Brownstoner: The End of the Open Thread

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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.