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MetaFilter founder: Reddit's 'creepy stuff' shows how hard it is to run an open community

MetaFilter founder: Reddit's 'creepy stuff' shows how hard it is to run an open community


Matt Haughey talks about why Facebook is like AOL in the '90s, and the best and worst developments in online communities

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matt haughey metafilter
matt haughey metafilter

MetaFilter (or “MeFi”) is a web community from another era, founded before the days of Digg, Reddit, and Facebook. Created in 1999 by Matt Haughey, the site’s run with just a few employees, but has grown into a fantastic place for conversations that you could spend hours digging into and surfacing links that the rest of the web just wasn’t seeing. Or whether Roadrunner says "beep beep" or "meep meep." MetaFilter is still going strong today, and Haughey took some time to talk to The Verge about what got him hooked on technology, the challenges of running communities online, and his recent comments on why he prefers Twitter to Facebook. Follow Matt on Twitter at @mathowie.

What have you been up to lately? Any new, big projects?

I’m working on some refinements to MetaFilter and a couple of new subsites for it as well. Should be live in a couple months.

What’s a regular day in the life of Matt Haughey?

Being that it’s cold and rainy where I live now, my days are suddenly much more boring. I typically get up, eat some oatmeal, process morning email and make sure everything’s cool at MetaFilter. Then I either put in some hours moderating the site or I’m answering email and having discussions with the other moderators about the site. I also read Twitter and my Google Reader feeds. The rest of the day is pretty much the same, reading the web and reading MetaFilter. Then there’s a ton of family stuff, picking up my daughter from school, practicing piano myself and with her, and relaxing with everyone before bed, all the while periodically checking in on the site.

What’s your first memory of the internet?

"Someone keeping a log of every Letterman Top Ten including last night's show I might have missed was just incredible."

A friend showed me this thing called Mosaic, recently added to the desktop icons on our undergraduate computer lab (running Win3.11) right before I graduated. The first thing on the web that blew me away was some college kid had a site with every top ten list from the David Letterman show. This friend and I were huge comedy nerds, that stayed up most nights to watch Letterman, so someone keeping a log of every top ten including last night’s show I might have missed was just incredible to me. I could see that this innocuous hobby thing could change publishing and communication if it was that easy for someone to update and me to read.

What got you hooked on technology? Was there a specific moment?

I think it was being a kid and not being in control of anything, basically the world tells you what to do constantly when you’re like seven years old. I can still recall the first time I wrote a program in BASIC at age 9 and seeing a screen light up in colors I picked and being amazed. Same goes for the 1000-in-1 Radio Shack electronic kit my brother had, and how as kids we could create a light-sensitive alarm out of a few pieces of wire stretched across springs on the circuit board and how incredible it felt to make something I wanted to make. I was immediately hooked.

Your recent post over on Medium about Twitter and Facebook made some waves. What’s interesting is that these sites didn’t just happen to show up fully formed — these differences are tied to distinct design decisions made by humans. As a designer or community organizer, how do you approach this?

Yeah, I’ve been mulling over the things I mentioned in my essay for the last week since I wrote it. I think it all boils down to Twitter and Facebook’s core design philosophies being polar opposites. Twitter focuses on simplicity. It’s just a tweet, and you either follow someone or you don’t, nothing else really. Twitter also focuses on scarcity: you only get so many characters, there’s only so much space on your screen to read tweets. So everything cascades from those two design constraints to the point where I don’t want to bother my friends with a tweet unless I feel like it’s worth posting. I have internalized the scarcity and simplicity and it changes my behavior and is part of why I love the service.

Facebook has expanded to photos, events, timelines, photo albums, tagging, locations and check-ins, and offers half a dozen relationship levels between users. There’s all the room in the world to type so scarcity isn’t an issue. Facebook is embraced by my extended family, just like they embraced AOL in the 90s It’s their everything. Facebook is what they think of as “The Internet” and stuff outside of Facebook barely exists.

What’s the biggest development in online communities lately? The worst?

Hmm, nothing huge lately is coming to mind. If pressed, I’d say the entire Stack Exchange world is really awesome and interesting and even though they did rewards and points like the karma Slashdot introduced over a decade ago, for some reason it works on Stack Exchange sites without feeling like people are gaming the whole thing for fake invisible points.

"Reddit's weird creepy photo stuff and trollish subcommunities highlights how tough it is to run an open community."

The worst thing to happen in the community world this year has been the steady stream of weird stuff happening over at Reddit. I don’t say this to trash a similar community to mine, but the weird creepy photo stuff and trollish subcommunities highlights how tough it is to run an open community with very permissive policies while at the same time hoping everyone is civil to each other. I admire that Reddit is choosing freedom of speech/expression, but I found the whole way things sort of imploded over the summer to be pretty distressing and I wished the team behind the site stepped in and set some boundaries earlier.

Why has the MetaFilter visual design stayed so consistent?

Mostly it’s old habits die hard. I’ve tried and aborted a couple redesigns and kept the site consistent to the point where to many people it looks ugly and dated at this point. You can invoke the “plain theme” as a member and we’re toying with the idea of making that the default in the future if enough people keep emailing us saying the current design is too hard to read.

What are the advantages to artificially limiting the number of people involved in an online community? The downsides?

The upsides are that it’s easy to manage growth and keep a community on track when you have a manageable crowd. Think of a concert venue, you have a certain number of bouncers and security staff and a certain number of ticketholders and the whole thing works when the ratio is right. If 5,000 people show up unexpectedly, you have chaos.

The downsides of course are stagnation. If less new people funnel in as older members leave, the community can get too insular and contract.

What are some of your all-time favorite MetaFilter threads?

Oooh, that’s a tough one. I put my favorite bits on whenever I spot them, usually it’s an amazing story from someone involved in a story that was posted on the site.

How has MetaFilter stayed relevant? Would you have done anything differently?

The jury’s still out on the site’s relevance :). I don’t know exactly what keeps the site around or keeps people coming back, but I feel like it was settling on some simple core principles early on to make a site of interesting stuff and have interesting people on it and growing it very slowly paid off in the long run. There’s not a lot I would have done differently, I kind of like how it has played out for the last 13 years.

Who (or what) are you most excited about on the web now?

"I'm kind of terrified at the pace of change right now on the web."

I’m kind of terrified at the pace of change right now on the web, but I am hopeful about the interesting things happening at edges of publishing. I am liking what Marco Arment’s The Magazine is doing, as well as 29th St. Publishing’s new iPad magazine apps. I’m also liking what Medium is doing.

What underrated app or service is simply doing it right?

I’ll say Panic Software is still doing everything right, in an old school way (consistently useful products released often with amazing customer support to back it all up). I touch three or four apps they make several times a day and they’re some of my favorite, useful things. Everyone that works there is great and looks like they’re having fun and they still answer every email and tweet by hand quickly and satisfyingly. I don’t think they get enough credit, but they’ve been consistently amazing for a small software shop for almost a decade.

Lightning round! Favorite new online service?

If new-ish counts, is still pretty amazing for discovery of interesting content. I love it to death (I still have 2 invites if anyone wants to try it).

Favorite new app?

Echograph is something I downloaded for my iPhone just yesterday. It’s a cool app that lets you make those amazing animated gifs where only one part of the scene “moves” through the combo of video and photography. I haven’t gotten to use it yet, but I can’t wait to setup a makeshift tripod and capture a scene in nature with this app.

Best thing you’ve seen online this month?

Dustin Curtis’ essay on finding and getting the best stuff you can:

As I’ve grown older I have followed a similar path, and it was only recently that I realized it’s because if something breaks in my life, I have fun researching the best replacement, but the real reason I want “the best” of something is so I never have to replace that thing again, so I can completely shut it out of my mind and take it off my list of “things I waste time worrying about.” Life is easier the less crap you have to worry about and if you can spend a little more to buy say, an indestructible can opener that works perfectly and will forever, spend the extra money to get it and never worry about your can opener again.

Best book you’ve read lately?

I’m a cyclist and a huge fan of the sport and reading Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race was an incredible read (it painstakingly details the doping on Lance Armstrong’s team) that I couldn’t put down. The day it was released I was up until about 3AM reading half of it, woke up the next morning and finished it. It was riveting, confirmed a lot of gossip I’d heard about cycling as a sport and in the end it was great to finally hear someone break the cone of silence around the sport. I’m glad the whole Lance world unravelled after it, it was long overdue.

Best movie you saw in 2012 (not necessarily released in 2012)?

My two favorite genres are Comedy and Documentary. Oddly, I have to say 21 Jump Street was the best comedy I saw all year, it was pitch perfect in terms of knowing what it was supposed to be and relishing it without breaking the fourth wall too much or seeming insincere.

On the documentary front Indie Game The Movie was the best thing I saw all year. I’m not a huge gamer (I play my Xbox360 maybe 2hrs per month), I’d only played Braid for maybe 30min before, and never heard of the other games. I heard good things about this film so I saved watching it for a long flight and watched it on my iPad with some headphones in with no other distractions and when the Super Meat Boy game finally gets released and is successful, I was crying with happiness for those two guys. I just remember sobbing in this airplane seat and trying to compose myself before we landed, it was so beautiful and perfect and just a great documentary.

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