Brownstoner: The End of the Open Thread

Kael Goodman is a guest author. To submit a guest post, click here.

One of the biggest challenges facing any hyperlocal publisher is the development, maintenance, and growth of audience. If you are starting from scratch, one of your first challenges is to find that core audience — the rabid readers that will check back 10 or more times a day to see what you’ve got for them next.

But as a site develops, and its audience becomes more established, the questions change. A publisher is charged with serving multiple needs and constituencies, and the decisions are much more complicated. Is the core vision of the site still relevant and accurate?

Most importantly, there is the community. Most successful sites are forced at some point to ask themselves if the needs of the majority of readers match the needs of the faithful. Quite often, the most dedicated members of an audience will develop its own distinct culture and agenda, which, over time, may start to take the shape of demands and threats.

Suddenly you are in a sticky situation: it’s great that a segment of your most avid readers care so deeply, but should you allow the demands of the few commandeer the trajectory of your business?

The Brownstoner Story
This was the challenge that Brownstoner faced. Launched in 2005, Brownstoner is a blog focused on Brooklyn’s biggest story: real estate. The migration of the wealthy and cool from Manhattan to Brooklyn, the social issues raised by changing demographics, constant neighborhood development and home improvement in its many forms — interest in these topics are what helped Brownstoner thrive. It is now the most-read site in Brooklyn, and with the addition of real estate listings and a business directory in 2010, its breadth has grown. It attracts advertisers ranging from handymen and contractors to the city’s largest developers and real estate companies.

The New York Observer quoted Jonathan Butler, Brownstoner’s founder and publisher, on his editorial approach in a 2007 article: “I look at my role more as someone starting a conversation as opposed to handing down the word from on high.”

Trouble in Paradise
Jonathan found an audience wanting to participate in the conversation he started. But as the site grew it became apparent that a sub-group of the readership had deviated from the purpose of the site and introduced a toxic, cliquish tone to the Brownstoner conversation that was diminishing the engagement of the community as a whole.

This was actually Round Two of this particular fight.  In 2008, New York Magazine covered Brownstoner’s comments section, framing the conflicts on the site as a metaphor for the real-life conflicts unfolding throughout the borough.

Brownstoner’s posts tend to read like the reportage of a particularly smart and opinionated community paper. The comment section, by contrast, has become a rolling transcript of the borough’s new anxieties, shameful prejudices, and secret fears.

What kinds of fears are exhibited in the comments, you ask? Here is an excerpt of the first paragraph of that article, constructed from reader comments found on Brownstoner:

“Is Clinton Hill an okay place to move? It’s vibrant, diverse, and feels very safe. Clinton Hill is full of black people who have a chip on their shoulder and some white people who think themselves cool for living among them. I’m comfortable in Clinton Hill but my wife isn’t and she wants out.”

“Go back to Kansas, asswipe. Since moving into the neighborhood two years ago, I have already seen it change dramatically. Just so you know, ‘edgy’ and ‘unsafe’ means ‘black.’”

The funny thing is, the comments above were actually some of the more productive and meaningful conversations happening on site. But the profane sprawl of entitled vitriol and pent-up cubicle boredom that spread across posts, from reviews of brownstone renovations to updates on high-rise developments, was not conducive to conversation with average readers, most of whom just wanted check out the most recent news on real estate in Brooklyn.

Open Thread
In an effort to keep comments on topic in individual posts, Jonathan introduced the Open Thread. It was a place for people to congregate and write about what ever was on their minds, and routinely received between 500 to 750 comments per day.

As time wore on, though,  it became clear that the existence of the Open Thread created a sense of tacit approval or acceptance of what bxgrl — a regular commenter on site — referred to as “nasty posting behavior.”  Unfortunately, despite the creation of a special sandbox for the usual suspects to play in, nasty posting persisted in spilling into other posts throughout the site.

If a portion of your readership makes a lunge for the steering wheel, don’t just threaten to turn the car around. Actually pull over and make those readers get out and walk.

Community management and development is more art than science. But some carefully applied science certainly doesn’t hurt. So Brownstoner set about implementing some technological solutions that would enable the community to enforce its own immune system. Brownstoner began using the next generation of BlankSlate’s Listings and Community Forum products, and Disqus’s commenting system to make it easier for readers to flag and administrators to manage user-generated content.

After the new moderating technology was in place for a few weeks, it became clear that the Open Thread was still creating a haven for troll-like behavior, and that as long as the Open Thread was open the kinds of comments that it was designed to contain would continue to spread into the rest of the site.

Then recently Jonathan received an unsolicited email, an excerpt of which is included below:

“I beg you to increase the quality of comments on your blog and do away with the Open Thread and perhaps people will start coming back to commenting again on the actual news of the blog, instead of fighting with each other about politics and poo mist.”

And so it was decided. The Open Thread would close for good. Jonathan penned a goodbye post for the last Open Thread:

“As time has gone on…, the Open Thread has become both more insider-y and, often, more toxic than we had initially envisioned. We hear frequently from readers bemoaning the negativity, profanity and clubbiness on the Open Thread and stories of other long-time readers who have all but abandoned the site because of the tone set by the Open Thread. So we’re stopping it.”

The response to the end of the Open Thread was received with deep emotion and no small amount of outcry in the comments. The full post and all 900+ comments can be found here. Together they provide a brief yet insightful window into the challenges that Brownstoner has faced in answering the demands of its “biggest fans.”

Let us be the first to say that Brownstoner is fortunate to have these problems. To some ears the challenges outlined above might sound disingenuous, the indulgent whine of a successful blog “hounded” by a zealous and enthusiastic readership who spend all day commenting and engaging on the site. But as you peel back the layers of sensationalism, the issue that lies at the center of Brownstoner’s curious little challenge is much more universal than it may initially appear.

Serving the Audience
Figuring out the best way to serve your audience is a tricky task. The sites that succeed in finding the right mix of content and audience collaboration are rewarded with the level of attention that comes with the powerful currency of co-creation.

In order to build a community with sustained attention and co-creation a publisher must tend the site carefully as you go, cultivating behavior that you want to encourage and discouraging activities that veer the site away from its core purpose. You can accomplish a portion of this task with technology – Brownstoner’s moderation technology has been put to great use since it was implemented – but you must also plan on some level of human attention.

So if a portion of your readership makes a lunge for the steering wheel, don’t just threaten to turn the car around. Actually pull over and make those readers get out and walk. You’ve got somewhere else to be.

Kael Goodman is the founder of BlankSlate, a Brooklyn-based company providing software and services to local publishers.

  1. August 3, 2011

    Really interesting take on this subject…thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    I too sometimes have this “the kids are now in charge!” feeling on my blog with our commenters, and so its nice to see others put their foot down and make some definitive changes.

    Rock on, Brownstoner!

  2. Anonymous
    August 3, 2011

    By the way, a week later I’m quite pleased with how things are working out. Much more open vibe, no one dominating, pageviews up a tad and have barely had to spend any time moderating comments…

    1. Hjhkjhhk
      September 18, 2011

      and now how do you like it?   I feel like nobody comments on anything now.   Average comments per post are down to 1-2?   Eh.  I used to read Brownstoner for the comments/engagement.  Not for the listings.

  3. August 4, 2011

    This post is a valuable contribution to the long-running debate about engagement.   The Brownstoner generated terrific engagement — the holy grail of every site — but some of that engagement turned toxic.  Instead of turning a blind eye, the Brownstoner decided to surgically remove what was toxic, and let the healthy engagement  thrive without any more threat of contamination.  Many sites, so desperate to hold on to their engagement at any cost, are just making motions at the threat.  Sooner or later, they’ll have to do something, at much greater cost than the Brownstoner may have absorbed.

  4. DIBS
    September 17, 2011

    Yet there are virtually no comments anymore on a day-to-day basis.  It’s a ghost town on brownstoner now

  5. DIBS
    September 18, 2011

    It should also be pointed out that Kael runs Blankslate and the revised website, done by Blankslate and because of its use of the DISQUS commenting software, is decidedly slower than the original and has caused access problems for many posters due to firewall issues not previously an issue.  Yes, people may be viewing but far fewer people can actually comment now.  This has been brought up numerous times by posters having trouble in The Forum section of brownstoner.

  6. Anonymous
    September 19, 2011

    I hadn’t seen this article before today so I’m late to the comment party, but let me begin by saying there is an awful lot of facts left out of Kael’s piece. I can agree with his assessment of blogs and how they change, but his demonization of the regulars and  his lack of balance regarding the situation are unconscionable. I was a regular poster on brownstoner from its early days. To think that the OT is to blame for trolls is to forget the vicious posters who attacked us everyday.One of them even found the phone number for another regular and posted it, along with some very pithy remarks about  the world’s “oldest profession.”.

    Also left out of Kael’s account is the fact that many of us did meet offline and become friends.

    We also always welcomed new people so that our gatherings have grown from  5 to over 40. Jon had been invited to these gatherings and has come several times. Another point left out is that when Jon decided to retool the site, he personally wrote to a number of us OT regulars asking for help in testing the site and checking for issues.Oh yes- we,the “sub-group of the readership had deviated from the purpose of the site and introduced a toxic, cliquish tone” were asked to work with him and Kael- some of us for weeks as many posters were unable to access the new site due to many technical glitches. It wasn’t just OT regulars who couldn’t access the site- it was the general public- people who also wanted to

    read brownstoner. Jon and Kael asked us for feedback and help, and we gladly gave it because we loved brownstoner.

    So imagine our surprise when he summarily shut down the OT without warning. For a guy
    who had all our personal email addresses and had no qualms about emailing us and asking for our help, you’d have thought he could at least have emailed us and told us before hand. Instead he did it with a public and insulting post. coupled with Jon’s recent apartment therapy interview and now, kael’s column, I can’t tell if they are simply desperate to blame someone else for their site problems, or are simply being tacky.

    I think it’s disingenuous of you to have published Kael’s article w/o either of you
    mentioning that he was head of the team that worked on the Brownstoner revamp .  The transition was fraught w/ problems & alienated regulars & lurkers.  It was Jon’s decision to implement the change before the wrinkles were ironed out & it would seem that Kael is now trying to justify the fall off in comments on the site by blaming the OT. It would be closer to the truth to point out the disqus commenting system worked poorly from the getgo, and it took weeks to get it to work properly. Kael also neglects to mention that people had been complaining for months that the site had become formulaic and predictable. I understand Jon made what he felt was a business decision.  What I object to is the regulars who supported the site for so long being demonized and blamed for his failings. I object to the many factual omissions in Kael’s column and his fudging of the facts to make himself
    and Jon look good at our expense.

    For all the complaints about the OT, no one was forced to read it. As far as the bile or nastiness spilling over from the OT to other parts of the site? That’s misleading as there have always been posters who attack others in the nastiest way possible. There are always problem posters. That existed before the OT and still exists on Brownstoner. It exists all over the internet. For Jon and Kael to make us out to be the bad guys, and lay the blame on us for the site losing posters is unfair and untrue. In fact, there have been far fewer comments on the threads overall since he shut down the OT. I don’t say this is because the OT is gone, but as someone who has been with brownstoner from the beginning and seen how the site has changed, maybe the real problem is that Brooklyn brownstoners just don’t find brownstoner to be such an interesting and lively place anymore since it began concentrating on expensive real estate,upscale coffee shops and overpriced

  7. Denton Taylor
    September 19, 2011

    This is entirely about the money. Jon was looking for bigger more corporate advertisers. Any big name company is going to carefully examine the site before associating their name with it. The freewheeling and raunchy OT didn’t fit into that. As a business owner myself, I completely understand. But let’s not hear all this sanctimonious crap about ‘community management and development’ and just admit it’s about advertising and more advertising. And I don’t have a problem with that.

  8. Arkady
    September 19, 2011

    Given that the piece was written nearly 2 months ago, I’d love to know what Jon claims his clicks are now.

  9. Anonymous
    September 20, 2011

    This is a dishonest article.  Agree with Denton.  It was about money.  And it was very shabby.  Others say that it was a deflection of the embarrassing failure of the new technology the writer was supposed to be rolling out.  And to whom, help was extended.  Very low.  It doesn’t look like it is going very well now, if number of comments are any indication. 

  10. Anonymous
    September 21, 2011

    And I am now banned from posting on brownstoner. Interesting read on todays twitter thread re banning the OT and their present use of twitter comments to race bait and drum up comments. In agreeing with other posters, I was banned. It’s personal I guess, but very immature and thinskinned of them. I have been a poster on brownstoner since its’ very early days. And one of Jon’s strongest defenders over the years. Even when he shut down the OT, I defended him because I said it was his site. Should make anyone question the veracity of both Jon and Kael’s guest column above.  Or as Big Daddy said, there’s a strong odor of mendacity in the room.

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