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Nick Sweeney on MetaFilter and Plastic

Today’s mini-interview is with Nick Sweeney. You might say Nick has been around the block once or twice when it comes to online culture and community. He’s got what the kids call “perspective”.

Q: You’ve spent a significant amount of time participating on Plastic and MetaFilter, both prominent online community sites. Anything you can tell us about the differences between the two?

A: Actually, I wouldn’t call myself a ‘participant’ in Plastic, which is probably an advantage: as one of the editors (although I’m speaking strictly for myself here), I’m meant to be both ‘outside looking in’ and ‘inside looking out’. It’s an interesting contrast to my time at MetaFilter, to say the least.

The editorial element is the biggest difference, of course. It’s an attempt to introduce a kind of horticulture to the community’s growth: to weed out the duplicates and the flames and the links to the Usual Suspects, and introduce a kind of distance to the slavish news/meme cycle which so often cripples MeFi these days. I think it’s a smart way to manage communities that have reached the size and stage of evolution that Plastic’s at right now. And the discussions from users within the submission queue are a great way to assess how a submission comes across.

I still check MeFi on occasion for the same reasons I read Wired magazine: the occasional piece inspires nostalgia; and I’d read many of its contributors, regardless of the forum. In its heyday, the erudition and diversity of knowledge on MeFi always went well beyond anything I’ve seen on Plastic. It’s not quite as ‘group-smart’ now, simply because seminar-size discussions don’t scale to lecture theatres.

Matt’s always been very trusting towards his membership, and in general, receives the respect that’s deserved by such trust. I can’t help thinking that it doesn’t accommodate 13,000-odd members: partly because the times don’t lend themselves to seminar-style discussion; partly because you’re dealing with the friction between oldbies and newbies, and their different conceptions of what the place is, was, and should be. ‘Member memory’ is a vital aspect of community sites, even ones which profess to deal with the transient meme-feed, and I think it’s much stronger at MeFi than Plastic: so that when you have members who take perhaps two years’ worth of discussion into the day’s discussion up against new arrivals, it’s bound to create the same kind of frustrations as a USENET September.

[ For comparison’s sake, you can see something of that frustration with Slashdot, which, though working from a somewhat similar codebase to Plastic, has ceased to be a community for anyone with a long memory of the place, given that most discussions are essentially ‘read-only’ within hours of stories going live. That said, MeFi still retains an implicit quality threshold, with its emphasis on providing supporting links and challenging easy polarisations. (Whether that rule’s honoured more now in the breach than the observance is another thing entirely.) ]

Plastic doesn’t quite yet seem suited towards that kind of discussion: there’s still an instinctive tendency towards raw opinioneering and snarkiness, though that’s definitely changing. And you can’t impose intellectual discipline on a community: it has to come from within. (Although as a plain old poster to Plastic, I do try to set a half-decent example.) What’s bizarre is that Plastic is the one with the moderation system. But perhaps that’s because moderation tends to favour both the well-considered posts and the cheap shots.

What I do like about Plastic is the way in which the mechanical aspects of the site โ€” that is, the combination of submission, peer review and moderation โ€” tend to promote a climate that’s suited to media literacy. And because the more trollish or flamebaiting submissions don’t make it past the queue, you’ll get topics that create space for people to address in more nuanced ways than the ‘partisan tennis’ of an unmoderated system. (For instance, there was a recent well-regarded submission on school funding, property taxation and racism which turned into a fine discussion.) It’s that kind of thing that I hope (and expect) Plastic can continue to support. ::end