The misplaced devotion to organizational technologies

Internet | Familiarity
Are people devoted to organizations? Or just to organizational technology? One of the fascinating developments of the Internet has been community forums exist largely independent of real organizations. The devotion they generate should be instructive to anyone studying organizations.

A few years ago, an online discussion forum system called Abuzz enjoyed a run of popularity. It was designed to encourage users to not just post any sort of thought, but specifically, questions. Its innovative technology was that each question was routed to a number of users for answering, based on the quality of their past responses. Users praised it for its intuitive interface and its effective efforts at moderation (i.e., encouraging good posters, discouraging anti-social users). The New York Times Digital recognized its potential for knowledge-sharing. Instead of licensing the software, they bought it outright. Unfortunately for the users, the new management decided to dismantle the Abuzz team an effort to fold it into their organization. Here’s how Abuzz staffer Randy Brandenburg described the changes in a open letter to the community in April 2001. In the following week, over 200 responses, professing their gratitude (and over 750 would eventually post a response, though not all of them on topic). Here’s a sampling of the responses:

Noddy24, 60 year-old woman (with 5,285 Abuzz posts):
“May the gentleness of all the gods go with you. Thank you–and all of the staff–for the wonderful experience.”

GoAway, retired English teacher (4,169 posts):
“There are many of us who depend on this site as a lifeline and a friendline. We appreciate all that you have done in the past and we hope we can look forward to a future which is the same.”

msbbg (1,764 posts):
“We are a far-flung community and rely on each other for support and camaraderie. For your part in making this possible, much gratitude.”

jeanbean (15,853 posts):
“I wouldn’t mind paying for Abuzz. This goes against my usual ‘everything is free’ demeanor. I don’t mind it, b/c I use it all day.”

littlek, 33 year-old (15,403 posts):
“I’d like to say, here, that I love abuzz and thank you all for making it and keeping it what it is.”

Gezzy, 37-year old single mom (3,474 posts):
“Abuzz has grown to such a big part in my life that I don’t know what I would do without it.”

Morganwood, 55-year old man (2,618 posts):
“For someone like me, whose wife is often away for months at a time, where will I go to discuss half-eaten mice in the basement or the heritage of groundhogs or discuss the simple joy or raking leaves on an autumn day? I’ve found no other place as suited for those discussions as here at home with Abuzz.”

SoccerGeorge, father of 3 (1,900 posts):
“You have created a magnificent product. That should evident by the outpouring of emotion from its users.” “Abuzz gives some people an activity – some people advice, and some people – I am being honest here – a sense of purpose.”

One poster named Tom Sawyer took a break from the lovefest. “I’m slightly bemused by this discussion. Is this loyalty to a technology or to a company? Loyalties to companies are always short-lived.” he continued:

“I write not because I have any concern about Abuzz. I am just underscoring a point of the marketplace. careful investing too much emotional currency in a company. Certainly if it allows you to become a paying customer, or contribute to the development (as open source), you have a true stake in its success. I used Abuzz a bit last year, and found that while the developers very much wanted to incorporate user needs, they just didn’t have the right direction to do so (NYT Digital management probably would take most of that blame).”

A few thanked “Tom” for his candor, though one took him to task for being “bemused” in the face of collective loss. Joanne Dorel (11,952 Abuzz posts) answered him directly:

“It is to late for us Tom, our emotional currency is not the company but our invest with each other. This site has shown that the i-net and its users are not all annons [anonymous people] who don’t care about anything but themselves.”

“Tom Sawyer” is, of course, me. (That was the last Internet forum where I participated using a pseudonym). I myself had originally been enchanted by the USENET newsgroups, the original Internet discussion groups. The key technical advantage of newsgroup forums was that they could handle multiple discussions at once, in a way that Internet email lists couldn’t (and still can’t). To me, that was an innovation worthy of celebration, but that didn’t make it a real community, let alone one worth being devoted to.

Whereas the newsgroup postings were ephemeral, websites like Abuzz retained a base appeal because of their visual structure. Abuzz encouraged a behavioral pattern for how it was supposed to run– ask questions, supply answers. Users felt very reassured in seeing others follow the behavior. While some (such as myself) appreciated this limited engagement, others felt comfortable enough with the community to break the pattern– engage in open-ended small talk. I caught up with Kris (little_k) of Cambridge, who had posted some fifteen thousand messages to Abuzz, and asked her whether it was appealing to her that, on one particular occasion, bypassed the Q&A; to discuss her newborn niece. She wrote back: “The off-topic chatting was part of what I loved about abuzz.” The four people who responded to his post on his niece, she told me, were also from the Boston area, and they often met in person.

I also asked Kris whether she had been as devoted to a community website before or since. “I think the abuzz experience is like a first love experience,” she wrote. “You will almost always fall in love again after your first love ends, but it will never the same.”

I now see the same devotion to technologies like Meetup. Meetup’s innovation was unusual, because it directed its community to meet offline. Like Abuzz, Meetup provides a simple structure, but users are able to improvise on it. To bridge the shortcomings of the structure, Meetup hosts such as Charlotte Robertson of Indiana’s Chicago suburbs tell me that her group simply communicates via regular email lists things which they can’t do via the software (e.g., suggesting that everybody vote for a specific venue. See my Expanding on the idea of Meetups for more proposals related to the shortcomings).

The flip side of the Abuzz experience was how sharp the turnaround was once the environment changed. The Abuzz devotees were heartbroken. As “msolga”, a Abuzz poster from Australia (who hadn’t posted very much more times than I had), wrote: “I would also hate to see it changed into something that no longer resembles the Abuzz we know & love. It is difficult to know exactly what the changes could mean. It makes me feel paranoid.” If people feel so strongly, is it possible for the site to mature? In discussing some of the improvements for Meetup, a number of hosts similarly “we love it, don’t change a thing” attitude. Aldon Hynes, a Meetup host in Stamford, went as far as to say that the appeal is due to it being a “bottom up” organization, and that any appearance of a “top-down” influence would ruin it for people. Even if the “top down” behavior was as basic as adapting the structure to meet changing circumstances. (The question had been as to whether the Democratic Party should ask the local hosts to re-affirm their commitments).

I have found nothing in Robert Putnam’s popular 2000 book on the demise of civic engagement, Bowling Alone, regarding any specific problem with “top-down” organizations. Instead, I analyze the behavior this way: participants enjoy a some autonomy (voting on venues, open agendas, fast track to leadership), that they don’t see getting in traditional party organizations. They would accept some direction (“top down”), if that was accompanied by respect, or empowerment. That’s what brings people up in any organization. If there’s no communications with the top, than the organizational climbers won’t see a benefit to investing any time with it.

This is a digression from my main point. People can be both accepting and demanding of the organizational technology, but not to the point where they get confused between the organization and the technology. Abuzz was a technology, plus ten thousand users and a group of paid moderators. Meetup is simple technology wrapped around an old-fashioned concept (that people can best meet in person). It has hundreds of thousands of users. But there’s no there there. There needs to a guiding principle that unites people above and beyond the technology, so that people put their devotion in the right place. There’s no reason an existing umbrella organization– a political party, religious group, professional association– can’t adopt the technology. An organization already has the dedicated members, as well as the staff to moderate the discussions.

In some cases, though, the technology isn’t available to licensed. Abuzz couldn’t succeed at doing it, and the NY Times is even further removed from the software business. Meetup is simple to replicate– let’s face it, it’s events management. The Kerry campaign has finally introduced its volunteer center to list events, but the national party is still playing catch-up. For a time, “Meetup” will still have cachet if not as a technology, but as a brand.


One lesson from above, to users of community software, is standard advice to the lovelorn: don’t get committed, if it’s not going to be reciprocated. Online communities should prove their viability by offering ownership stakes to users: paid subscriptions. Additionally, if the software is open-source, it allows the users to have a true stake in the evolution of its development.

Secondly, it’s refreshing to see that people can get devoted to virtual communities– organizations that don’t truly exist. That is to say, they have nothing that organizations have: a sense of purpose, political leadership, or any associated rituals. These communities exist simply because of the platonic relationships between people, which, as I assert, are facilitated by good process through good software.

A traditional organization shouldn’t afraid to deploy software for the express purpose of letting its members discuss matters in an open-ended, yet constructive environment. In doing that, they can foster increased devotion to the organization– and not just the organizational technology.

Update, 10/8/2005: In April of this year, Meetup announced that they would start to charge groups to use the service. Over at Corante, I argued that it was a positive development, since it would allow constituents to directly invest in the people could directly invest in the technology; with that in mind, groups ought to consider how to get the best bang for their software bucks. Meeup still seems to be quite popular, though I can find no numbers as to how many groups stayed around.
Abuzz, on the other hand, finally shut down on September 2nd. None of the links I reference above are live anymore, though could possibly be accessed through the Internet archive.
Lastly, I write this afternoon because I’ve gotten an update on one of the people I’ve quoted above. This was the person who responded to me, Joanne Dorel. Kevin O’Connor (who goes by the handle timberlandko informed of some tragic news regarding Joanne– that she had died. He sent me this link to an Able2Know discussion, where I read that she took her own life Thursday night. How awful. She had made some 5639 posts over the last three years on A2K, or almost forty a week, and apparently no one new the extent of her depression.
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