I got this idea yesterday when I was pondering about a common pattern of decay in Internet forums (communities). They start out as quaint little places where people with similar interests gather. For a while everything is rosy, but then the community starts to grow and eventually attracts all kinds of unsavory characters. Some of them can be banned for outright hostile behavior, but most of them are just this side of indecency. There’s nothing specific that you could put a finger on, so you can’t do anything about them, but they still make everyone uncomfortable. Eventually there’s more and more of them, and the old “core members” dissolve, leaving the forum to rot.
This is extremely typical, and I’ve seen it happening at many places, but up until now I’ve had no ideas what to do about it.
Then a few days ago I read a twitter story shared by one of my friends. Translated, it goes something like this:
I very much enjoy the moments when I once more find myself in the company of great people. My friends, A, B and C. … and then I step into the public transport, wander into the wrong bar or peculiar company, and I have a culture-shock. “What? People in this world are still prejudiced, violent, passive, cruel, uncompassionate and rude?” The protective environment bubble.
It was only yesterday however that these two things “clicked” together. In real life, we actively make our own “protective environment bubbles”. We seek out like-minded individuals, pick our friends from among them, and avoid people/places that are unacceptable to us. As most of you can attest, this can be achieved to quite a great degree, where the “unpleasant” parts of the world are only a small nuisance in everyday life.
In an Internet forum however this cannot be achieved so well. Everyone’s together. You can’t pick out friends whom you like and enemies whom you avoid. Every word of yours is heard and can be replied by everyone. Sure, you have the option of simply leaving the forum… but often that’s not possible, because there aren’t any viable alternatives. And there are still those few people there whom you like to talk to. And anyway - if you leave, you contribute to the very problem this started with - the best people leave and the forum rots.
So my suggestion is this - give people the power to create their “protective environment bubbles”. Everyone can still read everything (that’s the positive side of internet forums; it gives the power of information sharing), but people can decide whom they don’t want to talk to. There are several technical implementations that come to mind:
(Note - when I say “a topic that belongs to a user”, I mean “a topic that was started by that user”)
- User A can mark user B as “don’t want to talk to”. Henceforth user B won’t be able to send PM’s to user A, or reply in user A’s topics.
- User A can “ban” user B from a particular topic of his (maybe user B is generally a good guy, but has a too strong opinion on some issues).
- User A can edit/delete any posts in his topics.
- User A can lock any of his topics, if he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.
- Users can create “interest groups”, which work by invite-only. People in an interest group will get automatically notified about any topics that other people from their interest group create. An interest group also has one or more “leaders”, which are the only ones with the power to invite or kick someone from the group.
In a way this brings the forum closer to a facebook-like social network… but then, a forum is a social network. Social functions fit there.
What do you think?