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I had written some fairly positive things about FamilyLink’s new social network, GenealogyWise, whose official debut is supposed to be today. The company had a “soft” opening a week ago and within two days had garnered thousands of members with hundreds of specialty groups and discussions. Many highly influential names in the genealogy world joined up.
It seemed as if FamilyLink CEO Paul Allen had found the right formula for a specialty social network. The site is rich in content, some of it generated by FamilyLink, but most of it user-created. There are none of the silly applications found on Facebook and the crowd for the most part appeared to be mature and well-mannered. For most of the week, enthusiasm ran high about the site and expectations seemed to be met. I, in fact had written a draft post to run yesterday that described GW after its first week as “one of the most advanced collaborative cyber-communities: a place where both individualistic and communitarian democracy can flourish.” I said it “might be the ultimate achievement in mass technolgical communications for special purposes.”
Not everybody was so effusive. Cautionary sounds were made by Jasia, footnoteMaven, and Thomas MacEntee, who had been in the first cohort of travelers to GW. Randy Seaver took a “wait-and-see” approach. These are all people I like and respect.
Then, the mis-steps began. First, FamilyLink announced a “contest” in which there would be $100 prizes for “the most” blog posts, friends, group members, and other things. This was a mistake for several reasons, not the least of which was that it mis-apprehended the nature and interests of the community. No doubt it was intended to be celebratory; but it was off the mark.
Terry Thornton, the well-known writer from Monroe County, Mississippi, then took to GW’s forum to point out the other problems with the contest. Under the headline “GW is Running a Numbers Game,” Terry noted that the contest could be easily “gamed” and that in any event,
Why not a contest based upon content, character, helpfulness, consistency, and clarity of postings/comments rather than who has piled up the most numbers in any of these categories?
Within hours, GW had revised the contest rules to take up Terry’s suggestion and about the same, Terry’s post had been taken down.
Will people never learn?
Nothing roils the blogosphere or the Twitterverse like the appearance of censorship.
FamilyLink tried to mitigate this disaster by cancelling even the revised contest and by purporting to seek community input on “the level of censorship” at GW. The now-anonymous FamilyLink poster asked whether GW should allow pornography, commercial advertising and, by the way, disrespectful and rude posts. This all seemed a red herring. Nobody in the community wants porn; and there wasn’t any realistic chance that there will be “porn” depsite the difficulty in defining it and the various hypotheticals posed by commenters. Most don’t want ads (that ultimately will lead to spam), either.
In the mid-afternoon, the FamilyLink poster apologized (perhaps at the prompting of Paul Allen) for removing the post and then asked whether profanity should be allowed on the site. This led to another “down the rabbit hole” discussion.
The entire episode left folks wondering if FamilyLink understands social networks at all. As for avoiding such mis-steps and learning to deal with the blogsphere and Twitttereverse, there plenty of precedents: Ancestry.com, Facebook, etc.
GW’s auspicious start was marred not only by this tawdry business, but by a techno-rookie error in handling its domain name transfer that left the site off-line two nights ago.
I wrote in the forum discussion on this topic at GenealogyWise:
It seems to me that the history of such cyber-communities, brief in time though it may be, is rich with examples of how community sponsors should interact with the community. It is true that these precedents come from trial and error. One consistent theme is that community members believe strongly in the right to express dissatisfaction with the sponsor when they believe it is warranted. The success of any such community depends on recognition of this fact.
I know a number of people that I like and respect that are bailing out of GenealogyWise. for the time being I’m staying. I think it’s too early to make a judgment on this community. But after the last couple of days, GW, remember I’m from Missouri–you’ll have to show me.
July 17, 2009 Friday at 9:01 pm