Thursday, March 24, 2011

SXSW- Part 3, Building a Web Community the 4chan way

The last few things I want to write about from moot's talk at SXSW (you can read my earlier post on it here) involve his attitude toward building a community online and the ways he's approaching his new project, Canvas, with the knowledge gained from 4chan.

Moot mentioned in his talk that 4chan started with a chat room of around twenty people and just grew from there to the 12 million people per month that visit now.  While it seems like  he should be a very wealthy man from getting so much traffic to his website, moot is currently $20,000 or so in debt because of the difficulties of finding advertisers.  Due to the nature of 4chan, he can't guarantee that ads won't run next to something inappropriate.  Not a lot of advertisers are willing to take that risk, and the ones left are often from companies moot feels may ruin the user experience.  Thus, 4chan generates no real revenue but incurs massive server fees.

It seems that these difficulties, as well as the successes, of 4chan have led moot to his new project, Canvas.  From his description of the site, it aims to mix the benefits of anonymity and creativity with greater ease of moderation and perhaps even the chance to make a profit (or at least not lose money).  Canvas, like 4chan, is an image sharing website, but it comes with a few changes.  While the site's still in closed beta and I wasn't able to get in, moot's presentation showed some stills of it.  One interesting feature is that Canvas includes tools to edit images within the web page itself, making it easier for users to work together to create new works (and memes).

It also links to Facebook, which seems at first to go against moot's stance on the benefits of anonymity being beneficial.  However, from what I can tell, he's hoping to hit a good balance between the pros and cons of having anonymous users, making a site with equivalent creativity but less trolling than 4chan.  The method Canvas employs to do this is to allow users to post anonymously but to have their registration information behind the scenes, through the connection to Facebook.  To quote moot's talk, "It's a first pass at weeding out your more casual trolls... Even though we're not surfacing your profile information, your name, your picture anywhere, just the fact that you know that we know is enough to discourage people."  This won't discourage everyone, of course, with moot guessing that only around 20% of people who might try to "muck things up" might be discouraged by this step.  However, it definitely says that he intends Canvas to be very different from 4chan, in terms of moderation and friendliness to wide audiences.  Hopefully it also allows him to get some advertisers!

Moot does, however, intend to keep some of the things he sees as key features of 4chan's success, the first being the organic growth it saw, developing from a small community to a large one without any form of advertising or explicit attempts to get more users.  He argued that this was key to the formation of a community and group identity, and said, "The problem is not scaling, but building a community worth scaling."  I thought that was a really interesting comment.  Any time you look up information about social media and social websites or games, you're generally inundated with advice on how to grow your numbers and attain success in terms of visits.  This kind of view, of allowing things to develop on their own, was refreshing, and I think it really does touch on part of why 4chan has been so successful.

One thing moot expected to change, and ended up reverting back towards the example of 4chan instead, was the format of the website.  Specifically, the way through which users could communicate.  4chan, as I have mentioned before, is a simple image board, where users can post images and comment on them.  For Canvas, moot was planning on adding a chat feature as well, to allow people to communicate more instantly and directly while working on a project.  What he said he found, however, is that chats were less fun for users than commenting was.  With comments, new participants can go back and read the logs, catch up and then contribute.  Apparently with chats, this was much harder, making it fun only for the people who were involved already.  As moot says the point of his sites is always to be fun, this led him to scale back the chat option and increase focus on commenting.  While chat is still a feature, he said he's aiming for a mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication on the site, or a "product at the intersection of chat and commenting".

I'll be really interested to see how the new site works when it's finally opened up.  I think it could manage to be pretty successful, and it would be nice to see one of the Internet's major players manage to make a profit for once.

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