The nature of communities
A couple of years ago I started a local Freecycle group for my community. The basic concept of freecycle is a local email list to offer unwanted items. There’s no discussion, very few rules (keep it free, keep it legal, keep it local). We set up some basic formatting rules for postings and eventually most people would follow those rules most of the time.
But Freecycle quickly became like some high school club, more focused on its own operations than its original goals. Special mailing lists for moderators (those who run local lists) were formed, and then regional lists for moderators in a certain area appeared. Strong personalities emerged (as with any online forum) and they began to dictate more rules, many of which percolated up to freecycle central.
- How many OFFERED postings qualified you to make a WANTED posting?
- How did you determine who was local? (and what forms do you send them to collect their location for first and second notice, and how do you decline them)
- Did you moderate posts, or all posts, or some posts, or some members?
- What type of off-topic content was permitted?
- How many “strikes” before you were out?
- What items (or garage sales) were allowed (and what form was used to notify someone that their item was not allowed
- Could one be a member of multiple freecycles? Could one post an item to multiple freecycles?
- And on (I’ve blocked much of it)
I managed to ignore most of this; I interacted only with the local list. Whenever I would check in with the various moderation forums, I was stunned at the complexity and drama that had emerged. Various scandals within certain regions around breakaway groups, rogue moderators, scammers, people posting under multiple identities.
A few months ago I learned that Freecycle was trying to establish a trademark, in order to maintain some sort of organizational status. I received a vaguely threatening note urging me to comply with a variety of new policies. The logo on my Yahoogroups page had to be revised, and I was to encourage (somehow) various uses of the term Freecycle. We were not to refer to Freecycling or Freecyclers but “using Freecycle (TM)” and “members of the Freecycle (TM) Network.” There was a lot of ridiculous and barn-door-too-late instructions. I made a few changes, but decided not to make this the problem of the list members.
After a slow start, however, the list at this point was thriving. Plenty of activity, plenty of members, no conflict. All the usual list-admin problems of people needing extra help or not understanding rules, etc. But that was par for the course.
When I got back from vacation recently I got an officious message from a member who urged me to clarify various policies and passed along the FAQ from a San Francisco Freecycle. This wasn’t so terrible, but it was really the tipping point for me, personally.
I built the community, and now it’s time for someone else to run it. Last week I turned the operations over to a small committee who will deal with whatever they want, however they want. I did some full disclosure on the drama that swirls around us, and they went for it. I’m sure it will be fine, but my time was up.
I’ve started a number of online communities over the years, but this was the first one I’ve let go of responsibility for. It feels good, not to walk away from it, but to leave it in a healthy and stable position.
Anyway, this recent New Yorker article about Wikipedia reminded me of the Freecycle stuff and human nature around forums such as this.
Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda B. Viégas, two researchers at I.B.M. who have studied the site using computerized visual models called “history flows,” found that the talk pages and “meta pages”-those dealing with co??rdination and administration-have experienced the greatest growth. Whereas articles once made up about eighty-five per cent of the site’s content, as of last October they represented seventy per cent. As Wattenberg put it, “People are talking about governance, not working on content.”
For more on the bitter silliness that threatens to overwhelm if not wreck Freecycling, check out this article from Grist.