The Decline of Metafilter

(This is a break from your regularly scheduled programming about massively multiuser online entertainment. Normal service will resume shortly).

Once again, Metafilter has me worried. Far be it for me to predict the imminent demise of one of the Internet’s most popular and well-known weblogs when it has confounded the predictions of countless others, but this time I think there’s a real problem.

Metafilter’s unique feature is that it has practically no moderation. If you’re a registered user, you can post a link to the front page of Metafilter once a day, every day, and you can post as many comments as you want. Chances are that if your link isn’t a duplicate or something completely useless and/or inflammatory, it won’t get taken down by the harried site administrator, Matt Haughey. Your links and comments cannot be rated and as such they are all presented on an equal footing; therefore, there is no quick and easy way of filtering out links or comments that other users believe are bad (which you can do on Kuro5hin and Slashdot).

“But,” I hear you cry, “how on Earth can this system work if Metafilter has thousands of users? Won’t there be hundreds of links per day and thousands of comments, making the front impossible to navigate and allowing lots of substandard content to clutter the place up?”

The answer isn’t simple. A couple of months ago, Metafilter had about 14,000 registered users and perhaps ten times that number of unregistered readers. However, not all 14,000 users posted a link every day – if they did, the site would be unreadable. Instead, there were a mere 20 or so links posted per day, and on average they wouldn’t be too bad. There are many reasons why there weren’t more links posted per day; many of the 14,000 user accounts were defunct and of the active ones, there were many people who simply never wanted to post a link. The strongest limiter, though, was the fact that there is an ingrained culture in Metafilter that states, “Think long and hard before making a post which will go in front of tens of thousands of people. Don’t waste their time.”

And so things were fine; as with any large community, there were spats, feuds, arguments and flames on a day to day basis. Yet there wasn’t any apparent downward trend in thread quality, and the mythical ‘golden age’ of Metafilter contined on in the present. As for me, I visited the website on a daily basis and found many interesting articles from the links provided. Every so often I’d post my own link. Things were fine.

It couldn’t last forever, of course. Metafilter was in the midst of an artificial situation – for the past four months, it had closed down new user registrations due to insufficient server processing power. When a new server came online – two months ago – registrations were reopened cautiously, letting only 20 users in per day, and people who didn’t want to wait could pay $5 for immediate registration.

User numbers bloomed by over a thousand in less than two months. I shrugged my shoulders and thought, “What difference is 15,000 from 14,000? Little will change.” I’m not so sure now. The thousand users who’d joined had been waiting for months to get in – they weren’t a representative sample of Metafilter users, and clearly they wanted the priveleges that came with being registered, namely the ability to post and comment.

The sky didn’t fall, and it still hasn’t – I think link post counts have gone up, and I think there are more comments than usual. Subjectively, I think quality is slowly inching down but I know all about the rose-tined spectacles effect. I can’t see Metafilter coming to a crashing halt. Instead, I can see a gradual decline.

I liken the current situation to an event in Blue Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Mars, what a surprise, eh?). In this book, the Martian natives (humans) have enjoyed a period of relatively slow population grow after they destroyed the space elevator that allowed large numbers of immigrants in. Once a replacement elevator was installed, they were in danger of becoming swamped by Earth immigrants who were unfamiliar with their customs and formed their own little communities, sealed off from the natives. Conflicts arose, and the natives felt they were being overwhelmed.

The ‘solution’ (and I use quote marks because, realistically, it wasn’t perfect) was to greet the immigrants not with hostility but with open arms and try and accept them. After a fashion, the immigration crisis subsided.

This sort of solution is pretty damned hard to enact in reality, especially in a place like Metafilter. The ‘immigrants’ – the new users – are on average not as familiar with the culture of Metafilter as older users and they are more likely to slip up by not understanding what constitutes a good post, and simply enough, how not to piss other people off.

With increasing user numbers, retaining a high quality and manageable number of posts and comments will become more and more difficult. Solutions that were in the past dismissed are now being considered, such as rating posts and comments. Ultimately, I think Metafilter’s current model is not sustainable and either the site will fractionate, or a rating system will be introduced. Unmoderated posting is only possible in a small community, and it’s a testament to the self-control of Metafilter’s users that it’s managed to work for so long. Note that I’m not criticising rating systems; personally I think they’ll be useful, if not without their faults. Ditto for unmoderated posting.

None of this will come as a surprise to people who regularly read the ubiquitous and frankly pap books that talk about Online Communities (my dislike of them is well known; in brief, I think that their authors have no experience in serious writing or analysis and rely too much on anecdotal reports, case studies and vague, contradictory homilies. But enough of that). What I’m saying isn’t particularly original, but I did feel that it hasn’t been said openly recently.

Sooner or later, Metafilter will have to change dramatically. It was a grand experiment while it lasted.

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