Results tagged “matthaughey”

XOXO: Matt Haughey - MetaFilter

September 15, 2012

Matt Haughey's the founder of MetaFilter, one of the web’s longest-running and most respected web communities, and its popular Q&A section, Ask MetaFilter.

The Details

Matt Haughey


Projects: MetaFilter

XOXOing: Community and Q&A



Matt started MetaFilter in 1999, because he couldn’t do it all himself, and because he was in the right place at the right time. MetaFilter has 60,000 paid members, and eventually added a question-and-answer site, which led to him working on it full-time since 2005, with a team of six people today.

Matt was a reluctant businessman, and eventually had to hire an accountant and lawyer and all the other folks to help run the business. But there are three big lessons he’s learned in running a long-term project.

1. Failure is the biggest teacher. Failure has a lot of negative connotations, but it’s great because at least it tells you what doesn’t work (when you’re running a maze and hit a dead end, you know what doesn’t work, doesn’t mean you stop). It’s only bad if you give up or if you ignore the lessons it teaches you. Business blogs say “pivot” (Matt refuses to say it), but the sentiment behind it is good because it puts a nice face on failure.

Matt Haughey XOXO slide

You have to create an environment where you can do experiments and see what works. Fall in love with failure. Matt has lots of unpublished blog posts and old text files to record what he’s done that didn’t work (2 successful projects, and 12 bodies in a lake).

  • Like “Ticketstubs”, a record of old ticket stubs and the stories that go with them. In 2003, scanning a stub or taking a photo was only of interest to super-fans, so it didn’t really click. The big lesson was that simple ideas work better, and first-time visitors didn’t get it. Though this could work now, since people are more familiar with it.
  • PVRBlog was about Tivo and DVRs in 2003. Hours of research into each post, and it was one of the first sites to use Google AdSense, and it was generating $4000 to $5000 a month, doing a good job of paying the bills. He wrote an academic-style case-study of how Adsense helped him make money blogging. The downside of sharing that info was that within six months there were half a dozen ripoffs, and the site eventually faded out as the topic got less interesting. The lesson may have been to not give away the magic secret.
  • TravelFilter was a completely-built site extracting the travel info from Ask MetaFilter questions, but they didn’t quite commit enough. (Didn’t “burn the boats”) so being half-assed hurt the success of the site. (Other lesson: don’t cannibalize your own success)
  • Blogger didn’t really succeed as a business, even though people loved the site, it didn’t have revenues or investment. The lesson was to ask customers for money earlier. One of the Blogger co-founders, Ev Williams, epitomizes the good side of failing repeatedly, and always gets up and seems to be doing that again with Obvious.

2. Money is the least interesting problem. It’s a necessary evil, but it’s mostly a distraction other than providing for essential resources. Times he’s focused solely on money is when he’s made the worst decisions. Jeff Bezos talked about the “Amazon Doctrine”, always aligning the company’s interests with the customer’s. Tim O’Reilly wrote a great essay in 2009 about working on stuff that matters - running a startup is like taking a cross-country trip, and money is just the gas in the tank. You’re not taking a tour of gas stations...

The best days ever working on projects have been thinking of new features, or having a coding break-through. None of the best days are about money.

3. Success is fleeting. Several of Matt’s projects have been popular for a short time and then gone away. Success plots often look like Mt. Fuji: Pretty quick up, pretty quick down. It’s harder to set up a long, slow growth. Things have repeatedly decayed and been replaced by newer models. There’s already services replacing Uber in San Francisco -- wasn’t Uber awesome two months ago? Building on open source and open knowledge is great, but makes the competition much more fierce.

Relevance is really hard to sustain. MetaFilter’s already gone over a decade -- where will it be in 2020? Mobile usage, for example, goes from a blip in 2009 to 12% in 2010 to almost 33% today. And that’s already affecting advertising and money already. Businesses that depend on display ads are really challenged by the shift to mobile. The Olympics are showing 60% of visitors to the official site were on mobile. Matt’s predicting 50% of all web visitors to be on mobile by 2014.

Looking forward, Matt’s talking about information websites competing with individual devices that efficiently deliver information. “The future is a little iffy, but it’s super exciting.”

Appreciation

January 24, 2011

Today is Community Moderator Appreciation Day, a well-deserved moment of recognition for people who make the web more humane, more thoughtful, more helpful and more useful.

This is a bottomless topic for me, but perhaps the best way to observe it is to share what's been learned and distilled about creating an environment where good moderators can succeed. Here's Matt Haughey at last year's Gel Conference telling the story himself:

This is part of why I'm so excited to be speaking at Gel this year: There's a lot of things we've learned over the years that we haven't taken the time to share. And Gel itself is an event that's well-moderated, as you might expect.

So, thanks today to all the folks I know who moderate all of the sites where I spend my time online. Making a valuable, strong, positive community is one of the greatest things you can do to contribute to the world.

Heroes of the Web

January 7, 2011

Great news for the web today, some of the smartest folks I know are doing what they do best: Making the web better.

  • Take Paul Ford's thoughts on "Why Wasn't I Consulted?", the driving inspiration behind much of what happens on the modern web. It was exactly this kind of insight from Paul that made working on the early parts of Gourmet Live such a joy. Discovering that someone whom I admired and had wanted to work with forever was even more insightful than I'd hoped is a little bit like winning the lottery. I get to work with people who are basically heroes of the web.
  • Paul's ruminations also inspired Matt Haughey to write up a bit about how he came to love customer service. In short, he was influenced by Craig Newmark, another of my heroes whom I've been lucky enough to get to become friends with. But that deeper sense of being of service was exactly what I'd tried to allude to more than four years ago when I wrote How Matt Haughey Beat Google. If I had to characterize it, I'd say that the culture Matt's created at MetaFilter, both amongst the people who are members of the site and especially among the small passionate team that makes up the staff, has got real soul to it. And it shows, especially in conversations like this one where Paul's past work on Harper's is linked to Matt's ongoing work on MetaFilter, and we can see how these great ideas shape each other.
  • And even more fortunately, we get to see one of these soulful web communities in its formative stages. Andre Torrez and the fine team at SimpleForm just launched mlkshk. What is it? Well, we can't say for sure yet, because the community hasn't yet decided. But it feels like the roots of something interesting and I know it's got the potential to evolve into something really fun and delightful. As the kids used to say, [this is good].

Be sure to read over Paul's piece above, even if you saw it linked everywhere the past few days and Instapapered it for later. We'll be referring back to it in future posts here.

Blogs of the Year: Ask the Wizard and Fortuitous

December 14, 2007

Today's Blog of the Year Picks: Ask the Wizard and Fortuitous.

fortuitous

Between these two blogs, there have barely been twenty posts this year. Yet either one alone could be the best small-business (or small tech business) site of the year. Dick Costolo, co-founder and CEO of FeedBurner (now part of Google) writes Ask the Wizard, and Matt Haughey, proprietor of MetaFilter, is behind Fortuitous. Both these guys are a little too busy running their businesses to post more often than they do, but I'll take what I can get. And both are creative, funny, honest writers whose openness and candor are inspiring.

Ask the Wizard is about the financial and organizational building blocks for creating and launching a company that is venture-backed and designed for growth. Dick's done what a lot of tech entrepreneurs consider the holy grail, starting up a little tech firm, getting some first-rate funding, and then flipping it to Google. He and his team even did it in Chicago, of all places. And it's not the first-time this team's built a successful company. (Shout out to Spyonit!) So there's a level of credibility and experience here that goes way beyond the endless sea of would-be tech business pundits who are mostly just talking out their asses.

And from the side of the independent entrepreneur who worked his ass off for years and self-funded a business into being a nice little stable company with a great set of ethics, nobody's got better credentials than Matt Haughey. MetaFilter has grown from one of the earliest and most influential group blogs into a whole network of related sites, including Ask MetaFilter, which I raved about last year for beating Google and for being one of the best sites on the web. Appropriately, Matt's not talking about venture capitalists and boards of directors -- he's talking about the nuts and bolts of starting up a company and running it every day. And this stuff can be downright nerve-wracking, since there isn't exactly a school you can go to for this kind of stuff. If you have a little company, tasks like talking to the press and hiring an accountant are the kind of things that can keep you up for a lot of long, sleepless nights. So Matt walks through his own process of how he figured those things out, accompanied by a remarkable honesty about the intimidating situations and neophyte's mistakes he encountered along the way.

Best of all, both of these guys are great storytellers. You don't have to be an entrepreneur or a geek to get into the narrative of what they're saying; It's just a really modern retelling of a story as old as the American dream.

Pick of the Posts:

If you like this, try: blog.pmarca.com. Worst name ever for an amazingly good blog. Marc Andreessen should have been blogging, oh, about ten years ago. But I guess he was busy. He's made up for lost time with an astoundingly frequent set of posts that are up-to-the-minute in their topicality but informed by the fact that no matter what part of the geek business world you're in, he's done it bigger, louder, and earlier. I usually try to play it cool with the name-dropping and the fanboyism, and I'm very fortunate that I get to meet and work with a lot of my inspirations, but I'm not ashamed at all to admit that I was totally geeked out to see one of my posts referred to by Marc as "the smartest thing anyone has said today", even if it was only in the context of Open Social.


This is one in a series of posts about Blogs of the Year for 2007. They're my subjective picks about blogs that inspired or influenced me this year, and you can check out my introductory post to find more.

Fortunate Insight

May 9, 2007

fortuitous When Matt Haughey first described his new site Fortuitous, which just launched two weeks ago, I was particularly excited because this is a new blog that's actually downright necessary. You see, while there's lots of "Ten Steps for Making Another Boring Web App" articles on Digg, there's very little that's written from the perspective of anyone who's focused on community or content, and even less information that's being shared by those who've actually made something that's had enduring success.

It's hard to take time to write this stuff up -- I always intend to, and just end up being too busy to do it justice. (I haven't been home for more than 3 days straight in about two months.) Other folks I talk to struggle because they're in a part of the web world that's more competitive, and they don't want to give away insights to their competitors. But there are some bits of insight that seem small in retrospect that would have been a godsend if I were just starting up something new today, and that seems to be the area of Matt's focus.

I helped a little bit with some editing on Living online, with web apps, and Matt graciously let me contribute a little bit to How to talk to the press, and what I realized is that I love sharing these little bits of information. I wouldn't pretend that I'm an expert on these topics, and I am certain Matt's not claiming to be one. On the other hand, there are some things you only learn through experience, and it's about time those lessons had a home.

Ask MetaFilter Links

December 11, 2006

If you were interested in How Matt Haughey beat Google with Ask MetaFilter, you might enjoy some more information about the site.

  • The Chicago Tribune's Steve Johnson offered an astute look at Google Answers, as well as a nice plug for Ask MetaFilter, last week. The site requires an exasperating login, but the good news is you can also find the piece without a registration Hypertext blog. (Yay, it's a TypePad blog!)

A more enticing Ask is Ask MetaFilter (ask.metafilter.com), which also poses questions to a user community. The longstanding site is highly entertaining reading because it gets metaphysical, although the drawback is that it'll cost you $5 to join the MetaFilter community.

While Yahoo Answers is more about facts, Ask MetaFilter, in its best moments, is about feelings, opinions, theories of life. A recent, not atypical question: "Did you marry someone despite misgivings and have it actually work?"

  • One trope that's rapidly gaining currency among lazy resourceful young professional bloggers is to collect Ask MetaFilter answers about a topic of interest. MediaBistro collects writing advice; LifeHacker collects, well, life hacks.

The best answers on Metafilter are those that provide an Aha! moment -- like the obscure book you remember from childhood, only you can't recall the title. Someone will know. And when you want to find the best (used book store/pancake joint/park) anywhere in the world, chances are that one of Metafilter's thousands of members will tell you exactly where to go. So if "Five for Friday" didn’t give you the right mix of ideas for weekend fun, go ahead, ask Metafilter. We won’t be insulted. And we may even give you the answer.

  • If you want to see what other prominent Q&A sites look like, look no further than Amazon's Askville (Yay, another TypePad blog!) and Yahoo! Answers. There are some great things about both sites, but neither really holds my attention, at least so far.

How long can a normal, healthy 8 week old kitten survive inside an adult python? URGENT?

I am fairly certain that the python did not chew much. I also do not want to damage the python much.... what is the best strategy for rescuing the kitten?

The answers are a lot better than the questions.

How Matt Haughey Beat Google

December 11, 2006

Summary: In 2002, Google launched one of their few pay services, Google Answers. The service attracted only 800 responders in the past 4 years, and was shut down a few weeks ago. Three years ago, Matt Haughey created Ask MetaFilter, pays no money to those who answer questions, and has turned the site into a successful part of his business using, in part, Google AdSense to support the site.

Why was Matt successful where Google was not? Let's take a look.

Ask MetaFilter

A Motivated Community

First, to define "success" for a questions-and-answers site, we have to identify a few metrics. There's success as an owner, in terms of driving traffic (and, presumably, ad dollars) to the site. There's success for askers, in quickly getting high-quality responses. And then there's success for answerers, who get rewarded for their work or knowledge with acclaim, recognition, or simple self-satisfaction.

What's missing from that list? Money. Money isn't a great reward for great answers -- the answers to Google Answers questions are, at best, inconsistent. On Google Answers, you had the kind of replies that five dollars (or, rarely, twenty dollars) will get you. Either the answerer really needed the five dollars, which usually meant they were too busy with the rest of life to do a lot of research, or (much more common) they were the kind of person who was mostly doing it for self-satisfaction and the money was irrelevant or even insulting.

That being said, the five dollar barrier for membership on all the MetaFilter sites acts as a just-high-enough barrier that it keeps random people on the web from asking drive-by questions that don't add value to the site. Five bucks out of your PayPal account is enough to really think if your question is worth asking.

MetaFilter has a long history of being influential online and in the media world at large. Members think highly of themselves and of their peers on the site, often with good reason. Being respected by that group is something to be desired, even if one of the few consistent traits the community has displayed is that it always tends to lament the "good old days" before the newest members arrived.

There's also an existing community of tens of thousands of MetaFilter members which seeded the Ask MetaFilter site -- a strong and active base of early adopters. This is in contrast to a point Matt himself made while talking about the site:

Google Answers is gone because Google isn't in the people business, they're in the computer programming business.

With the exception of Orkut and YouTube, Google doesn't really do community websites. That's not a criticism -- they get a lot of leverage out of having a smart python script do the work of hundreds of humans. But even Google Groups, which is a home for so many communities on the web, really has no sense of place, and certainly no presence by Google itself in its various social groups.

In short, Google doesn't have a community to leverage.

Just Enough Rules

In the tradition of "good fences make good neighbors", I'd submit that smart cops make for smart communities. The moderation and adjudication of the inevitable debates or arguments that arise on the site are handled ably by Matt, with a lot of assistance from Jessamyn West. As Jessamyn herself described the site in Library Journal:

The other thing that keeps the site vital is a certain amount of moderation, which is where I come in. I am one of two moderators; Matt Haughey, the creator of the web site, is the other. To provide an atmosphere where people can feel comfortable asking questions, we have a short set of guidelines for commenting on a question. After several years of questions and answers, most people know the drill and don't break the code of conduct. If they do, however, we step in and remove off-topic comments and settle disputes.

Just as importantly, Jessamyn is a librarian. I can't overstate how much a site that's about providing information benefits from the presence of a librarian, someome who's an expert at retrieving and disseminating information.

Why It Works

A few days ago, I talked to Jesse James Garrett about why Ask MetaFilter works. Though he's today best known for his work at Adaptive Path and his coining of the term Ajax, Jesse's Elements of User Experience is one of the most compact distillations I've ever seen of why sites succeed.

In Jesse's opinion, there are two significant innovations in Ask MetaFilter:

  • There are rules.
  • You're trying to benefit other people on the site, not just the asker.

The rules are important because they're simple and consistent. Asking questions that have already been answered is discouraged, and asking simple opinion questions that can't possibly have a "right" answer is usually forbidden. In fact, the rules are simple enough that they can be stated right on the page where you ask a question.

Note: AskMe questions should have a purpose, goal, or problem to be solved. Open-ended chatty questions that don't offer a problem to be solved are detrimental to the long term usefulness of the site. Also, please try to keep the questions from being too specific or too stupid. Don't be an ass, and ask your question if you feel it is important. If in doubt, check the guidelines.

"Don't be an ass" as policy! I love it.

And as Jesse notes, though the site has a "best answer" option for askers to flag the responses that are most valuable (more on that later), there's a dynamic to the community which leaves answerers trying to impress their peers just as much as the person who asked the original question. Some members have specific areas of focus, and respond only to questions where they're subject matter experts -- a perfect behavior to encourage.

The Best Answers

I'd add one final unique trait about the site: I love answering questions. I'm proud of my "best answers" on Ask MetaFilter, because they feel as if they were earned.

I've written before about having provided best answers, and even reveled in them when they've happened. It's a few lines of text on a single website, but clearly the reward is more meaningful to me than five bucks could ever be.

Some Answers

So what can we learn? It's possible to launch a site after Google enters a category, develop the technological underpinnings yourself in your free time, provide fewer features than Google does, make use of Google's own advertising system, and provide contributors with fewer financial rewards than Google does and still make your site a success.

How do you do it? By honoring your community, making reasonable and transparent rules, getting experts to help you, and encouraging positive, thoughtful behavior from your site's members. Kudos to Google for recognizing where they are and aren't succeeding by their own standards. And congratulations to Matt Haughey for making one of the best sites on the web.

Update: If you're interested in some further reading, I've collected some related links about Ask MetaFilter that might be of interest.

How Matt Haughey Beat Google

December 11, 2006

Summary: In 2002, Google launched one of their few pay services, Google Answers. The service attracted only 800 responders in the past 4 years, and was shut down a few weeks ago. Three years ago, Matt Haughey created Ask MetaFilter, pays no money to those who answer questions, and has turned the site into a successful part of his business using, in part, Google AdSense to support the site.

Why was Matt successful where Google was not? Let's take a look.

Ask MetaFilter

A Motivated Community

First, to define "success" for a questions-and-answers site, we have to identify a few metrics. There's success as an owner, in terms of driving traffic (and, presumably, ad dollars) to the site. There's success for askers, in quickly getting high-quality responses. And then there's success for answerers, who get rewarded for their work or knowledge with acclaim, recognition, or simple self-satisfaction.

What's missing from that list? Money. Money isn't a great reward for great answers -- the answers to Google Answers questions are, at best, inconsistent. On Google Answers, you had the kind of replies that five dollars (or, rarely, twenty dollars) will get you. Either the answerer really needed the five dollars, which usually meant they were too busy with the rest of life to do a lot of research, or (much more common) they were the kind of person who was mostly doing it for self-satisfaction and the money was irrelevant or even insulting.

That being said, the five dollar barrier for membership on all the MetaFilter sites acts as a just-high-enough barrier that it keeps random people on the web from asking drive-by questions that don't add value to the site. Five bucks out of your PayPal account is enough to really think if your question is worth asking.

MetaFilter has a long history of being influential online and in the media world at large. Members think highly of themselves and of their peers on the site, often with good reason. Being respected by that group is something to be desired, even if one of the few consistent traits the community has displayed is that it always tends to lament the "good old days" before the newest members arrived.

There's also an existing community of tens of thousands of MetaFilter members which seeded the Ask MetaFilter site -- a strong and active base of early adopters. This is in contrast to a point Matt himself made while talking about the site:

Google Answers is gone because Google isn't in the people business, they're in the computer programming business.

With the exception of Orkut and YouTube, Google doesn't really do community websites. That's not a criticism -- they get a lot of leverage out of having a smart python script do the work of hundreds of humans. But even Google Groups, which is a home for so many communities on the web, really has no sense of place, and certainly no presence by Google itself in its various social groups.

In short, Google doesn't have a community to leverage.

Just Enough Rules

In the tradition of "good fences make good neighbors", I'd submit that smart cops make for smart communities. The moderation and adjudication of the inevitable debates or arguments that arise on the site are handled ably by Matt, with a lot of assistance from Jessamyn West. As Jessamyn herself described the site in Library Journal:

The other thing that keeps the site vital is a certain amount of moderation, which is where I come in. I am one of two moderators; Matt Haughey, the creator of the web site, is the other. To provide an atmosphere where people can feel comfortable asking questions, we have a short set of guidelines for commenting on a question. After several years of questions and answers, most people know the drill and don't break the code of conduct. If they do, however, we step in and remove off-topic comments and settle disputes.

Just as importantly, Jessamyn is a librarian. I can't overstate how much a site that's about providing information benefits from the presence of a librarian, someome who's an expert at retrieving and disseminating information.

Why It Works

A few days ago, I talked to Jesse James Garrett about why Ask MetaFilter works. Though he's today best known for his work at Adaptive Path and his coining of the term Ajax, Jesse's Elements of User Experience is one of the most compact distillations I've ever seen of why sites succeed.

In Jesse's opinion, there are two significant innovations in Ask MetaFilter:

  • There are rules.
  • You're trying to benefit other people on the site, not just the asker.

The rules are important because they're simple and consistent. Asking questions that have already been answered is discouraged, and asking simple opinion questions that can't possibly have a "right" answer is usually forbidden. In fact, the rules are simple enough that they can be stated right on the page where you ask a question.

Note: AskMe questions should have a purpose, goal, or problem to be solved. Open-ended chatty questions that don't offer a problem to be solved are detrimental to the long term usefulness of the site. Also, please try to keep the questions from being too specific or too stupid. Don't be an ass, and ask your question if you feel it is important. If in doubt, check the guidelines.

"Don't be an ass" as policy! I love it.

And as Jesse notes, though the site has a "best answer" option for askers to flag the responses that are most valuable (more on that later), there's a dynamic to the community which leaves answerers trying to impress their peers just as much as the person who asked the original question. Some members have specific areas of focus, and respond only to questions where they're subject matter experts -- a perfect behavior to encourage.

The Best Answers

I'd add one final unique trait about the site: I love answering questions. I'm proud of my "best answers" on Ask MetaFilter, because they feel as if they were earned.

I've written before about having provided best answers, and even reveled in them when they've happened. It's a few lines of text on a single website, but clearly the reward is more meaningful to me than five bucks could ever be.

Some Answers

So what can we learn? It's possible to launch a site after Google enters a category, develop the technological underpinnings yourself in your free time, provide fewer features than Google does, make use of Google's own advertising system, and provide contributors with fewer financial rewards than Google does and still make your site a success.

How do you do it? By honoring your community, making reasonable and transparent rules, getting experts to help you, and encouraging positive, thoughtful behavior from your site's members. Kudos to Google for recognizing where they are and aren't succeeding by their own standards. And congratulations to Matt Haughey for making one of the best sites on the web.

Update: If you're interested in some further reading, I've collected some related links about Ask MetaFilter that might be of interest.

How Matt Haughey Beat Google

December 11, 2006

Summary: In 2002, Google launched one of their few pay services, Google Answers. The service attracted only 800 responders in the past 4 years, and was shut down a few weeks ago. Three years ago, Matt Haughey created Ask MetaFilter, pays no money to those who answer questions, and has turned the site into a successful part of his business using, in part, Google AdSense to support the site.

Why was Matt successful where Google was not? Let's take a look.

Ask MetaFilter

A Motivated Community

First, to define "success" for a questions-and-answers site, we have to identify a few metrics. There's success as an owner, in terms of driving traffic (and, presumably, ad dollars) to the site. There's success for askers, in quickly getting high-quality responses. And then there's success for answerers, who get rewarded for their work or knowledge with acclaim, recognition, or simple self-satisfaction.

What's missing from that list? Money. Money isn't a great reward for great answers -- the answers to Google Answers questions are, at best, inconsistent. On Google Answers, you had the kind of replies that five dollars (or, rarely, twenty dollars) will get you. Either the answerer really needed the five dollars, which usually meant they were too busy with the rest of life to do a lot of research, or (much more common) they were the kind of person who was mostly doing it for self-satisfaction and the money was irrelevant or even insulting.

That being said, the five dollar barrier for membership on all the MetaFilter sites acts as a just-high-enough barrier that it keeps random people on the web from asking drive-by questions that don't add value to the site. Five bucks out of your PayPal account is enough to really think if your question is worth asking.

MetaFilter has a long history of being influential online and in the media world at large. Members think highly of themselves and of their peers on the site, often with good reason. Being respected by that group is something to be desired, even if one of the few consistent traits the community has displayed is that it always tends to lament the "good old days" before the newest members arrived.

There's also an existing community of tens of thousands of MetaFilter members which seeded the Ask MetaFilter site -- a strong and active base of early adopters. This is in contrast to a point Matt himself made while talking about the site:

Google Answers is gone because Google isn't in the people business, they're in the computer programming business.

With the exception of Orkut and YouTube, Google doesn't really do community websites. That's not a criticism -- they get a lot of leverage out of having a smart python script do the work of hundreds of humans. But even Google Groups, which is a home for so many communities on the web, really has no sense of place, and certainly no presence by Google itself in its various social groups.

In short, Google doesn't have a community to leverage.

Just Enough Rules

In the tradition of "good fences make good neighbors", I'd submit that smart cops make for smart communities. The moderation and adjudication of the inevitable debates or arguments that arise on the site are handled ably by Matt, with a lot of assistance from Jessamyn West. As Jessamyn herself described the site in Library Journal:

The other thing that keeps the site vital is a certain amount of moderation, which is where I come in. I am one of two moderators; Matt Haughey, the creator of the web site, is the other. To provide an atmosphere where people can feel comfortable asking questions, we have a short set of guidelines for commenting on a question. After several years of questions and answers, most people know the drill and don't break the code of conduct. If they do, however, we step in and remove off-topic comments and settle disputes.

Just as importantly, Jessamyn is a librarian. I can't overstate how much a site that's about providing information benefits from the presence of a librarian, someome who's an expert at retrieving and disseminating information.

Why It Works

A few days ago, I talked to Jesse James Garrett about why Ask MetaFilter works. Though he's today best known for his work at Adaptive Path and his coining of the term Ajax, Jesse's Elements of User Experience is one of the most compact distillations I've ever seen of why sites succeed.

In Jesse's opinion, there are two significant innovations in Ask MetaFilter:

  • There are rules.
  • You're trying to benefit other people on the site, not just the asker.

The rules are important because they're simple and consistent. Asking questions that have already been answered is discouraged, and asking simple opinion questions that can't possibly have a "right" answer is usually forbidden. In fact, the rules are simple enough that they can be stated right on the page where you ask a question.

Note: AskMe questions should have a purpose, goal, or problem to be solved. Open-ended chatty questions that don't offer a problem to be solved are detrimental to the long term usefulness of the site. Also, please try to keep the questions from being too specific or too stupid. Don't be an ass, and ask your question if you feel it is important. If in doubt, check the guidelines.

"Don't be an ass" as policy! I love it.

And as Jesse notes, though the site has a "best answer" option for askers to flag the responses that are most valuable (more on that later), there's a dynamic to the community which leaves answerers trying to impress their peers just as much as the person who asked the original question. Some members have specific areas of focus, and respond only to questions where they're subject matter experts -- a perfect behavior to encourage.

The Best Answers

I'd add one final unique trait about the site: I love answering questions. I'm proud of my "best answers" on Ask MetaFilter, because they feel as if they were earned.

I've written before about having provided best answers, and even reveled in them when they've happened. It's a few lines of text on a single website, but clearly the reward is more meaningful to me than five bucks could ever be.

Some Answers

So what can we learn? It's possible to launch a site after Google enters a category, develop the technological underpinnings yourself in your free time, provide fewer features than Google does, make use of Google's own advertising system, and provide contributors with fewer financial rewards than Google does and still make your site a success.

How do you do it? By honoring your community, making reasonable and transparent rules, getting experts to help you, and encouraging positive, thoughtful behavior from your site's members. Kudos to Google for recognizing where they are and aren't succeeding by their own standards. And congratulations to Matt Haughey for making one of the best sites on the web.

Update: If you're interested in some further reading, I've collected some related links about Ask MetaFilter that might be of interest.

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