The Once and Future Metafilter

Issue 10 of my newsletter – subscribe here

Metafilter is a weblog that anyone can contribute a link or a comment to. A typical weblog is one person posting their thoughts on the unique things they find on the web. This website exists to break down the barriers between people, to extend a weblog beyond just one person, and to foster discussion among its members.

I joined Metafilter shortly after it launched, snagging a coveted three-digit user number (482). This was in February 2000, almost twenty years ago – aeons in internet time. Not only have I been a member for most of my adult life, I’ve been there for most of my entire life there.

You know what they say about blogs and news sites, “don’t read the comments”? Metafilter’s unofficial motto is “Do Read The Comments”. Like Reddit, a relative stripling of only fourteen years, it’s the conversation and the community that keeps me coming back. Unlike Reddit, Metafilter is highly moderated and single-threaded, leading to more coherent and, frankly, less racist and sexist discussion.

(yes, not all subreddits)

In its first decade or so, Metafilter didn’t have to worry much about money. It was the early days of the internet, advertising dollars were sloshing around, we hadn’t had two recessions in a row, and there was less competition for eyeballs. The only thing it charged its users for was a $5 entry fee, and that was simply to keep the number of members low. Imagine that!

But times have changed and now Metafilter is suffering not only from precipitously declining advertising income, but also a continued gradual falling away of its active userbase. A few years ago, it moved towards a member-funded model, a little like public radio stations in the US, or more recently, like Patreon.

To be clear, there are still tens of thousands of monthly active members and likely many more non-members browsing around. But it’s a lot quieter than it used to be; newer forums and social networks have captured those who might otherwise have joined Metafilter.

I still read Metafilter multiple times a day. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been inspired by things I’ve read there. I would be a different, and worse, person were it not for the Metafilter community. So I was distressed to hear about its latest financial straits.

This is not a new development, so perhaps it shouldn’t be distressing, but the fact that it keeps getting worse is what hurts. And so while I have doubled my monthly donation, I’ve wondered what else can be done.

I’ve had to keep businesses afloat through tough times. I’ve had to make people redundant many times – and only after reducing my own salary (or cutting it entirely), often for several months in a row. And I’ve figured out how to move a business to one that is mostly subscription-funded.

So I think I know a thing or two about all of this, and so here are my recommendations for what Metafilter, or any other seasoned community-powered site facing similar dire straits, should do:

1. The overriding priority? Make more money.

Thanks to countless studies, we know that people make poor decisions when they’re stressed and anxious about running out of cash. I don’t mean Metafilter should pursue profit above all for the sake of champagne and yachts – I mean they should stop running at a loss. They can’t do this by cutting costs because their costs are already low, so they need to increase revenues.

How? Ask members for more money.

Not through a tiny, temporary bar on the website, but via an email sent to every registered member. All ~300,000 of them. Tell them about how the site needs their support, list some amazing posts and comments from recent months, and what their support will do in terms of new features.

I guarantee this will generate a shit-ton of money. Enough to stop worrying about money for several months, if not longer.

2. Sharing is caring

Make it easier for people to share excellent posts and comments from Metafilter. Amusingly, when someone suggested this their example was actually a tweet I made containing a screenshot of a lovely story about Stephen Hawking.

Apps like Instapaper let you create “text shots” from articles, by selecting some text and turning them into crisp images, complete with the article’s title and URL. This makes it easy to share them on Twitter and Instagram, where the articles can get a wider audience.

There’s so much good writing on Metafilter that deserves to be seen, and it’s the best advertisement the site could ever have.

3. Create a newsletter

OK, hear me out: The problem a lot of sites face is reminding people they still exist. It’s easy to fall out of the habit of visiting, especially now that RSS has died. That’s why so many sites rely on social media to share articles (hence point 2). It’s also why people like me are creating newsletters, so we can “push” things to your inbox.

Metafilter should do a biweekly roundup of the best posts and comments. Nothing too long, just the highlights. The good thing? It can politely ask people to consider subscribing.

Once upon a time I founded the Metafilter Wiki to help new users understand and navigate the odd traditions and in-jokes of the site’s community. I wrote the first few dozen pages myself, and paid for the hosting, and moderated it. It was a bunch of work and a real headache at times, but I did it because I cared.

If there’s a site or a service or community that you care about, whether online or offline, you’ve got to step up.

I know you’re tired. We’re all tired. But there’s probably something you can do, however small.

Watching

📺 Stranger Things Season 3 was delightful, and appears to have had all the money in the world dumped on it. Sure, it’s pure 80s nostalgia, but it’s good 80s nostalgia.

Reading

📖 The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. I don’t like abandoning books, but it was preventing me from reading anything else, so it had to be done. I can see why others might enjoy the worldbuilding, but I couldn’t face another 300 pages of exposition, not to mention the awful, unbelievable humour and dialogue.

Listening

📻 Talking Politics podcast on Hong Kong. An excellent primer to the recent mass protests – what they mean, why they’re happening, who’s protesting, how they affects China and Taiwan, and more.

Visiting

🌳 The John Muir Way or at least the stretches near Edinburgh. Who knew there were so many woods and forests and beaches here?!?

3 Replies to “The Once and Future Metafilter”

  1. Very excellent ideas! Email to all the members, OF COURSE. Text shots, also great! Newsletter, maybe! If something like Samantha Bee’s “Little Victories Files” which is one of the few things I open immediately because it is SO NICE in these wretched times.

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