Group Cofounder/Facilitator. NoEnd Web Developers Group.
Co-founded a well known special interest group and email listserve in 1996 called “NoEnd.” The group was for anyone interested in the Web – developers, geeks artists, writers. We met weekly in San Francisco with up to 50 folks and guest speakers. At meetings, each person was asked to answer the question “How was your week?” in an attempt to humanize the then young Web. Our listserve grew to over 900 before being “hot tubbed” (see below). Jan 1996 – Present
Wired Magazine Story on Two-Year Anniversary of The NoEnd Group
Published Paper referencing NoEnd. Let your Online Learning Community Grow: Three Design Principles for Growing Successful Email Listservs and Online Forums in Educational
Essay from the NoEnd listserve lessons learned
“Hot Tubbing an Online Community”
Caleb John Clark, January 12th, 1999.
Email listservs often parallel in person group growth patterns and grow very fast, too fast. Sometimes this will lead to a situation where pleas to the list have no effect and the list is in danger of degrading into flames and lots of useless noise.
Here’s a proven way I’ve come up with to get a list back on its feet and back to its core misson and people.
In Oakland California there’s a hot tub in the back yard of an early producer of the Grateful Dead. 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 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 is quite an attractive woman and was standing buck naked in a light drizzle of warm summer rain. The ex-producer had came 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 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 friends long experience with the tub.
I took this over to email mailing lists and thus we have “hot tubbing”.
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:
- 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 it.”
- Kill the list.
- Start a new one.
- Give out the address at an in person meeting.
- Your core group will immediately subscribe to the new list and email out their close friends the new address. In a few months you’ll have a good list again, albeit much smaller.
No End in Sight for San Francisco Web Developer Group
by Janelle Brown
SAN FRANCISCO – In a shabby YMCA hostel, complete with mismatched sofas and a cast-iron stove, 60 webheads gathered this weekend to hike in the rain, play Internet charades, and talk about the meaning of community. A celebration of the two-year anniversary of the local Web developer mailing list and social group NoEnd, the slumber party came at a critical point in the group’s existence.
For the second time in its history, the group faces problems arising from a popularity that threatens to drown its intimate feeling, as well as the low-noise to high-combined-knowledge base, that list members prize. The question members face is how to preserve focus and group dynamics in both the physical and virtual worlds, without having to turn away newcomers.
What started as a handful of Web developers and designers getting together at a bar to share their woes about working online has, two years on, become a group of mailing lists with more than 300 members, a series of meetings with speakers ranging from Thomas Dolby to the designers of Salon, plus parties, bonfires, and copious amounts of microbrewed beer.
Unlike most online groups, NoEnd was built around face-to-face meetings, from the group’s belief that working online could be a lonely and alienating job, and that meeting in physical space was the best way to “humanize technology.”
At the twice-monthly AA-style meetings, each person tells the group about their week and how they are feeling – a warm and fuzzy, San Francisco-style routine intended to get everyone to participate and connect on a personal level, rather than simply looking for tech tips or good business contacts.
Not that business interests aren’t served by belonging to the group. Beyond just building a support group, the network is designed to put people with questions together with people with answers on everything from ad rates to Perl scripting, and numerous projects have been spawned by people that met via the list. As one woman attested this weekend, she can now charge twice as much for her production services as she could a year ago, since she can tap the collective knowledge set of several hundred Web-whizzes.
Though nearly all vital lists at some time or another face the same issues when noise-to-signal ratio increases with the number of subscribers, the responses to ever-larger group sizes have been diverse. The 2,500-person-strong WWWAC Web-developer mailing list out of New York resolved the issue by breaking down into special interest groups, matching writers with writers and database specialists with database specialists both in the mailing list and meetings.
craigs-list, a jobs-apartments-events mailing list with 1,000 subscribers in the San Francisco Bay Area, has simply broken the list down into “subjects”: subscribers can pick the types of posts that they want to get, and all messages are filtered through one moderator, eliminating most chitchat.
“NoEnd is smaller – and it has to stay that way because of the nature of conversation,” says Craig Newmark, moderator of craigs-list, who also stays on NoEnd because he enjoys the social aspects of it. To preserve community on his list, “the idea behind the problem of size was to keep splitting the list into subcategories; earlier, it was important to do a digest form…. But people could still get their names out there and reveal something about themselves in a way that means a lot.”
But with the mandate of “humanize” rather than “swap information,” NoEnd is trying to preserve the organic but unified group while still reducing the noise – an issue that became the focus of the discussions this weekend.
“The growth mirrored classic group growth. Excitement, rapid growth, crash, readjust with a core, slow growth,” says Caleb J. Clark, the group’s original founder. “Love and caring for others, not self advancement and networking has kept it going. We’ve found that networking happens better this way anyway.”
Last year, the group faced a similar dilemma when the group’s size neared a thousand members; then, the solution was to quietly move the list to a new server, so that only the diligent and truly committed would stay on. This year, they’re looking for a less discriminatory approach. One solution proffered was to post initial questions or topics to the mailing list, and then move the thread to a Well Engaged bulletin board. Other ideas included implementing 24-hour “blackouts” once a week, adding topical micro-lists for technical questions, or simply appealing to members’ ability to self-censor those “couldn’t agree more” kind of posts.
Meanwhile, a satellite NoEnd group is forming in New York, founded by former San Franciscans and bicoastal commuters who miss the NoEnd meetings or are looking for a more personalized alternative to the WWWAC group. Other NoEnders are talking of pooling resources and time to help build Web sites for needy organizations – perhaps even becoming a nonprofit group (as WWWAC and craigs-list have).
“If you attract people interested in only taking from a group – taking names, taking information – then unless you also take their money, it’s hard to survive. If you attract people ready to trade in like value the information and caring they receive, even giving a little more at times, then you can survive and grow,” points out Clark. “NoEnd’s hardest challenge is resisting the temptation to grow just to grow.”
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