by Simon St. Laurent
Related link: http://www.taunton.com/finewoodworking/pages/w00138.asp
Wayne Miller, of the now-closed Badger Pond forum, explains how an experimental bulletin board grew into a community.
Fine Woodworking magazine isn't a typical stop in techie bookmark lists, but today there's an interview that explores the process of building communities online. Badger Pond started out as an experiment, remained controversial to some extent throughout its existence, and finally shut down when its moderator moved on, but during that time it managed to build a genuine community of woodworkers.
Probably the most interesting, though most difficult, aspect of Badger Pond was its intensive moderation:
"My belief was that a community could only evolve if the traditional subjects that tend to polarize communities (and countries for that matter) were not allowed to be discussed. It seems to me that you can bring a community (or country) together in one of two ways: create a common enemy to hate, or stress a shared interest. I chose the latter. One of the kindest characterizations of my role as moderator was that I was a benign dictator. I agree with that assessment. That was my function."
For me, Badger Pond was both a place to learn and a place to enjoy. Personal attacks weren't permitted and (despite after-the-fact moderation) rarely happened. Wayne kept politics and religion off the radar, though both were plainly and largely politely in evidence at the "Ponder Picnics" I attended.
The latest picnic, a few weeks ago in Anderson, IN, brought together about 75 people from all over the country. I drove 13 hours with two other people from upstate NY, while others drove from as far as Oklahoma and Arkansas. A couple of people even flew in, from Washington state and Florida.
Not a bad result for an experiment in community building, especially one that's now over.
Can benign dictators help communities grow?
As a benign dictator myself (www.css-discuss.org), I couldn't agree more with Mr. Miller. My experiences have been that strongly moderated topical venues, even those moderated after the fact, are always more useful, vibrant, and desirable. When you have a venue for discussing a specific thing, then you should keep the conversation on that thing. If you don't, people abandon the community.
Question the conclusion
I question Mr. Miller's conclusion that it was the strict moderation that was largely responsible for the popularity of the site. While I agree that the presence of moderation is useful to sustaining the viability of a forum, I find that narrow-interest forums focused on helping and sharing information typically tend to be very civil and, as Mr. St. Laurent notes, the moderation was seldom needed. I think that the success of such sites is much more dependent on the willingness of participants to take the time to share their knowledge and being able to sustain and replenish a core group willing to do much of the heavy lifting.