Why Does a Librarian Own a Social Media Site That’s Been Around for Longer Than Facebook?

photo of Jessamyn West
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
Why Does a Librarian Own a Social Media Site That's Been Around for Longer Than Facebook?
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Jessamyn West is not just one of the web’s favorite librarians, but the new owner of Metafilter, an incredibly long-running social network that dates back to a very different Internet. In the first part of our interview with Jessamyn, she tells us just how Metafilter has kept going and stayed healthy since 1999.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hey everybody. Welcome back to Reimagining The Internet. I’m Ethan Zuckerman. I am here today with one of the Internet’s very coolest librarians and one of the internet coolest people in general, Jessamyn West. Jessamyn is a librarian in Randolph, Vermont, where she leads the Randolph Technical Career Center. She’s a frequent speaker and writer. She wrote the 2011 book Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide. She blogs at librarian.net. One of the things we’re going to be talking to her about today is the MetaFilter community where she used to be the community manager and director of operations, is now the co-host of the MetaFilter Podcast and as of very recently, the owner of MetaFilter. Jessamyn welcome. Good to have you here.

Jessamyn West:

Hey, good to see you. Thanks for having me.

Ethan Zuckerman:

You have been highly, highly online and really visible in sort of technology circles, particularly connecting the librarian world to the larger digital world. You’re also very much a rural New England person. And of course you are now CEO, owner, director of one of the Internet’s longest lived and most beloved online communities. What is MetaFilter and how did you end up owning it Jessamyn?

Jessamyn West:

Well, MetaFilter is I think Matt Haughey, who’s the guy who created it, had the best description of MetaFilter, which is a social network for non friends. It’s essentially an online community blog. So back in the early days of blogs, a blog was just a thing that one person did before kind of everybody had one and before you stopped calling it a blog, because it was just what the web was. It was started in late 1999 and it was basically anybody could make a post to the front page about a neat thing you found on the internet that you wanted to talk to other people about. Other people had accounts also, and people could talk in a very text based environment. There were images for a while, but then there stopped being images and it’s grown over time. There’s now the most popular part of the site is Ask MetaFilter, which is like Q&A about, you got a relationship question, you got a cat question, you got a vacation question, ask the community.

And so it’s a longstanding community where it ebbs and flows of who’s there and what they’re doing. But there’s some people who have been a part of this particular online community for over 20 years. Right. And so you get to know people. You have people who have been married and they have kids and then their kids get accounts on MetaFilter like it’s boggling, honestly. And I started out there just as a friend of Matt’s and then over time being kind of a super fan, Matt ran it by himself for a long time. I became kind of the first employee after just Matt and the dev guy, PB, Paul Bausch, and slowly that turned into a little bit of a job.

And then as kind of the great glory days of blogs happened, it was advertiser supported. The ad money was good back in the day. And the site had a team of full time round the clock, 24/7 moderators. We did stuff, spent money on it. And I worked there from 2005 to 2014. When I stepped down to really spend a little bit more time doing libraries, Josh Millard, who was kind of the guy who was hired after me, once Matt stepped away. I mean, it’s all God soap opera-y. Right. Matt stepped away to get a job at Slack. Josh stepped in as kind of the owner and also the guy who ran day to day, did that for four or five years during Trump, during COVID like, oh my God. So hard. It was so hard then. And really it was a lot, it was too much. Right.

And so he had to really pull back and the site has been kind of reconceptualized so that I’m the one who does kind of in the UK, they call it just admin, right, paperwork, legal, vision stuff. But we also have one of the longstanding moderators there who’s really in charge of day to day. Right. So as much as I’m, I guess the CEO, I’m also not the person whose day to day, like we should delete that comment. This is how we should handle this community issue. I’m there as kind of a long time person who understands the community, who has vision, but we’re really hoping to shift to more of a steering committee model where the people who use the site are the ones who really get to help run the site. And it’s hard because it’s been a long time where it’s been not that.

So it’s been like that guy. He’s in charge. This is his fault. I’m mad. Moving on to, okay, well MetaFilter is us. How do we want to handle this difficult conversation? How do we want to handle this weird topic? And that’s kind of where we are now. This all just started as far as my kind of weird return, and we’re still trying to figure out how it’s going to happen. Right now we have a transition team helping ease Josh out, ease this new model in, and then we’re going to move to a steering committee, which is going to hopefully be the legislative body that helps determine what MetaFilter is going to be.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So let’s remind people or introduce people who don’t know Metafilter to a couple of things that are peculiar about it. One is that MetaFilter has been around for 22 years at this point. If you are a logged in user, as I course am, you can click a button showing you what MetaFilter looked like 20 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago. MetaFilter has multiple different sections, but one of them is generally referred to as the blue and these are moderated, but user written short blog posts really just long bookmarks. One today, for instance, is pointing people towards a website that lets you generate Brian Eno’s music for airports or something similar by layering pieces of choral music and sound sort of put together. So these are of delightful links across the internet that MetaFilter’s community is finding and putting up there for each other and for the web as a whole. Who are the MetaFilter people Jessamyn? How many are there? What’s the sort of person who uses MetaFilter and what’s up with the $5?

Jessamyn West:

Good. Let’s address those in order. MetaFilter people in general tend to be people who like myself are extremely online. I mean sometimes in order to put it in context that other people understand, it’s kind of like Reddit if there were only one of them and there were no threaded comments. Right. And there were moderators who got to do that as a job, not as volunteers, et cetera. Right. And maybe a little less of a commitment to all free speech all the time. Right. Not that we’re against free speech, but we believe that in a community you have to balance the needs of one person against the needs of a general community. Right. And so because I mean our user numbers, you get kind of an incremental user number whenever you sign up. Matt was user number one, I’m user 292. My boyfriend is 61170. We don’t refer to each other that way.

But a lot of times your kind of aware of it because it does let you know when somebody signed up. Our user numbers now are in the 300000s. Realistically though we probably have a couple thousand people that are commenting in a given month maybe. I haven’t honestly looked at the stats recently and maybe 10, 15,000 sort of users that comment kind of ever in sort of the current environment. Right. A lot of people just sign up and leave. A lot of people left because the site changed and they didn’t, or they changed and the site didn’t, that kind of thing. Users have a tendency to be extremely online. They have a tendency to be from Western countries, though certainly not for all. And we’d like to work on that, but it’s challenging. Right. It’s almost exclusively conversation in English, just because again, mostly sort of Western countries, we do have a lot of non-English speakers, but they participate in English.

People skew older. Although you do find younger people for whom the site works for them. Often there’s a reason they’re extremely online, which is the thing I always brought to my moderation. Maybe it’s just a kind of reason like, oh, I work on the internet. And so I also hang out and talk on the internet, or it could be a reason like, oh, I’m time shifted from everybody I would hang out with in real life. Or oh, I’m taking care of a family member, which means I don’t get to get out and about. Or maybe I have a disability that keeps me that gives me communication issues if I was talking or interacting in real life that I don’t have when I’m typing into a box on the internet. Or maybe all sorts of things, maybe I’ve got an attitude problem that makes it difficult for me to interact with people in real life.

I think for me, I stay up late and my community doesn’t. So I really like being able to talk to people. And I like people who get my jokes. Right. It’s almost an outcropping of sort of Usenet conversation, very text, very nerdy, very interested in things in that nerdy way. And people who like to share. Right. There’s a huge amount of librarians on MetaFilter.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It definitely feels, so I’ve been on MetaFilter for a long time. I certainly don’t have a number as low as yours, but mine is in the 15000s. I’ve been there for a while. And I remember the internet being a lot more like MetaFilter and there actually being dozens of different sites out there whose primary occupations seem to be to document index and celebrate the supreme weirdness of the world that we are jointly living in. And it is worth reminding people that the first weblog Jorn Barger Robot Wisdom was basically single line descriptions of websites with links to them. MetaFilter in some ways isn’t all that different from that, except that it has a rich commenting culture. And it’s now got communities like Ask MetaFilter that are, I think, warmer and friendlier than just the link exchange piece of it.

Two things I would say about MetaFilter that seem really worth calling out, one is that it’s remained remarkably friendly and unspammy, which has something to do with moderation and something to do with the five bucks. And then the second is that there was a long period of time during which MetaFilter was almost like the secret backdoor into Google. So I’m wondering maybe if I can get you to talk about both of those, the very unusual subscription system and then the relationship between the mass of comments that is MetaFilter and the way that search engines have dealt with it over the years.

Jessamyn West:

Sure. Well, the $5 that you’ve referred to is basically it costs $5 to join. If you don’t have $5, drop us a note, you can probably join anyhow. We don’t want it to keep people out who, especially if you come from somewhere where $5 is an awful lot of money, or maybe you’re in circumstances where $5 is a lot of money, but it costs $5 to sign up. And originally that was literally because, and this is joint with your other question, right, you posted something to the front page of MetaFilter, MetaFilter was a popular website before there were as many popular websites. Think about the early aughts. You post something to the front page of MetaFilter Google would pick that up. That would suddenly become more findable because not only it existed, but it got pointed to because Google used to be all about inbound links with text being the things that Google used in its were not quite smart, but we have a smart idea way so that Google would understand what a page was about. Right.

But so spammers figure that out and they’re like, oh, if I can get my vacuum cleaners on the front page of MetaFilter, my vacuum cleaners are going to shoot way up in Google page results. And that was true, like page ranking. And so people would just constantly be linking their vacuum cleaners and you can see them coming a mile away, right, but it wastes moderator time to have to figure this out each time. And one of the things we know about spammers is, oh my God, they fight, they fight when you ban them. And you’re like, no, and they’re like, I’m just a vacuum cleaner salesman and it’s exhausting.

So we just had this sort of $5 thing and that had a tendency to keep spammers out. Right. Because it’s one thing to spam when it doesn’t cost anything. It’s another, that it’s going to cost you five bucks. Maybe you’re not going to get your five bucks back. One thing I really do need to mention about MetaFilter specifically is it is bespoke, which is also another way of saying rickety and built on PHP and cold fusion. But we built all the tools, which means our tools are the ones we need to do our job, which I think is really an important distinction.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I feel compelled to put in a Jedi GIF at this point here and say cold fusion. Now that’s the name that I haven’t heard in a very long time.

Jessamyn West:

I know. I know.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It is fascinating. I mean, one thing I will say is as someone who’s been part of the community for some years, it is really carefully, thoughtfully and politely moderated. I have had you turn me down on posts that I wanted to put on the blue because they were promoting a paper that I’d written or something along those lines. There was a sort of Wikipedi-ish don’t use this for self-promotion rule for a while. But I think one thing to sort of say about MetaFilter is that it’s not only bespoke, but it feels handmade and handcrafted and deeply personal. My guess is that those spammers that you’ve told to buzz off, it was probably the politest and kindest buzz off that they’ve gotten in the last year or so of spamming. Any thoughts on sort of the community aspect of this Jessamyn? Because it feels very consciously constructed to be welcoming and inclusive in a very particular sort of way. And one that again, feels a little bit old fashioned and a little bit unfamiliar these days.

Jessamyn West:

Well, I will say that we try. I will also say for the people MetaFilter of course has tons of detractors and I’ll be the first to say, we don’t always get it right. But what we hope is that we are in the process of making it better together. And the whole idea about moderation in a paid moderators who don’t have to do things at scale, who can really do it at a human, what I perceive to be a human scale can really take a little bit of time. And if somebody’s irate about something that got deleted, or if somebody’s just having a really bad day, you can maybe understand that through sort of a compassionate lens, even if you don’t agree with somebody or even if they broke the rules. I certainly don’t think I’m an assholes on the internet. I think most people who are assholes on the internet don’t think they’re assholes.

I mean, obviously there’s like trolls and spammers and a whole bunch of bad actors, but one of the things I think that the sincerity in at least more or less kindness from MetaFilter, I mean, there’s definitely some people who are like it’s community of assholes, move on. Right. And I think compared to some other communities where people don’t talk about politics, or they don’t talk about racism, or they don’t talk about difficult issues where reasonable people agree and disagree and fight is that we’re able to come to it with, this is how I would like to be treated. This is how we can work on treating you.

And for trolls, it’s almost not worth it because after a while, they’re like, nah, I’m doing this to provoke a reaction. And it’s like, sounds like you’re having a really bad day. That sounds difficult. And as a community, again, not for everyone and it could be better, but it’s good. We don’t rise to the bait like that. And so you kind of can’t get a rise out of the community in the way that trolls, I think feel rewarded by. And so as a result, it’s just a bunch of kind of dopey, sincere people trying to have legitimate communications and interactions with each other.

Ethan Zuckerman:

The internet is a place where pseudonymous user participation communities go off the rails really quickly. My guess is that roughly 10,000 times as many people know about 4Chan as know about Metafilter. I’m looking at the blue right now, and I’m seeing posts from Rock Lobster, Zamboni, Abe Hammer Lincoln and Ursula Hitler. Somehow the fact that people are named Ursula Hitler doesn’t seem to get in the way of having thoughtful and respectful conversations.

Jessamyn West:

Ursula Hitler is a surprisingly nice person actually. I see them in a lot of Saturday Night Live threads. We’ve also got fanfare, which is for talking about TV and movies. Anybody who still misses television without pity, please come by. It’s not the same, but it’s a place. And one of the things we’ve always talked about at MetaFilter is there’s nothing wrong with pseudonymity. In fact, there’s many good reasons why you might want to be pseudonymous on the internet, but on the back end, again are bespoke nonsense. We kind of know who people are. One of the things we are able to do is we can tell if people have sock puppets, because we can kind of check IPs and that kind of stuff. We don’t use that stuff for anything except ferreting out bad actors.

And to be honest, the $5, which is often payable with PayPal gives us or Stripe or other processing platforms gives us a little bit more information about a person in the event that there might be a problem either with them about them like, oh God, this person’s making kind of suicidal comments. Does anybody know who that person is? It’s a terrible aspect of online community moderation, but one you should be prepared to deal with. And so that helps us kind of steer identity. We basically tell people, you don’t have to tell us who you really are, but you have to just be one person or you have to be one person. And then you could have a sock puppet account for embarrassing questions, but really you got to keep it on the level. And my username is Jessamyn. I have no alter ego on the internet, which is very strange and very true.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So MetaFilter is now 22 years into this project. You’ve been part of it essentially all of that time. Let me ask a question that is perhaps complex and multilayered. Is MetaFilter sustainable?

Jessamyn West:

Oh, that’s it?

Ethan Zuckerman:

Yeah. Well sustainable is a question that has layers. It’s got fiscal sustainability, it’s got community sustainability, it’s got staff sustainability. I’m curious about the interlocking of all those different answers.

Jessamyn West:

I mean my answer in short is yes. And my longer answer is, but not the way it’s been. Right. Because it used to be, we were raking in money, hands over fist. There was a brief period of time I was making six figures as a community moderator on MetaFilter and that wasn’t recently, you know what I mean? It was a long time ago when Google brought in more money than we knew what to do with. And Matt made decisions that we would all get paid really well and have health insurance. And that was great. Those days are in the past. The moderators now get paid decently, but they don’t get health insurance. We have some hours that are currently not staffed that we determine through statistics just have a really low amount of people there. More of the money that goes to support MetaFilter comes in from community donations and not Google.

Right. Google is a fraction now and a smallish fraction of where the money comes from. MetaFilter has some fixed costs in terms of just what it costs to run a server with this stuff on it. I’d be lying if I said I was 100% sure we’d be able to continue with paid staff at this level moving forward. But also one of the things that kind of a change in ownership offers an option for is there were a lot of people who were dissatisfied in what they felt to be a single point of failure person who was in charge. And I don’t think Josh would deny this. I don’t think this is me telling tales out of school. You’d ask for things and they wouldn’t happen. And you’d feel frustrated because you felt like you were participating and helping strategize ways to work on problems.

And then you felt like you hit a brick wall. Right. I mean, especially during Trump and early COVID, right, everybody was exhausted. And that included the staff, which meant the developer who was dealing with challenges in their home didn’t have as much free time for development. And that meant all the staff were like, don’t ask for development stuff because the developers busy and the guy who ran the site was having his own challenges that made sort of executive functioning a little bit challenging. And so a lot of people were like, I don’t know how I feel about giving you money. You’re not a nonprofit. This is going to pay for this. And I don’t know how I feel about that. And what we’re hoping is we can be a little bit more transparent. We can be a lot more responsive. We can have community members who are helping do some of the work, which takes the load off of paid staff.

I don’t know if we’ll ever have community moderators, unpaid kind of the way Reddit does, but it’s on the table. I mean, I think the important thing is the community stays the community, but also honestly, one of the reasons I’m here is to kind of assess what’s the plan and to talk to the community. Look, if we want to stay together the way we are, we need to have a plan for that. I mean, we’re now at the point, which we weren’t six months ago or a year ago where the money coming in is slightly more than the money going out. When I took over, what I was told is it loses money slowly. That’s probably good for your taxes, but not good for other stuff. And we’ve fixed that.

Ethan Zuckerman:

You had this wonderful Quip before we started recording. I was congratulating you on becoming the owner of MetaFilter. And you were explaining that it was more analogous to adopting a puppy, which is to say a lot of work, a lot of late nights, a lot of cost that you’re taking on, not necessarily the best decision for financial success, for instance.

Jessamyn West:

Yeah. More like an elderly shelter dog that needs medicine. Like a puppy is like the world’s your oyster, who knows what’s going to happen. You can make this the way you want to. Shelter dog’s got some stuff in them already, some stuff you’re able to fix and a medicine habit that you need to pay for. But yeah, I mean, I’m interested in it and up for it. MetaFilter’s where I go on the internet, right? It’s not like I was away and now I came back. I never left. I just stopped working there for reasons. But it’s where I like to be. And I believe there are other people who also like to be there and maybe together we can work on a plan. Right. We’re all grownups. A lot of us have jobs now. We didn’t before. We can do things. Right.