Why is the SDMB membership declining, and what's the best way to add younger members?

I found the boards through the Straight Dope column in my local alt weekly, which has since gone bankrupt several times. If someone were to resurrect the column, online only, it might drive people back to the site. You would need a writer or writers with some interesting perspective writing about topics people want to discuss. Ideally, you could get some organic traffic from links by other news sources that attract the types of thinking readers we want. It seems Salon is starved for content. Maybe they would be happy with a deal where “Cecil Adams” gave them a viable column each week and we got at least a few clicks from new readers to the homepage. Each new column could come with a baked-in link to the board discussion about the column although if there aren’t enough regulars to feed the column discussion, that won’t do a good job of attracting newbies. The archives should also be populated with links to the related discussion pages so people who find the articles through Google can also learn more or add to the discussion on the boards. Whether this would be worth the effort might depend on an analysis of what articles still drive traffic to the site.

One factor that helps keep me on the site is that I can be anonymous. I have no particular interest in Facebook tracking everything I do.

We could certainly be more welcoming of newbies once they get here.

We could advertise through social media to target the types of people we want on the board. I’m, not an expert in social media marketing but it seems like we have some active threads on interesting topics from time to time. I just bumped thread on using personality tests to screen new hires. If we were inclined, the social media outreach person could push that question out to HR professionals through ads on LinkedIn or Facebook. If we got two or three new people on board who say, “I know that!” we’re getting somewhere. Repeat for a few threads each month and build a bigger user base of people with something to contribute. We should target goals for new signups and retention of active users to grow at some realistic rate.

TPTB should set goals for what they want out of the board. Are we sustainable with a couple thousand active members? What is the minimum viable user base? What does Sun Times want out of the board? Do they expect the boards to drive traffic to their site? I don’t think that happens today, but if it did, would they be wiling to put money back into the board? Would they be willing to sell it the users who are here now, who could operate it as a non-profit? Or to a single user who is willing to put a little time and money into it to see it it could be a sustainable business again? What intellectual property could come with it? The message board archives are a minimum, but what about the column archives? Do they still drive traffic to the boards? What about the “Straight Dope” trademark? The “Cecil Adams” trademark?

I’ve never signed up a Member because, honestly, I’d rather just have a board where people are mostly equal. I get that there are moderators and others, which is a distinction I’m happy with. Once we start adding “Members” and “Charter Members,” it starts feeling like some people get to go behind the velvet rope where newcomers aren’t welcome. Once we add “Celebrity Death Pool Winner,” it feels like a club where I wasn’t invited and I don’t get the in jokes. I’d be happy to contribute to support the message board but the last thing I want is to lord it over others that I’m a “Member” while they are a peon.

Ooh, me too! One of the worst recent examples was to turn a thread about James Holzhauer, a recent Jeopardy contestant, into an omnibus Jeopardy thread. Now, if Holzhauer becomes relevant again or someone Googles to learn more about him, the thread is mostly useless to that new reader. If someone comes to discuss Jeopardy, there is no good point to jump into a ten-thousand post thread.

I’m commenting with two different hats.

  • Hat 1 is that of a long-time member, occasional poster.
  • Hat 2 is that of an admin for another message board. Our demographic is about the same as SDMB. We are not shrinking but we are not growing either. I’ve thought long and hard about how to change that.

Hat 1:

I discovered the Straight Dope column when I moved to New York in 1994. It was in the free arts newspaper (the one that wasn’t the Village Voice). It was brilliant! I discovered the SDMB on AOL a little while later. I’ve never been a particularly active poster (~1000 posts in 25 years) but I have long periods of lurking interspersed. My heyday (and the SDMB’s?) was in the early Bush years. I was always most interested in GD and GC but I dabbled in some of the other forums too.

Here’s why I don’t visit very often anymore:

I always enjoyed the cut and thrust of Great Debates and it’s always the forum I check first. These days, when I go scan the open threads they are all the same threads as 20 years ago. “Why religion is stupid”. “Why guns are bad.”; “Why taxation is the same as slavery”. “Why cops shouldn’t shoot black people”.

Maybe it was always like that and my memory is rose-tinted but, either way, I’m not interested in having the same discussions every day for the rest of my life. It’s no one’s fault, but it’s true all the same.

On the rare occasion when someone does start a new and interesting GD thread, it gets hijacked off to one of the standard topic destinations before it even leaves the runway. It’s like some posters are playing a game of “I can hijack that thread to ‘why it’s ok for police to shoot black people’ in 5!”. This one is someone’s fault. I often wonder if they know who they are.

And this. Oh my God, this:

No names, but any discussion about free-will will, in no time at all, be dominated by someone explaining why all the other opinions are moronic. He has had made that same argument for 20 years, never seems to tire of repeating it and never seems to hear what anyone else has to say. Why does he do this? Perhaps it is fully determined.

For any particular topic (Guns, Gods, Gays, Property Rights, Immigration, etc, etc, etc), there are 3 or 4 people who seemingly don’t feel at home unless they repeat the same arguments they have been repeating for 20 years. Your arguments were interesting the first 12 or 13 times I heard them but now, maybe you could let someone else have their say before shutting them down? Maybe you could just say “I refer you to my Argument No 7” and shut up for a little while and see what the new folks have to say.

General Questions is harder. I used to love it — and it’s still good — but there are better places for that now like Stack Exchange.

The BBQ pit is vile and awful. It should be called the Cess Pit. I never visit but just the smell puts me off. Someone upthread said it contaminates the reputation of the other forums the way that some of the seedier subreddits put people off Reddit even if they never visit those subreddits. It pollutes everything.

The general attitude to newbies who don’t yet know all the many unspoken conventions is appalling. Snark between people who have been snarking at each other for 20 years is one thing. Snarking at a newbie is a totally different thing.

Hat 2:
My forum (we call it an online community) is for patients and their families. Most are cancer patients who are typically older than the general population.

Marketing things that we have done that help include:

  • Posting snippets (along the lines of Threadspotting) to other venues like Twitter and Facebook. It doesn’t actually help much directly but it helps a lot with SEO. We are not much bigger than SDMB but many of our communities are the #1 hit on Google if you search for an online forum about X.
  • Even better than this is to get members to post about Smart Patients occasionally in other venues like blogs and Twitter. Again, this is more of a boon to SEO than to direct conversations.
  • We provide some tools for this kind of sharing like a gallery of quotes (anyone can quote something and add it to the gallery) that are easy to share with a nice photo background on social media. Also, badges that you can put on a blog or whatever.

Lastly moderation:

I belong to lots of online forums and this place has the most Byzantine and authoritarian moderation policy that I have encountered. There’s a kind of vicious circle of legalistic moderation policy → creates resentment and demands for more legalistic rules → more legalism → more resentment. At my place, we prefer a softer touch. We have the occasional bad actor on our forum but, usually, a quiet word will fix it and if it doesn’t, we say goodbye. We don’t even publish any rules.

I think it all stems from John Adams and his “This is a country of laws, not men.” Some people still think that was a good idea but I prefer moderation by sensible people with good taste over lots of rules any day. I understand why Facebook needs a Byzantine moderation policy. I don’t understand why SDBMB needs one.

This is my impression too.

Excellent example. I originally thought of discussions as potentially endless, but soon realized… those long, long discussions aren’t tenable:

We’re going to add a limited form of real-time chat to take some pressure off certain “topics” that degenerate into chatrooms.

Yeah, devolving into the standard “things people commonly argue about” template is a problem with general discussion topics. Maybe take it as a challenge – can you start an interesting, unique discussion that avoids repeating all the standard arguments about hot button issues?

On another site similar to this one, the site owners do regularly post topics for discussion every day. There is a vast divide between the “difficult” (race, gender, guns. etc) topics and the “easy” ones. But you need new topics … and some discipline around keeping the discussion on those specific topics, plus or minus 20%.

Pick the weird, obscure, strange stuff to discuss!

This one is difficult from a tooling perspective. On our oldest Discourse community, one of the few remaining sore points is when a long time user suddenly goes “on tilt”, per the poker term… we sandbox new users so they can’t post too much, for everyone’s safety, but established users can reply as much as they want.

We do have Slow Mode, which allows you to limit a discussion to one reply per person per (x) minutes. That at least prevents the “I now shall reply to every single person in this topic and explain, in detail, why they are wrong” phenomenon.

Hmm. Can you provide a few examples? With names removed to protect the innocent.

One downside of Slow Mode is that it works at the topic level … everyone is limited to one reply in the given time interval (say, 1 hour). But perhaps it should be triggered per-person, and maybe even as a global default?

What limit should there be on the velocity of a discussion? Or on the velocity of a single person’s contributions to the discussion? We do have gentle reminders that appear when people

  • are replying to the same person over and over
  • have replied so much that their replies constitute an unusually large percent of the discussion

We’ve also toyed with the idea of limiting replies unless you’ve read enough of the discussion, that is “you can’t reply until you’ve read at least {x} posts in this topic”. Consider someone who, having spent 30 seconds quickly reading the first post in a topic with 100 replies, smashes the reply button and begins to type. Is that gonna be a good reply?

One thing Hacker News does that I find amusing: the more you reply, the longer it takes for the reply box to appear. It almost doubles every time you reply, so keep replying 4 or 5 times in sequence and you’re up to a good 60 second wait before you can reply again.

I’ve often thought that rate-limiting an individual would be a good way to deal with troublesome posters for cases when the banhammer would be overkill. If someone was being problematic, the mods could limit them X posts per day. It would reign them in and they’d have to really think about what they wanted to use their post quota on. But that’s more for the board as a whole. It’s trickier when thinking about a rate policy for people in the thread. Sometimes it’s a spirited discussion and the back-and-forth is not really a problem.

Who would tolerate discussions that are against their morals, ie. immoral? This is the crux of the issue.

the most Byzantine and authoritarian moderation policy that I have encountered.

This is a criticism of the SDMB moderation policy rather than the Discourse platform. A recent discussion about whether men’s nipples are offensive comes to mind.

It was really important to some of the debaters that the moderation policy be consistent above all. If we are going to ban female nipples (and male appreciation thereof), then we should also ban male nipples (and female appreciation thereof). The opposite view was that male nipples have not, traditionally, been a problem in our culture. Consistency, in this case, would be a step in the wrong direction unless we carve out all kinds of special rules. Before you know it the rules have epicycles and the epicycles have epicycles. Better, IMO, to just have moderators who know how to use their judgment. The whole thing reminds me of the Monty Python scene.

Now, before I begin the lesson, will those of you who are playing in the match this afternoon move your clothes down onto the lower peg immediately after lunch, before you write your letter home, if you’re not getting your hair cut, unless you’ve got a younger brother who is going out this weekend as the guest of another boy, in which case, collect his note before lunch, put it in your letter after you’ve had your hair cut, and make sure he moves your clothes down onto the lower peg for you.

That covers Byzantine. Authoritarian is a different problem entirely.

The moderators are, IMO, very quick with the official warnings as well as too quick with the bans. The community that I run is almost as opinionated and vocal as this one but we warn maybe one person per month and ban about one person a year. Sometimes we whisper to someone that they are going too far and they say “Oh, thanks! I didn’t realise.” If you issue a public warning, the situation immediately escalates because someone has been publicly shamed and wants to argue back. Again, the remedy is for moderators to have good judgment and to use discretion.

The troublesome posters generally get large numbers of responses. Also, ‘troublesome’ on this board often just means ‘not one of us enlightened ones’. So a new poster comes here, posts a thought, gets piled on, then finds out they can only respond to a fraction of the people tearing them a new one. I’m not sure that’s an improvement that will attract new users.

What about someone posting 6 times in a row to start a new topic? Surely, that’s not desirable in terms of fostering discussion.

The Journey (pictures, long af) - Politics & Elections - Straight Dope Message Board

There’s slightly different rules when you are the topic owner. We already prevent too many sequential replies by the same person, unless you are the topic owner.

@kevlaw one key difference between this community and the one you’re referencing – I think there’s a lot of built-in empathy when it comes to medical condition communities.

I encountered this for the first time in the Rails forum on Discourse a little while ago. I found it a little bit disturbing, actually. I don’t think it solves the problem I’m describing anyway.

I’ll paraphrase:

  1. Optimistic newbie starts a thread with an interesting new angle on gun control.
  2. Within three posts, Old Timer A says “You liberals just want to ban guns” (the same as he said in the last gun control discussion and the one before that).
  3. Old Timer B says * “You conservatives just don’t care about black people” (the same as he said in the last gun control discussion and the one before that).
  4. Before you know it the interesting new angle is just Old Timer A and Old Timer B repeating the same lines they have rehearsed a thousand times before.
  5. Everybody else just shuts up and goes down the pub.

I don’t know what the solution is to this problem. Maybe if you participated in one gun control debate, you have to sit the next one out.

** This argument is for illustrative purposes only. It’s not an actual argument that people have had.*

I started a conversation last year about whether a culture of safety (like the aviation and healthcare industries use) could help prevent accidental shootings by the police.

Within 4 posts, someone claimed, ignoring the OP entirely, that if law enforcement officers can’t draw their guns, they can’t do their job (the same as he has argued a thousand times before). Of course, then everyone has to argue with that person and the well-rehearsed dance resumes. This particular thread managed to get back on topic but, usually, they don’t.

I Iike this.

In my experience it is often new posters who start a novel and interesting-sounding new topic, but they get caught out by not knowing the rules, or dumped on by existing posters for breaking board etiquette, and the topic dies. I feel like the mods could try harder to get threads like this back on track (or onto the track), rather than simply closing them.

Until they start talking about COVID vaccines or Trump or Obamacare! OMG!

Religion is a big problem too as in, your religion is the wrong one. You should be following mine.

The moderation team here has long told us that individuals don’t “own” threads/topics. Is this an official change, then?

Just fyi, CH. D’Anconia and I have been going around it for a few years now and he’s just dragging you into our shit. He’s only complaining because I am the OP.

Edit: stupid VTT. Though I do like ‘Dancing Onion’.

Slow mode would require them to have that argument in slow motion, e.g. each poster is limited to 1 reply per time interval in that topic, say an hour. And a lot of other people could get words in edgewise, whereas without slow mode they’d be buried in a stream of 4-5 other rapid replies.

I think the forced wait between posts would significantly reduce the satisfaction of completing the same old argument?

Perhaps someone else needs to point that out in the topic, to gently remind folks that they are repeating themselves ad nauseam? I can’t think of anything the software could do to help with the “bring out the same old arguments we’ve had a thousand times before” problem.

I’m reviewing all my old notes on this. One thing I saw Discord do recently is a plain 10 minute delay after joining – as in, you can’t post anything for 10 minutes, there’s a countdown timer, no specific requirements, just… wait for the timer to expire and you can type into the chat. This isn’t chat, of course, but the simplicity and effectiveness of the technique appealed to me.

On longer topics I like the idea of requiring new users (or heck, maybe even all users) to have read a certain amount of the topic before they can submit a reply.

I was thinking it would be more a tool that the mods could use as an alternative for banning. If a poster is at the stage where the mods are considering banning, rate-limiting would be a way to put boundaries on the poster to see if they will clean up their act. It would not be something that the general population would be able to enforce on a new poster just because they didn’t conform appropriately.

I very much do not. That kind of passive aggressive policy - if intentional - would discourage me from posting here. It creates a systemic bias against members who hold controversial opinions: present a controversial opinion, and you are expected to defend it. With disproportionally more posts than any one individual on the mainstream side.

If mods want to tell me to take a chill pill that’s fine because I trust and respect their personal judgement. I do not trust or respect automatic sanctions based merely on the number of posts made.

~Max