March 31, 2006

Topix.net forums on fire: the Ni-chan paradox

by at 2:28 AM

Back on December 12th, we released a site redesign that included user forums on each of our news pages. We were pretty psyched about this -- a chance to let our users “talk back” to the news seemed like an obvious next step in the evolution of the Topix.net site. And given the amount of general site traffic we receive, we figured commenting on the news had to be a big hit...

Well, not exactly:

One month after launch, we were still under 200 posts a day. Though we sparked some interesting posts, this was certainly not something to write home about. We had designed a system that was usable, but not accessible.

What could we change?

Since this was our first foray into on-line community, we wanted some control. One way we hoped to manage this was with registration. (In retrospect, it’s odd that we would think this way, given that we regularly evangelize to publishers that they banish this model in favor of access and usability).

Could we take the registration down? Of course the volume would go up, but what would happen to the quality of the posts? Our automated moderation queues were already averaging a post-kill rate of 4.5% -- nearly one in 20 posts. Was this going to double or triple the amount of spam and profanity we needed to parse through? Would an army of trolls invade and set up a siege? There was much hand-wringing on the eve of January 11th…

Let’s take it down and see what happens. We can always put it back up, right?

Since removing registration, our volume has exploded and just this morning we just passed a quarter-of-a-million aggregate posts on our system. And the quality of posts? To our surprise, our post kill-rate has actually dropped -- hovering below 2%. This is less than half of the number incurred when registration was in place.

What gives? We think it’s the "Ni-chan paradox"…

If you’ve never heard of Ni-chan (or "2ch" - pronounced "ni-channeru") it's a Japanese site that has the distinction of being the largest internet forum in the world. 2ch champions an "anything goes" approach to posting, and while it's a bit more wild-west than Topix aspires to be, we believe they're on to something by eschewing the user registration in their boards.

Here’s a great post explaining the 2ch rationale for jettisoning the reg, and a quick summary of the philosophy:

  • Registration keeps out good posters. People with lives will tend to ignore forums with a registration process.
  • Registration lets in bad posters. Children and Internet addicts tend to have free time to go register an account and check their e-mail for the confirmation message. They will generally make your forum a waste of bandwidth.
  • Registration attracts trolls. If someone is interested in destroying a forum, a registration process only adds to the excitement of a challenge. Trolls are not out to protect their own reputation. They seek to destroy other peoples' "reputation”.
  • Anonymity counters vanity. On a forum where registration is required, or even where people give themselves names, a clique is developed of the elite users, and posts deal as much with who you are as what you are posting. On an anonymous forum, if you can't tell who posts what, logic will overrule vanity.
  • Registration keeps out good posters and attracts trolls? Who'd have thought that? But look at the results from a random sampling of topics:

    NorthWest Airlines
    NASCAR
    Willow Springs, MO
    Yanni
    Celiac Disease
    Columbia, KY
    Saudi Arabia
    Charlie Sheen

    Heck, even Jeeves the the Ask.com butler has an outpouring from his faithful.

    From the data, it's fair to say that none of this dialog would have ever have taken place if we hadn't removed the reg.

    It's clear that our users are extremely passionate, and have an awful lot to say. And as the steady migration to on-line news continues, we owe it to them to take some risks and rethink some of our preconceptions about how best to serve them.