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Dear readers, I have moved to Substack and I will be writing here from now on:
In the meantime, I will leave up for posterity. Enjoy!

Public and private spaces, and why YouTube comments are so awful

Why do Reddit and YouTube comment areas suck so bad?
Have any of you guys read YouTube comments lately? They are just  really awful – just click through to the YouTube site and read them. Here’s a couple examples that I randomly pulled from one of the most popular videos for today:

GORTONclinicalp289 (7 seconds ago)
World’s largest sex and swinger personals with over
20,000,000 members looking to hook up with someone just like you!
Enter [_SexDati*ng4Free.com_] to Join for FREE
Just remove * and enjoy

burningtheinternets (52 minutes ago)
This video is being autorefreshed from myspace.
These cheating bitches should burn in hell.
Where do they live?

psychopathick (1 hour ago)
My ‘good’ videos keep getting deleted here. No biggie. I put them up on another website. If you click on my name, you’ll see the link. ;-)

MrDoodyHead (1 hour ago)
chris crocker is ANNOYING. smosh is FUNNY. boh3m3 is DELUSIONAL. iancrossland is A DIRTY HIPPIE. come see who will be what next…

lechampiones (2 hours ago)
i don’t know what to say… why did you do that?

okthen (3 hours ago)
that was stupid!

Similarly, there’s been a lot of interesting discussion about the decline of Reddit in terms of quality, and how it’s been hijacked by biased groups of people. (You know who I’m talking about)

To me, they sound like thousands of people talking past each other. Obviously YouTube has its own specific incarnation of this problem, but think about no-registration internet forums, open chatrooms, global chat within games, and other types of public spaces. It’s really all bad.

But let’s look from the massive scale public areas and look at a mini-version of this.

The dreaded "Reply All"
The issue is very pronounced, even at a small level – let me ask you:

How many people can you put on the CC of a conversation and still expect a reasonable e-mail thread with everyone hitting "REPLY ALL"?

I’d guess 5-7? Once you get very much beyond that, you’re introducing people you probably don’t know very well, and everything falls apart. Woe unto the office worker that sends a message to the entire company, and is followed with dozens of replies from dozens of semi-random people.

Of course, the effect from e-mail is exaggerated because we’re more sensitive to messaging that’s push rather than pull. It’s less annoying to open an inbox with a whole bunch of these already in there, versus the scenario where a continual stream of irrelevant e-mails are being pushed to you.

(more below)

The Dunbar number
Perhaps this has to do with the Dunbar number, which governs how well people are able to maintain relationships. Quick refresher on Dunbar number, if it doesn’t ring a bell:

Dunbar’s number, which is 150, represents a theoretical maximum
number of individuals with whom a set of people can maintain a social
relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who each
person is and how each person relates socially to every other person.[1]
Group sizes larger than this generally require more restricted rules,
laws, and enforced policies and regulations to maintain a stable
cohesion. Dunbar’s number is a significant value in sociology and anthropology.

As an aside, Chris Allen has done some interesting blogging on the Dunbar number in massively multiplayer games. Definitely worth reading.

Essentially, when you move from small private environments where people know each other, or can at least get to know each other over time, and transition to large public spaces, then reputation is drowned out.

All of a sudden, there’s zero cost to your non-existent reputation to say whatever you want – and it becomes easy to act like an ass, or flame people who are different, or anything else you want to do. When you start running into people who are from a different culture than you, and then arguments ensue leading to the website getting posted.

So the key issue is that in large, public spaces, you end up with the lowest common denominator of communication. People then begin to drive other folks out, because the public space is a homogenizing force, rather than a diversifying one.

Social network audience convergence
There’s a different version of this problem, written by Jeremy Liew where he writes about a social networking company with an odd problem:

I recently met the CEO of a company who claim to be one of the most
popular social networks in Turkey with several million monthly visitors
from Turkey. This happened by accident – the founders are Americans who
have no prior connection to Turkey.

This is just one of many examples of how difficult it can be to predict or control the growth of viral social media. Google’s Orkut,
is a better known example – a social network started by a Turkish
engineer working in the US that now dominates in Brazil and India. Friendster and hi5 fall into this bucket as well. As I’ve noted before, the online advertising market in the US is bigger than that in the rest of the world combined.
The senior management of these companies know this, and all would love
to see more US traffic, but it is now beyond their control.

I don’t know which company he was thinking of, but let me make a hypothesis: The product was designed in such a way that the entire site was a public space, where anyone could browse anyone’s profiles.

The end result of that process is that the customer lifecycle looks like using a hypothetical user:

  1. Becca logs into the site
  2. Becca browses around the site
  3. "Hmm, these people don’t look like they’re American"
  4. "What are people writing to each other?"
  5. "OK, this is NOT my crowd"
  6. Becca then churns out

Contrast this with a user who is part of the in-group, who would respond well to the social signals exhibited by peoples’ profiles, and then opt themselves into the site. In this way, the public areas are self-reinforcing, which is good or bad depending on if you have the target group in mind that you wanted.

Let’s look at an approach that works much better.

Where Facebook succeeds at this problem
This public/private problem is an area where Facebook really excels. The following are true statements about Facebook:

  • Facebook has a lot of high school students
  • Facebook has a lot of Canadian, British, and other non-US users
  • Facebook has people who type and speak in different languages

Even though those are all true, and millions of teeny boppers are taking to Facebook, it doesn’t affect the space around me, because Facebook creates dynamic, semi-private spaces based on my "Networks." As a result, even if a lot of very different folks are showing up, I only see people I know (or people who are likely to be similar to me based on location/school/etc.). This creates an experience which is less likely to be polluted.

Furthermore, it’s also less likely for Facebook to converge to a specific demographic or group, because it’s actually quite hard to get the "This is not my crowd" response based on normal usage of the site.

Some questions to ask yourself about public and private spaces
There’s a lot of interesting things you can learn about communities that do this right – looking at everything from Craigslist, eBay, Facebook, etc., you see interesting static or dynamic segmentations that break public spaces into semi-public areas. In summary, as your site grows, it makes sense to ask questions like:

  • Are there different "groups" on the site that are interested in different topics? What’s the best way to give each group their own area?
  • Is there a reason why people or content should be grouped by geography, language, or otherwise? In many cases, like classifieds or social networks, it absolutely does.
  • Going through the onion layers of relationships, is there a way for people to privately interact with their best friends? How about the next circle of friends after that? How about people they are likely to become friends with? How about the next layer?
  • If one group "blows up" inside your social site, how heavily does it affect the other users? Will it drive them out?
  • Where does reputation play into how people can use your public spaces? Does it make sense to require that users participate for a certain amount of time, or do a certain number of positive things, before they can post? (Look at forums for many successful variations of this)

Happy 2008 everyone!

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