A tale of two Internet community sites

Internet | Building/Consensus
It was the worst of sites, it was the best of sites, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness– so begins my tale of two civilities. In the course of my work on Civilities I participate in other community websites; partly to see how they work, and often to exchange information. Some have good leadership; others merely have good software (and rarely do both exist on the same site). Fortunately, it was the former that steered me to a correction. The latter is balking on helping me do research. Here’s my tale:

My helpers were the C-SPAN Community, where some members picked up on an erroneous statement I had writtin an article that the national public access network was funded by cable companies, but also “mandated by the government.” The article in question was “When it comes to cable reform, the Cato Institute fears the free market”, which I have republished with the correction. I aim to correct any falsehoods and also encourage users to post. Still, I only found out about the complaint by checking the referring URL’s in my server logs. (Later that evening, someone did email me directly, but didn’t mention the C-SPAN site).

This evening, I visited the C-SPAN forums and found that a poster identifying himself as “cal wurden” of Chicago had cited the article this afternoon. “AnotherWorkerBee” posted the link. Now understanding the context, I signed up to C-SPAN’s community and issued a correction. Several people thanked me for appearing on the community to state the correction. (From this I devised a new motto: “Tell the truth now. For if you don’t, you can always tell it later.”)

The C-SPAN forums use the antiquated and clunky Web Crossing software, notorious for using unreadable URL’s which hash the user’s login info within its structure (and thus it makes them tricky to link to). The human navigation interface isn’t so hot, either– to find this discussion’s posts, you have to skip past some five thousand posts, or just know to hit the “recent” button. The single-thread structure tends to makes it difficult to stay on topic, but the discussion on cable pricing did last about a dozen posts, and is still on that topic.

But contrast this with the able2know community website. Running the phpBB forum software, it’s a bit more friendly to navigate than WebX. This is a forum which, I’m told, took many of the refugees from Abuzz before it got sucked into the New York Times website. Both communities have the focus of helping people get questions answered. As I’m currently doing research on the devotion people have towards online community sites (such as Abuzz), I thought I’d post to able2know in order to reach more people to interview. I joined, and last night posted some questions for people to talk about their devotion. This morning I was informed via email that I had a response to my question had a response. When I looked at the posted question, I learned that it had “moved to a restricted area.” Flustered, I asked customer support what had happened, and was told that the post had violated the terms of service:

The Postings shall be used only in a non-promotional manner. You shall not, without the express approval of Able2Know, distribute or otherwise publish in the service any content which contains (i) offers to buy or sell goods or services; (ii) advertising; or (iii) commercial solicitations of any kind. Examples of prohibited solicitations include efforts to obtain funds or services from members and attempts to recruit members to participate in research studies, other websites, polls, surveys or lawsuits. Promotional postings are not limited to commercial promotions and all are equally forbidden.

Able2Know reserves the right, at its sole discretion, to remove messages that it deems to be advertisements by nature of their content, format, tone or use in the service. Members disregarding this policy may have parts or all of their access to the service restricted or removed without notice.

I understand the concern about the abuse potential of commercial postings, but I’ve never seen a community website so restricted. I can’t post a link to my website for identification purposes. I couldn’t expect to post a link at the end to give a pointer to the article. God forbid any research is done, but somehow, fifteen thousand people have joined. Or even worse, imagine if another website is mentioned? The horror! It claims to be a “Free Knowledge Exchange”, but freedom apparently is served in moderation. I await judgement in the next day, perhaps by the site’s founder and administration, one “Craven de Kere” as to whether my question would be allowed among 26,000 others.

In the meantime, I’ll be content with the community of a more proven free knowledge exchange: C-SPAN. I may hold out for an improved online community, but I do trust that the network’s leadership will be able pick software which upholds the values of open communications.

Update, December 19th: I learned last weekend that the C-SPAN’s Community was taken down on September 24th. A number of members quickly established the Spanner Backup board– “spanner” being the popular term to describe the C-SPAN viewers. I joined to begin on thread to follow up on my proposal advocating Stopping Soapbox Myths, got some good feedback in spite of some missteps, and by the end at least one user suggested that I offer them my assistance in rebuilding the C-SPAN community. If only I had time…