Before I dive in, let me say that in10se's writeup is awesome and addresses many of the technical issues that the site faces. I agree with all of it, as much as one person can. (He even mentions a few of the things I'm going to address.)
In addition, I should disclaim that I am not privy to administrative discussion, nor am I speaking as a member of the staff. The most adminstrative traffic I get is chanops traffic stating which spammer or troll account got borged when. It's entirely possible that the things I bring up are being actively discussed; I have no idea whether they are or not. Remember this lack of transparency and awareness - it's a serious issue and recurs throughout the whole site.
To wit: Everything2, as a whole, has no idea what it's about or where it's going.
(The first time I wrote that there were more expletives.)
This has been the case since forever. Everyone's got an idea of what the site's for, and there's all kinds of ways people use it, but there is absolutely zero direction. The previous times that a major policy was imposed, there were uprisings and fights and hurt feelings; because of and due to this, no one tries it any more, if only to avoid hurt feelings and user exodus. This is why we are where we are.
Everything2 is in a decline, a weird internet twilight. This is backed up by hard numbers. No one has any data saying why (opinions, on the other hand, abound); clampe is the only person I know of that is actually trying to get some, albeit in an indirect fashion. Perhaps there are other researchers I'm not aware of. Lack of awareness is sort of a sardonic running theme in the site.
We've already got a clear statement of what we are. (I am personally ashamed that I did not know that essay existed until yesterday. It should have been front and center on the site since the day it was posted.) It's inclusive enough that I doubt anyone is going to argue with it. What we need is an endpoint, a goal to fulfill. We need something to unite around, instead of stupid chatterbox meta-sarcastic infighting. It's the elephant in the collective room. Until we define where we're headed, we're not going to get anywhere.
It seems to me that there is a single statement at the core of almost every complaint I have heard from established users: Everything2 needs more writeups. I don't care what your feelings are on exactly how many or what quality level or how they should be posted. All of that is a distraction from the core concept: Everything2 needs more writeups. It is pointless to worry about capturing a specific set of writeups and users if we can't get any in the first place. We can refine the systems once they work.
Established users are not the problem. Established users are able to navigate the site and know most of the little tips and tricks and inconsistencies. The majority of them are willing to stick around through thick and thin. They can be counted on to submit regularly, even if it's just once a year. The problem, as has been pointed out before, is that even though we are seeing almost as many new account registrations as we did ten years ago, these new users are not contributing writeups. This is the group we must focus on if Everything's appetite for new material is to be sated.
There are numerous hypotheses that are floated as to why this somewhat mysterious group of users are not contributing new writeups. As a technical support veteran in meatspace with a damned good success record, as a member of chanops, and at the risk of appearing to be a pompous blowhard, I feel I occupy a unique position between established users and new users. In case you've never had the (sometimes unfortunate) pleasure of being a technical support agent, let me explain. Technical support is not a job where you get to fix computers all day. Technical support is actually about people skills. The vast majority of my time was spent talking to customers and employees with the specific goal of establishing an emotional and intellectual rapport in order to understand what they needed help with. A good tech support agent is an agent who understands that this is the real goal, not fixing a printer on the other end of a phone line. Many agents never really understand that resolving a tech support call is nothing like fixing their computer at home. Their skills and experience blind them to the fact that those skills and experience are unique among the general population. They become frustrated when the person on the other end doesn't just 'get' what they're talking about. The vast majority of 'hilarious' tech support call stories are born out of this misunderstanding.
Established E2 users must deal with this same blind spot. This is an incontrovertible fact; you are fooling yourself if you claim otherwise. There have been many changes and programs set up to help new users acclimate: the TinyMCE WYSIWYG editor, the (apparently defunct) E2 mentor program, the institution of the Level 0 user, et cetera. Yet, none of it seems to make any obvious difference. Things change for a little bit, some users squawk, one or two disappear sometimes, but a significant change in new user writeup contributions has not occurred. This is because none of the changes made in the last handful of years have changed the overall new user experience.
Before you send me a message telling me I'm wrong, stop and ask yourself: if the changes did revolutionize the new user system for the better, how come those users aren't posting nodes?
Now, as I said before, I feel I have a particular viewpoint on the interaction between new users and established users, and between new users and the noding process. I feel that because I have experience dealing with this exact process of trying to fix things for people who don't understand a piece of software, the changes I am going to propose are not just some off-the-cuff "throw it at the wall and see what happens" suggestions. If these problems are not solved and the new user experience significantly and widely improved, Everything2 will never emerge from the twilight.
Starting from the very tippy top:
Problem 1: Editorial policy is almost impossible to figure out.
I have been here eight years and still have no clue how the editors determine what stays and what goes. If quality is a subjective concept, then the reputation system is an attempt to attach some kind of quantitative value to quality. However, if that's true, writeup reputation is no solid indicator of why a writeup gets to stay or for how long. For example: as Diesta during the Wordmonger's Masque: Poets' Ball, "Appeal For Protection" was removed less than eight hours after being posted; during that time it had dipped to a -5 reputation. Still under the mask, I contacted the editor who removed it and was advised to repost it as a daylog if I didn't agree with the decision. I did so, and that poem sits at +4 (+9/-5) as of this writeup. If I recall correctly, it reached that reputation within a day of being reposted; I can only presume that the -5 downvotes are from the same five people.
From the messages that were exchanged between myself and the editor who handled the deletion, I got the distinct sense that the editor did not care for the poem. It was nothing personal, and the exchange was very civil. However, it was immediately removed. I was not asked to correct or change it, and I don't recall that I was told another editor had looked at it. The reason I was given was that the node had been deleted because the reputation had dipped too low.
Official policy states:
"[But] deleting a writeup is a last resort that should be avoided if at all possible. In most cases it causes no harm at all to the site to leave a writeup up a few days longer, especially since writeups can be hidden. But on the other hand a hasty deletion can cause a lot more problems than it solves, sowing anger, bitterness, and confusion among the userbase."
This is just one example of the inconsistency that seems to crop up when dealing with node deletions. I don't believe the inconsistency to be the work of maliciousness, but a simple lack of official instruction. I have yet to find specifics stating exactly when an editor is supposed to remove a writeup. In fact, the ambiguity concerning writeup deletion seems to be intentional; to my knowledge no adminstrator, god, or editor has ever comitted these specifics to a writeup in the database.1
This constantly undermines the authority of the administration. This is why we get new users in the catbox at least once a month, sometimes even once a week, demanding that someone explain why a specific node was removed despite reputation or content. This is why established users start demanding heads on platters when a favorite node gets deleted. When there's no official policy backing up a deletion, the users will assume that a given node was deleted simply because the editor thought it was terrible, regardless of the officially cited reasons.
- Official policy needs to be spelled out down to the dots on the 'i's.
- Clauses allowing room for editors to use personal taste when deleting writeups should be avoided, or the policy will be just as worthless as having no policy at all.
An angry user who has just had something deleted will read any such evasions as "Because the editor felt like it." A policy stating nothing but that the editors reserve the right to delete what they want when they want regardless of node reputation or content is offensive to the userbase and should be considered an imposition of the administration's will on the userbase.
- At least two editors should handle the deletion of a writeup: one to suggest it, and the other to confirm.
Both names must be made as obvious as possible.
The optimum solution, in my opinion, would be to set up a node deletion log containing the node title, time and date of deletion, the editors involved, and a short explanation of why it was removed, probably just a few words. Much of this can be automated; the same concept is sometimes used as a user ban log on other websites and forums. When an editor can point to official policy and another editor can back them up, personal attacks become absolutely worthless. The users will be able to look at the records and decide for themselves whether or not they agree with a deletion or an editor's track record, instead of having to take everything on good faith and impersonal text.
Problem 2: There is confusion over communication methods and power roles in the adminstration.
As it stands now, it is impossible for the normal user to determine who handles title edits, or new quests, or node deletions, or user complaints. In order to have something addressed, a user must either message an admin directly, or leave a note on a node that doesn't carry indications that it is even looked at, much less addressed. Several established users simply eschew the whole system and message an admin they are familiar with for everything.
- Stratify and outline, in simple terms, exactly who is on the staff, what their responsibilities are, and the authority hierarchy from top to bottom.
The editor and god groups resemble a giant amorphous cloud of responsibility when it should be a clear chain of command; trying to find an editor to get fast help is an exercise in patience. If there is a problem with a particular editor, the users should know who to talk to in order to elevate their issue. It should be immediately obvious which staff member has the most authority in any situation. A flowchart would be helpful.
- Remove the * sigil from the code team.
I'm not sure why they got this in the first place as there is literally no need for these people to be set apart from the full userbase in any meaningful way to the average user. In fact, considering that their focus is presumably on technical maintenance and new code, it would probably be more useful for them to appear as normal users. I have no idea how many misguided requests they get from regular users but I doubt it's zero.
- Enforce the power structure among the staff and ex-staff.
No member of the administration should have access to a tool they do not need to perform their duties. When staff starts crossing group boundaries, the power structure is undermined and reputations are harmed. Confusion and distrust among the administration is often made worse and reflected back by the users to the detriment of both groups. Former members of the staff, while possessing a viewpoint that is generally more experienced and insightful, should not be accorded any special privileges or accountability over the normal userbase.
- Set up an obvious and easy to use feedback tool for user suggestions, complaints, and maintenance requests.
These nodes are awful. I personally have had some requests sitting on the Suggestions page for months, maybe even years, with no indication that they were even looked at, much less rejected or implemented. These two nodes serve what appears to be the exact same purpose and should be something that the user can do without administrative assistance. There needs to be formal bug report and feature request tools with a way for users to see that the administration is paying attention. Co-opting a node to do it looks unprofessional and gives the impression that the administration doesn't care enough to set up proper tools or pay attention to feedback. There are dozens of far better solutions to this exact problem, yet we still keep these reinventions of the wheel.
Problem 3: There are no systems in place to encourage user feedback on writeups.
Like it or not, we live in an age of commentary: Youtube comments, free blogs, Facebook status comments. It is mystifying to me why a site that is presumably built on the writing process has all sorts of toys for readers and writers, but none, save the humble blab box, for peer review. If we are a website of writers and readers, why are we not a website of critics as well? Everything2 could be made the biggest peer review group on the net. We have published writers with experience in the industry, but no way to help them help their peers.
We also have one of the most considerate communities on the face of the planet. I would (and have!) hike dozens of miles for a fellow user, and I am confident that several of the users I have met in person would do the same. Nodermeets are even unique even among other communities that support real-life meetups: none of those other sites would welcome a near-anonymous user the way we do.
Our peer review community is already here and waiting to be leveraged. Some people know a good sentence when they see it but can't put one together to save their lives; some, just the opposite. If we want to foster a community of writers that we can all be proud of, we need a way for all of us to contribute in an obvious and meaningful way. It seems intuitive to me that many of these users who start leaving commentary will be driven to contribute a few writeups on their own.
Feedback and critique is good for building writing skills. Not a single damned writer on the planet got to where he or she was without someone reviewing their work. There are concerns that adding a commentary system will invite the sort of user who contributes to Youtube; I say that user is already here. They are already reading your work. You cannot escape them; they are your audience. The only comment I will make on the sort of user who feels that this audience is not worth having, is that such a user does not belong to Everything2 and would be better off on another website.
- Implement an easy to use and meaningful writeup feedback system.
This system should be available to Level 0 users. It should have a way for other users to support good suggestions without having to post redundantly. The author of a writeup should own the commentary posted to it and should have tools to moderate it, including the ability to delete any of it or opt out completely.
- The feedback system should have a counter-feedback system.
This allows users who regularly post good suggestions to rise to the top of the pile and become recognized for their efforts. If an author prefers feedback from certain users, he should be able to mark them out so that their suggestions also rise to the top. This system should not, unlike writeups, have a negative feedback element; authors may simply delete the offending comments or report repeated offenders to site administration.
Problem 4: The little quirks, jargon, and inconsistencies across the site add up to a society that is insular and difficult to penetrate.
I love this site as much as the next noder. But, there is a certain language users must learn to be able to extract any meaning from the other users and interface. Why do we have to explain what a node and a writeup, the puzzle pieces this website is built on, even are? Why are the user tools named using absolutely ridiculous things and why is it such a total pain to find them using sensible search terms? Why is the chat interface still awful? The site lives and dies on communication between users; it should have been fixed years ago.
Let me give you a few examples of what sorts of things need to be changed:
- C! carries no semantic content beyond what the site gives it. Call them what they really are: Endorsements.
- Node means, to the layman, something about your lymph or maybe something in mathematics or physics. Writeup makes more sense; it's a verb, it's what you do about a given topic. We already use "writeup" as jargon. It should be expanded to cover everything.
- Noder is just as meaningless. We are users, and writers, and readers. Pick one.
- Chatterbox? Again, cute but confusing. Just "Chat" or "User Chat" or "Public Chat".
This insistence on bizarre and obscure words for common site features and things reminds me a lot of one other high-profile site: 4chan. Until you spend the time digging through offsite dictionaries or enduring racial and sexual slurs from other users, interpreting the text is maddening. To be totally honest, I think that insisting on this as an expression of site "culture" is the same thing as telling a new user "lurk moar newfag". It is an obstacle and many users won't bother trying to figure it out. They'll just leave. At worst, it's hostile behavior: how many of you made up secret languages as a kid to keep your parents from figuring out what you were doing?
- Do not fix or change anything else on the site until the interface inconsistencies are corrected and the whole of it standardized.
The chat interface is the most obvious part, but everything on the site could stand to be re-evaluated. I don't know how many users started using the TinyMCE editor when it was installed, but the HTML it outputs is absolutely unreadable. The search interface is clunky and misleading: "Near Matches" and "Ignore Exact" mean almost exactly the same thing and give the same results in all but a very few cases. There's no way to search through a specific user's writeups or by a specific type. There's a whole laundry list of fixes on the books somewhere (see Problem 2 for the current location of that list).
- Scrape the jargon and cutesy names off of the interface, tools, and help documents and put something logical in their place.
There is a time and a place for a website to express its character. The user interface is not it. Let me repeat that because I still see users who don't get it: The user interface is the absolute last place to have silly names or in-jokes for anything. There are assumed standards for websites and writing; Everything2 flaunts these standards like it's a badge of honor when it's really a big ugly obstacle to the user who is trying to figure out what's going on. Everything2 is so big and deep that keeping these around is like watching a man drown in the ocean because he was asking for a life jacket when no one will acknowledge anything but "Mae West". I would not be surprised if a significant portion of the new users who do not contribute are not contributing because the interface doesn't make any sense. It is like nothing else on the internet, and that is bad.
Problem 5: The site culture, by way of the interface, encourages seniority over merit and the past over the future.
Everything2 has been around for a really, really long time. In internet years, it's even longer. Almost nowhere else are you going to find users with registration dates like these. Unfortunately, this means that someone with an account date over even a few years old carries inestimable weight; someone with an account date near the site's origin is given way more leeway in their presence than someone with a more recent date.
I have no problem with allowing people to do whatever they want on the site, under the caveat that they do not interfere with someone else's ability to do the same. However, I think that the tolerance for this should be built on the presence they establish and the work they contribute. Account ages skew this reputation towards the older accounts, lending more credibility to older users and relatively less to younger users. Simply by virtue of having registered an account years before, it is possible for one user to post the same writeup under two different accounts and get two completely different reactions from their fellow users.
- Hide the "User Since" bullet on everyone's profile from everyone but the user who owns it.
Let the users form their own opinions of their peers without allowing something as meaningless as a join date influence them. The quality of a suggestion or writeup is totally separate from the account age of the user making it. If people need to earn their bullshit, as it were, let them earn it on the strength of their previous work, not their ability to register for a website.
The tough truth is that users leave the site. Many of them prefer to have their writing disappear with them. I agree with you: it sucks. Some of these users were going to leave anyway and just needed an excuse; some left because the site didn't have anything else for them, or because real life required that they do so. Some of them had very legitimate concerns that were not addressed and did not feel comfortable on the site. Mourning their departure is completely natural and if it didn't happen I would be very concerned for the collective mental health of the userbase.
I have seen a pervasive attitude among some of the more established set that that Everything2 has been on the slippery slope to complete irrelevance since the early years of the site's history. These fled users are often pointed to as though they are somehow a damning accusation of the site's decline. Some even express a wish to return to those years, as though the site was any more relevant and peaceful then than it is now. To any user who holds this view, I say: you are completely misguided. In all truth, the site will very easily continue on without you or your nodes. If everyone with an account over two years old was locked out permanently tonight, the site would still be here a year from now, probably even five or ten more years from now. The site culture will change, just like it changes at your workplace or your church or your favorite drinking hole. If you don't believe me, look back at even two years ago and tell me the site culture's no different.
We need sweeping and massive changes to bring the site forward and start getting these low-level users to contribute. To date, I do not feel like that has been happening on the scale it should be, and unless I am totally mistaken I think a lot of other users and a few of the staff feel the same way. The E2 of the next year will hopefully look something like what I have detailed above; policies of total transparency and high communication will go a great deal towards creating an inviting and encouraging culture.
I want to ask everyone to start looking forward. Look forward to the new nodes that are not yet written. Look forward to a shiny new interface that doesn't drop messages or confuse users. Look forward to new writers who are going to know things and people and music you haven't even heard of. There's a metric shitload of internet out there and with this many smart people gathered in one place I don't believe we can't make this site big enough to rival Wikipedia or H2G2 or whatever other writing sites are out there. We have a community they don't, and that's our biggest strength.
This isn't just your Everything2. This is everyone's Everything2.
1I want to make clear that I have no personal qualms with any of the site administration or population. None of it should be construed as a personal attack on someone's character or their performance. Personal examples are cited as illustration. (If I did have a problem with a particular user, believe me: I would have used a name.)
If you feel you need to refute this writeup, please do so by writing your own and posting it below. If you simply must message me, be aware that I reserve the right to post our communications exchange regarding this writeup in this or another writeup in spite of this editor log. No alterations will be made to the content of the messages. If you don't feel confident enough to say it in public chat,
don't message stop messaging me with it.
Okay, whoa, the volume of message response was insane. I have moved all of the messages to a scratch pad which you can find right here. Sincerest apologies to any anonymous users interested in seeing it; if you make an account you should be able to use that link.