Issue 21

In this issue of conduit:

1) Featured Question and Answer: "E-mail Management Blues?"
2) Your Community Answer:  How do you handle being bombarded by e-mails?
3) Community Wire:  Kuro5hin Founder, Rusty Foster Talks Community With Community Answers.

This Issue's Quote: "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." - Franklin D. Roosevelt 

Featured Question and Answer:

"E-mail Management Blues?"

We recently received the following question: 

"Help, please! I am a fairly new community manager of a very busy community website and I am being bombarded with e-mails from my community volunteers and members. I want to be responsive and helpful to all, but I am overwhelmed. How do I manage the flurry of e-mails and slim it down to something I can cope with?

For the question and response, please read "E-mail Management Blues?".

Seeking an answer to a burning community development question? Check out our searchable archive  of past question and answers to help find what you are looking for.

Your Community Answer

How do you handle being bombarded by e-mails?

What do you do? We look forward to finding out!  

Community Wire

Kuro5hin Founder, Rusty Foster Talks Community With Community Answers.

Have you ever read an article about the efforts of online community members and said to yourself, "Now that is the epitome of community. That's what it is all about!"? On June 21st, we ran across such an article in the Wired News e-mail newsletter. In the piece entitled “It Takes a Village to Save a Site,” Paul Boutin explains how Rusty Foster, the founder of the Kuro5hin community of tech-minded people, addressed the site's financial troubles directly and in no uncertain terms with its members. Within hours Kuro5hin's community members banded together and began raising funds to help save the site.

We had the fortunate opportunity to catch up with Rusty, who kindly agreed to participate in the following e-mail interview. Thank you, Rusty!

CommunityAnswers: Rusty, please share a bit about yourself with our subscribers.

Rusty: My extremely condensed life history, annotated with answers to all the usual questions (1): I'll be 26 in 9 days, and I live on Peaks Island (2), which is about two and a half miles off of Portland in the southeastern corner of Maine (3). I grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts (4) and went to the College of William and Mary in Virginia for three and a half years. I majored in physics, then film studies (5), and finally restlessness and dissatisfaction (6), and moved to Washington DC to learn how to be a web developer. I worked for a couple of contract web firms, doing various projects for the DOE, the EPA, and private-sector clients, and picked up Perl and Linux administration somewhere along the way. I started Kuro5hin (7) in December of 1999, as a personal site to fool around with Slashcode, the system that runs Slashdot and now many other online communities. I disliked Slashcode (8) and decided to write a new system from scratch, which was to be a feature-clone of the things I liked about how Slashcode worked, but written better and with some different features, such as article voting and an entirely different comment moderation system (9). K5 accidentally got really large, and now when I break something on our live servers thousands of people notice immediately, which is at best a mixed blessing.

The annotated answers to the usual questions…

1. With apologies to David Foster Wallace
2. Yes it's an island, and yes you have to take a ferry to get here.
3. No, the real Portland, not the one in Oregon.
4. Yes, I am descended from Mayflower passengers, but this is mostly a coincidence.
5. Technically "Literary and Cultural Studies" which was a new incarnation of the former Comparative Lit program and was basically an interdisciplinary major composed of a self-selected series of courses from other departments, organized around some theme. W&M didn't actually offer a film studies major, so I had to build one out of film courses in the language, lit, and art departments. There is now a small but thriving group of film students pursuing a similar course, of whom I was the first. 5a. Yes, hard science to fluffy cultural studies is a big leap, and no I have no explanation, other than that I am large and contain multitudes. 5b. Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself".
6. No, I didn't graduate. My third and final major (restlessness and dissatisfaction) includes a very extensive course of self-directed study which I am a long way from completing. :-)
7. Pronounced "corrosion", like what happens when you leave the old Chevy out in the yard. It's a play on my name. Rusty? Corrosion? Get it? Though not officially recognized by Guinness, it is likely the least widely understood joke in history.
8. "Disliked" in the way that the God of the old testament was "peeved at" the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah.
9. This system is called Scoop, and is open source and available at It now has several people who work on the code regularly, and runs a lot of other sites, and despite being over two years old, is still not at version 1.0. I'm very fussy about version numbering.

CommunityAnswers: What was the motivation for starting Kuro5hin?

Rusty:To expand on what's above, it was mostly a toy for me to learn some web programming, and to play with a few ideas that were floating around at the time about how you could make something like Slashdot more democratic and collaborative. I never wanted to be the editor of a news site, really. I'm much more interested in online community, and in the technical and social aspects of community software. So the collaborative focus of the site is mostly an outgrowth of what I call Applied Laziness, or the philosophy that any work that can possibly be done by someone else should be. Of course, to do that properly things need to be transparent and accountable, and there need to be checks and balances in place so that the community remains open and everyone has an equal shot at contributing. It turns out to be a much trickier problem than it seems, as I'm sure most people reading this have already discovered.

CommunityAnswers: Recently there was an article in Wired News, "It Takes a Village to Save a Site" about your efforts to raise money to save Kuro5hin. You posted a very honest and probably difficult message to your community asking for their input and assistance. By the looks of it your community rose to the occasion by helping to raise money to save the site. What was the deciding factor in going to your community to share Kuro5hin's difficulties?

Rusty: Well, "desperation" is probably the one-word answer, but that doesn't really get at the whole picture. Despite aggressive deployment of Applied Laziness, running K5 is still a full-time job for at least one person (currently me). The site was not making it in the standard media company business plan of some combination of paid subscriptions and advertising, and analyzing the situation, it seemed clear that either we would have to change to make it in the Media Business, or we would have to find a different way to become self-sustaining and pay someone to do the crap work of keeping the servers happy and telling people how to enable cookies in their browser. I've been the sole full time employee of K5 for about 18 months, and we were basically out of money to pay me. My options, as I saw them, were to either get another job and find a way to keep K5 running with volunteers alone, to abandon the whole thing, or to explain the situation to the community and ask for help.

I wanted to keep "get another job" as the final resort, because while the site could continue on volunteer labor alone, it would not be able to progress and improve, and it would amount to giving up on collaborative media as a real way for people to take control of their sources of information. I believe, as wooly-eyed and idealistic as it sounds, that the ideas we're pioneering in online community and collaborative media are too important for humanity's future to accept that they will never be more than a tiny niche supported solely by volunteers. As I see it, the mass for-profit media is in an accelerating 100 year tailspin of more and more openly serving the interests of the status quo and the advertisers, instead of the interests of the public. I think independent and collaborative media is our best hope, right now, for a future where people are more engaged in, and informed about, the world around them. This matters a lot to me, and I was damned if I was going to give up without trying everything I could think of.

It's difficult to ask for help in such a public way. It involves setting aside a lot of pride and admitting you don't know what to do. But it was one of those "what do I want on my tombstone" moments. Did I want my eulogy to say "He clung to his pride every step of the way, and gave up rather than asking for help" or did I want it to say "He believed in something, and never gave up." I decided on the latter, whether it worked or not.

CommunityAnswers: Would you recommend that other community sites facing similar financial difficulties do the same? Why or why not?

Rusty: I guess it depends. I think the show of support was not solely for me alone, but support for the rest of the plan I put forward. I didn't just say "Ok, you want the site, give me money and we'll keep it going." I described what we had been doing, and why I thought it wasn't working, and presented a real plan of action, which was that the site would become a nonprofit organization, with a mandate to support K5 and eventually collaborative media in general. It was partly a plea, but partly a bargain with the community. In return for their support, I'm giving up my equity in the company I built and making it, in every sense, a true community effort, not a place I own and allow people to use at my sole whim.

I think this may be a viable future for the community, and could work for others as well. But it involves giving up control to an extent that quite a lot of community administrators will likely not be comfortable with. I've made a career out of giving up control, and it has always worked in the past, so I have high hopes. But it's not an M.O. that everyone's going to jump at.

CommunityAnswers: How would you describe your community and its members?

Rusty: They are interested in a huge range of topics, they are highly committed to independent media and building real community online. They tend to have very strong opinions and are not afraid to share them. They are, in a nutshell, the bleeding edge of where the internet is going.

It's been a truism that if you want to know what the general population will be doing in two years, look at what the geeks are doing now. K5 is full of net geeks, and they're teaching me about what large groups of people can accomplish in a virtual space, when you give them the tools and let them take control. It's been an amazing and humbling thing to be a part of.

CommunityAnswers: From your perspective what do you see for the future of Kuro5hin and community sites in general?

Rusty: Our future will probably look a lot more like NPR or PBS than anything else. The nonprofit is in the first stages of getting underway, and in the next few months it will take on K5 as its first official project. We will have all the usual problems of public media, what with fundraising and membership drives and what have you. But at the same time, it's tremendously exciting to see what happens when people from all over the world become more than a mere debate society, and take control of their own future. It feels like the founding of a new country, in some ways.

Online community in general has been developing at a breakneck pace, and I think it's been rather more helped than hindered by the collapse of the dot-com bubble. Finally most of the profiteers have slunk back to Wall Street with tail planted firmly between legs, and the net is once again the domain of the futurists, who don't care much about becoming millionaires, as long as they have a shot at creating change in the world. I think there's much more to come, and much more than anyone's expecting amidst the smug gloom of the old media.

CommunityAnswers: If you could impart one piece of wisdom to community site owners based on your experience, what would it be?

Rusty:Give up control. While you may well be smarter than any other single member of your community (though let's be honest, chances are you're not) you will never be smarter than all of them put together. What we're doing is bringing real people together in a place (which is no less "real" for not being part of the universe of atoms) and creating organization and regulation for mutual benefit. If we were working with continents instead of HTML, it would be obvious to everyone that we're crafting nations here. But that realization has been slow or nonexistent, and online community organizers have continued making the same mistakes human governments made for millennia, expecting centralization and control to be the answers to their problems. When this failed, the typical response was more control, more power to the Leader. Maybe I got a touch of the ghost of Thomas Jefferson, still lurking around the William and Mary campus, but it seems obvious to me that the answer is less control, and more democracy. Give up your power, trust the people. They will surprise you.

CommunityAnswers: Thank you, Rusty for your time and efforts. We wish you the very best of luck!!

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