proposal: size-limited fora

25 November 2005, 12:48 pm

Lately I’ve been lurking on a cascading style sheets discussion list. By my standards, it’s high-traffic, with 3-4 digests generated daily. But people who wrote reference books I rely on participate; it’s often very useful. (And the wiki/FAQ is a goldmine.)

The list is also quite intolerant of off-topic messages. The typical response from the moderators to a tangentially related question directs the offender to a big list of resources, and often suggests that the offender subscribe to another list or newsgroup entirely.

But there are two big reaons people keeping posting off-topic messages that the go-somewhere-else solution doesn’t address:

  1. Overall time constraints. It takes me more than ten minutes a day just to skim the css-d digests. At the moment, it’s repaying the time I invest, but I can’t necessarily afford the time to join other similarly sized groups.
  2. Learning curve. After reading the css-d list for a few weeks, I have a good idea whose advice I’d prefer to take. Aaron recommends browser “hacks”; Abigail suggests javascript; Adam crusades for accessibility; Alicia’s responses will encompass site information architecture; Andy will reflexively bash Microsoft products. On another list, I need to invest a similar amount of time before I can effectively evaluate the validity and appropriateness of the advice I receive.

For a web developer looking to better his or her skills, a list dealing exclusively with style sheets will be inadequate. Style sheets need to be applied in the context of a web site, and other technologies and disciplines inveitably will be relevant to any real-world application.

From the questioner’s perspective, there would be clear value in allowing off-topic messages. But from the perspective of other participants, they decrease the value of the forum: they dilute its focus and add to the time required by participation in the forum.

Every mailing list or forum suffers from this tension of differing needs of users. Every electronic community must decide how to handle the problem. Informal groups often allow off topic messages (with the benefit of increasing the sense of community, and the drawback of increasing bandwidth).

Small groups (like fan discussions for cult artists) can be stable in this mode for many years. Large groups tend to be stricter, because otherwise, the amount of time/bandwidth consumed by messages that don’t interest most participants becomes too large.

Definitive technical resource groups (like css-d) tend to have large readerships so they are forced to adopt a strict stance to off-topic messages.

I wonder if an alternate approach might better serve the needs of many users for technical discussions:

Instead of allowing new subscribers without limit, restrict membership to Malcolm Gladwell’s “magic number” 150. Start new “sub-lists” as necessary. Allow broader discussion.

There would be one very big disadvantage: Each of the individual sub-lists would be less definitive. And a given sub-list wouldn’t necessarily have participation from renowned experts. But that could be mitigated by maintaning a searchable archive/FAQ of the aggregate lists.

2 comments on “proposal: size-limited fora”

  1. Terri

    This is why I prefer forums to mailing lists. With a forum, you can choose which pieces you want to read and specific areas can be set up for newcomers. With a mailing list, you just get everything and have to weed through.

  2. summervillain

    Excellent point, forums are intrinsically more manageable. But forums with tens of thousands of posts — like my hosting service’s technical forums, or Kingdom of Loathing’s — are still pretty difficult to extract information from, even when the search tools are reasonable. Recurring questions evolve into a series of pointers to earlier posts, and there’s no clear mechanism for indicating when an item’s information is outdated. (This is particularly problematic for rapidly evolving technical subjects like CSS.)

    I’m still convinced that size is a big part of the problem.

    I also realize that my basic suggestion is inadequate — if when a group reaches 151 members you split it into a group of 75 and a group of 76 you fracture some of the valuable connections that have already formed between its members. And if you don’t distribute them evenly, you’ll wind up with 3 or 4 newbies asking one another questions they can’t answer until the group reaches critical mass. And then again, even 150 people chattering among themselves are eventually going to generate an amount of content that is unwieldy.

    I still think there’s a kernel of a valuable idea here somewhere, but it needs to be teased out into something workable. (Slashdot’s comment weighting system is clearly an attempt to address the same core problem, but I think the sheer bulk of Slashdot makes it nigh unmanageable.)

    Part of the original impetus for this post was a music mailing list I’ve been on for many years. Its membership has mostly hovered not far above Gladwell’s “magic number” 150. It gets a fair amount of queries that start along the lines of “This is waaaay off-topic, but there’s a lot of smart folks here, so maybe somebody will know…” Someone often does know, and, in general, I think it works pretty well. (Although some list members get annoyed when questions with obviously Googlable answers are asked, or when the list is effectively asked for free professional consultations.)

    (Oh, and as of this writing I’ve got 8 css-d digests piled up unread and I’m about to surrender. I’ll always have the FAQ.)

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