The Quality of Free Discourse

By Deane Barker on December 11, 2005

I’ve participated in a lot of online forums. The value of the information you get from them varies. Some of it is good, but you get a lot of cruft, especially from hit-and-runners — people who are there to ask a single question based on an acute need, who will then disappear without ever having contributed to the discussion…until they need help again.

I got wondering the other day if limited-access participation is better, rather than having a wide open space where anyone can contribute. Is the quality of information better in forums that (1) require you to pass an approval process, or (2) require you pay for access?

I’ve recently joined one of each kind. I was “accepted” into a members-only, non-public forum (more on this in the next couple days), and I joined a professional association.

I haven’t had a chance to dig too deeply into either of them, but at first glance, the level of participation in each seems very good — much better than most of the public forums I participate in. You get people who need information, of course, but you also get the most crucial piece: people who will answer questions for no benefit. These people are rare and valuable.

Some time go, we discussed the possibility that you put more value on information you’ve paid for. By the same token, do you participate more fully and capably in a resource that you’ve paid for or been selected to join?

In general, is money a good crap-filter? One thing the Internet is not good at is commitment — it’s so easy to flit from one thing to another, than you rarely commit to anything. Does money make you more likely to commit?

Metafilter, that bastion of Internet community, has always charged $5 to join. They claimed the $5 was for expenses, but it had the added benefit of making people…commit. I know it’s not a lot of money, but you don’t throw $5 around casually. If you pay $5, you much more likely to get some use out of the account and join in the discussion.

Is this true? (Or am I’m throwing stones in a glass house considering that I run a free forum of sorts? Coming soon: you’ll need to pay $1,000 a month to comment here…)

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Comments

  1. Not to ruin your day, but when I joined Metafilter in September of 2001, it was free. I didn’t even know they started charging. I’m not sure that it would be worth $5 for me to join today, but its not my homepage like it used to be.

    The change will definitely ward off the spammers and the trolls, but would the charge prevent new members? Probably. I think those commited to a community would post useful answers regardless of a fee. It might help prevent the “experts” from burning out answering the same question over and over again. That might be the benefit.

    FWIW, The best community I was ever a part of was a hidden message board called Dreamless. It was a sad day it was shut down… I learned a lot there about photoshop that I never got from most online tutorials.

  2. I used to read Metalfilter everyday. They had new user activations turned off for months. I paid my $5, got my account, and now I rarely even go to the site (mainly because of time).

    I don’t think Metalfilter is really a good example here though. I think I would probably pay and contribute to a more niche/professional community if it wasn’t very expensive and had a good, knowledgeable membership base.

  3. I couple of years ago, Chris Pirillo of Lockergnome created a mailing list for people interested in Internet business. It cost money to join — like $50 a month or something. It may still be around.

    The entire idea of the $50 a month was that it supposedly limited the group to “serious” people only. It’s true in a certain sense — I’m not going to throw $50 a month at something unless it’s something I care about.

    I never subscribed, so I don’t know how it went. I’d always see blurbs about it in Lockergnome mailings.

  4. I think that having a registration process, a fee, or an approval process can be a good thing in getting people to commit to a community.. It is true that you value something more when you have to extend effort (financial or otherwise) to get in the front door… Other alternatives of putting that effort can be having to contribute yourself, slashdot uses a similar method, you only get moderation points if you’re an active reader.

    Of course some of these methods fall down because they make it too onerous/restrictive for the perceived benefit of being in that community… same basic idea for how do you price products (magazines, books, shoes, etc..) you don’t charge based on how much it costs you to make (at least according to marketers), you charge acording to how much the client is willing to pay, or how much benefit they will get from that product….

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