How To Reset an Online Community by "Hot Tubbing" It

How-To “Hot tub” an Email List

By Caleb John Clark, January 1999. Updated June tubbing an email list, a group of people at burning man talk under a tentA technique I invented in 1998 for managing out of control email lists, listserves, or any online communty. I came up with this out of despiration in 1998 in an attempt to save a list I co-founded called NoEnd. The list had reached 900 subscribers and was losing high quality members. We hot tubbed and have maintained the list to this day at around 400 members.

Where the Name Came From

In 1996 in Oakland California there was hot tub in the redwooded back yard of an early producer of the Grateful Dead. This producer let a small group of people use the tub, but there was a system to prevent the group from getting too large because it’s right behind his house.

You have to go very quietly along an ally next to his house, and then punch the code on a redwood door to get in. My friend did not let me see the code.

There’s was a changing room, a hot tub, a redwood deck, a hammock, and a few small redwoods and plants on a lot behind his house that he never developed. Talking is discouraged. No drugs of any kind are allowed. Clothing is optional.

I have an image of the friend I was with during my visit. It’s burned into my brain. She was quite an attractive young womam, curvy but tom-boy thin and tough. She was standing buck naked in a light drizzle of warm summer rain with redwoods dripping behind her and a sculpture of a naked woman glistening to her left. The ex-producer had come down from his house (which is inches from the tub) and they had struck up a conversation.

So here’s this soft friendly 50 something original hippie, fully dressed, talking to this young naked woman, at night, in the rain, beads of misty water dripping from his hair, and her body, and all among redwoods in the middle of Oakland. I just swung naked in the hammock I was in and marveled at the scene. We ended up going into his house and he played some jazz on these new speakers he’d just got. They were 8 feet high; three inches thick, and looked like the Monolith in 2001. They sounded smooth as the slick drizzle covered redwood decking of his hot tub.

Later that night my friend told me about the hot tub. She said it had been around for years and at first there was no gate. But then a few incidents happened. Negative things, like drugs or violence. So a gate was installed with a code. The code was then given out to only a few long time users of the hot tub. They in turn shared the code with close friends they trusted. Eventually the code would spread over the years and something negative would happen. Then the code would be changed again. This had happened a few times in my friend’s long experience with the tub.

hot tubbing an email list. a countra dance in mid danceThe Technique

I took this concept over to managing email mailing lists and call it “hot tubing.” You can use it for any online community though.

When a list gets too big, has too many flames, and won’t respond to cries for sanity from it’s core members, hot tub it by doing this:

  1. Send out a well subject headered message saying something like: “in 24 hours this list will end. A new list will start up. The new lists’ address will be given out at local meetings in person only. If you want to start your own local list, please do so. We are sorry for the this but this list can no longer support the number of people on this list.”
  2. Wait 24 hour and then kill the list and dump all the subscribers.
  3. Start a new list.
  4. Give out the address at an in person meeting, or email it to a few core members.
  5. Your core group will immediately subscribe to the new list and email out their close friends who couldn’t make the meeting the new address.
  6. In a few months you’ll have a good list again, albeit much smaller.

The key is to have faith in the energy that originally started the community. It will survive and resurface in a much more healthy way.

More Info.

  1. Wikipedia Virtual Community Entry with great links
  2. PDF Paper by Caleb: “Let your Online Learning Community Grow: 3 Design Principles.”
  3. Book: “Design for Community”: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places.
    by Derek M. Powazekbook (with an interview of yours truly.)

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