it gives us to their real life, because ultimately they’re going to play the part they wish they could play every day but aren’t able to due to social inequalities.

I almost consider it similar to wearing a uniform in school – it limits personal expression, but it puts people on a level footing. We’re all wearing the Goon Uniform, like it or not; so it might be a good idea to stop assuming the uniform’s so terrible.

9. Getting “in” with a crowd of posters is actually really easy.

This one could have been called something like “IRC and forums go hand in hand”, because it’s true. An IRC channel for a subforum is like the behind-the-scenes spine that holds the thing together. Communities can form on forums themselves without anything else, sure, but the asynchronous form of post-wait-read-post doesn’t lend itself to human interaction in the same way that a real, synchronous chat like IRC does.
For forums that aren’t completely serious, like YOSPOS, people on IRC are generally ‘out of character’ compared to their forums selves. It’s almost like as though the forum itself is some sort of game, and the IRC channel is the discussion between people playing the game – one level more removed from the action of posting. You can easily have conversations with other people about themselves, and get to know them, and by doing so become part of the community in a way that you really can’t just by posting.

If you want to get “in” on a community, all it takes is posting, getting to know people, and getting into the IRC in order to really meet the different movers and shakers in the community that give it its particular character. Otherwise, you’ll only ever see the surface level that’s presented on the forums, and you’ll miss a lot of the undertext.

However, the forums have always traditionally had some level of bias against the corresponding IRC channels. This is probably because the IRC channels have never been official, and so they aren’t run and moderated by the same crew as the forums – leading to an alternate set of administrative types that have no official ties to the forums. Maybe there’s fear of “IRC cabals” or something, who knows. So far, my experience has been very benign, and I believe that a combination of realtime and asynchronous communication leads to a stronger community.

One caveat to this: you have to actually be a decent, likable person for this to work. If you’re as much of an rear end in a top hat on IRC as you are on the forums, it’s not going to make a bit of difference.

10. Caring and putting work into a post shouldn’t be shunned.

Last but not least. This is sort of a personal sticking point for me, and it’s sure as hell not SA-specific but the problem’s rampant here too.
I can understand not wanting to read some long rant or tirade that someone’s bashed out, especially if it’s formatted badly or if during your initial skim it seems uninformed or stupid. However, it’s important that we recognize when people put in effort, and respond to them appropriately. If they’re stupid – show them why they’re stupid, in as much detail as is needed. If they’re right – show them you’ve read it, and that you appreciate it.
It’s not always appropriate in every forum, but certainly it’s good to have people around that are willing to put some level of effort into things. We may never get a Goon Project off the ground, but as long as people keep putting effort into making quality posts, this place will always be strong. Like I said earlier, it’s always a lot easier to shout something down than it is to contribute to it… but if that’s all anyone ever does, there won’t be any reason for people to try anymore.

So that’s it, ten years of watching people post. We’re doing well. Keep doing well and I’ll be sure to look back on this in 2020. I’m looking forward to it.


#2

This is gold. I manage a staff of almost 50 volunteers and the hardest thing to get right is ‘how much moderation is enough.’ I try and tell them to moderate to the audience, not the rules, but some people find that easier to interpret than others. I’d love that Discourse empowers the community to set those boundaries, but our community is 15 years old (I know, holy sh*t right?) and it takes a while to teach people a new way of thinking.

And amen to that.


#3

Come back to YOSPOS Jeff.


(Jeff Atwood) #4

I have such fond memories of YOSPOS.

Things I especially liked from this article, and I also believe to be true:

I have never, ever seen communities fail due to this mythical “too much moderation” problem. I have only ever see communities fail from a lack of moderation.

And all the communities we studied, the stable ones that last 10+ years, tend to become more strict over time in what they will accept, not less. It seems almost an axiom that if you want a community to survive, you institute good rules early on, and keep evolving them as you go. This is why we include meta as a default category.

Focus on creating conversations rather than easy and mindless repetition of image memes that end up being a poor substitute for meaningful conversations, aka The Problem With Reddit.

Very interesting chat analogy. We did build the Stack Exchange chat as an out of band “third place”, e.g.

Never mock effort. Reward it, and reciprocate it.


#5

So I actually know of one. Mine. When I first joined staff ~10 years ago it was in serious trouble due to over-moderation. It had gotten to the point where people just didn’t feel welcome. We had to work really hard to turn that around. I do think that moderation does walk a fine line, and I totally agree with your point about continuing to evolve as you go. Luckily it worked for us. We’ve been around 15 years now and are still going strong.


(Kane York) #6

Perhaps one of the core differences here: When faced with over-moderation, the community is already rebelling. And you have much less people to convince of change; this makes it more likely for the community to continue after an attempt at change.

With under-moderation, any increase will cause the community to rebel to the change, which has a good chance of convincing the moderators to reverse the change. If there is a long list of existing grievances, it’s possible for the community to split, or die, in response to this.

Keep in mind that these are generalities, your specific situation will likely be different.


(Lee_Ars) #7

There aren’t that many things left on the internet that scare me, but the SA forums is one of them. It’s completely impenetrable to an outsider and feels absolutely hostile. It’s not even a place that’s all that easy to lurk in, since they throw up so many minefields for non-reg’d accounts (this might have changed over the past few years, but man, used to be browsing the SA forums was like trying to read a newspaper while getting attacked by a hundred angry midgets who kept jamming their fingers into your eyes).

Maybe that impression would have gone away if I’d made more of an effort to actually be a part of the community, but SA seems like a place where you can be banned for making even a casual joke in the wrong way or in the wrong place. I know it’s a successful community, but it’s not a place that ever felt particularly welcoming.


(Jeff Atwood) #8

I think that is kind of the point; the larger you get, and the longer your community is around, the less welcoming you can be, really. There is nobody waiting at the border of New York City waiting to shake people’s hands and congratulate them on visiting their fair city. Big cities mean lots of rules and regulation, lots of police, more impersonal, etc.

Still, no question, SA is super weird. But it is an offshoot of a humor site, so isn’t that somewhat expected?


(Robin Ward) #9

In some ways their evolution has been counter intuitive. Something Awful the homepage was always about the worst of the web; laughing at some of the more disturbing and hypocritical aspects of the Internet.

You’d expect some of it, like their reputation for manipulating Eve online.

Over time the community sprouted one of the more effective social justice movements. They were the ones who started the campaign that successfully shut down the “technically legal” child pornography on reddit. Their Gameghazi movement is the single biggest entity in opposition to Gamergate’s home base on reddit.

On the other hand, 4chan is a weird kind of offspring of SA. So there is that.


(Alessio Fattorini) #10

With all due respect I do disagree with this. A bunch of big communities keep that working with hundreds of newcomers every week, I know, it’s hard to say hi or welcome to a new members every day when they’re many… It need much work but it’s worth it. As worth asking “how are you feeling here?”.
Make people more comfortable :wink: and help the participation.


(Jeff Atwood) #11

You might build a welcome center with interactive exhibits and a help desk instead of having Steve do it individually, perhaps.


(Dev Jyothichand) #12

You replied kind of late to that post. Bad!

My biggest hang up with Something Awful is that it seems like a community where most of the people are snarky and try to mock others and make witty quips rather than discuss topics. They also tend to form circlejerks over some issues and dismiss any attempts at questioning their opinions. I guess that’s part of originating from a humour website that’s cynical about nearly everything, I guess. There are exceptions of course, and I may not be right as I’ve only read a few threads there when they allow non registered visitors to check the forum for a while.


(Alessio Fattorini) #13

They do it, every week :slight_smile: impossible is nothing!