Randy Farmer Interview [VIDEO + Transcript]

A few months back, I interviewed the ever intelligent Randy Farmer for the OCRN. The interview was one of the better interviews I’ve conducted, due entirely to the impressive wealth of knowledge that Randy offered up. Shortly after the interview, Randy forwarded me the transcript of the interview, but I failed to post it.

That is remedied here, as well as a reminder of the link. Thanks again to Randy!

(Interview and transcript both after the break!)

Online Community Interview – Randy Farmer

JAKE: Hi. Hello. Thanks for joining us on this OCRN interview.

RANDY: Hi.

JAKE: Tell us who you are and what you’re up to and what you’re working on these days.

RANDY: Hi, I’m Randy Farmer. I’ve been building online communities for over 30 years. I’ve built one of my first multiplayer games, all text-based, 300 BAUD [30 characters per second], one of the first chat systems and message boards. I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping humans interact with each other as the computers as the mediating technology. Most recently, I was working at Yahoo as their community strategic analyst and I’m now independent as a consultant helping many early and mid-stage startups with their online community strategy and I’m also writing a book on the topic.

JAKE: Excellent, excellent. I’m hearing more and more people are writing books these days about online community and there’s nothing wrong with that.

RANDY: And they’re getting much better too.

JAKE: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. Well, today’s topic is focused on online moderation and sort of the role of good community management and online moderation as part of any good community strategy and part of the reason that I wanted to bring up this topic even though it seems sort of obvious and standard is because more and more businesses and brands are getting into doing online community stuff whatever that means—some sort of user involvement, user engagement, using the web and social tools to do stuff and do stuff together. But it’s really surprising to me how much this discussion of maybe outsourcing online community moderation has played a role and in the desire many brands have to try and filter content, right? So get rid of the spam, get rid of the hate speech, get rid of all those basic things you need to do, it seems very common that they tend to lose their footing on what good moderation is about which is about setting culture and I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the right way to do online community moderation is.

RANDY: Sure, I can talk a little bit about the kind of taxonomy I developed for Yahoo in this area and one of the confusions that a lot of product managers have and a lot of people building [communities] is they don’t realize that community moderation covers a broad range of tasks and you shouldn’t confuse them. I’d like to make this dichotomy – that your referring to – I’d like to call it the difference between Terms of Service enforcement and Quality of Service. I used to refer to a QoS. This is a QoS issue, not a ToS issue. In a large company like Yahoo, ToS issues were actually handled by a different group of people. Those ended up being the Customer Care agents, the people who have the power to suspend your account, and there are also the ones that if you violated certain Terms of Service agreements, would forward your information to the law enforcement in the appropriate country. I’d like to think of community moderation primarily as Quality of Service management so you need to be able to tell the difference between an illegal or violating post, let’s say, when you consider text posts, for example, where just one that violates the community guidelines, or just needs to be highlighted as a good example. When we bought Flickr, that was a good injection of people and moderation staff who were focused on Quality of Service, finding good ways to reinforce the behaviors and specifically model the behaviors that you want users to take because they will follow the example. I’m a big believer in online communities with a concept of broken windows which is if you have a community which – let’s use the example of text posts on message boards or on a group or blog and there’s just garbage lying around because people haven’t been cleaning up the Quality of Service or kind of online gardening, then people feel free to throw garbage around. Windows are broken and there’s graffiti, people think it’s all right to break windows and leave graffiti. Community managers are in the business of helping to keep the windows clean and nice and graffiti off the walls. Some of that ends up being really problematic and some is just appropriate window dressing and Flickr has been a really good example of that.

JAKE: That’s great. That reminds me of the story from the Tipping Point, of course, where in the turnaround of the New York City subway system. One of the things that they focused on to try and solve that was repainting the subway cars. Every time they get sprayed with graffiti, immediately they’d wait for the people to finish spray painting them and then they’d walk up with these big buckets of gray paint and as these guys were walking away, they’d start to clean it up and before you know it, it just wasn’t worth the time [for the vandals] anymore.

RANDY: So we did that with Yahoo Answers using mechanism. For that Terms of Service violating problem: one of the things is to not use [paid] humans, or [instead] to distribute it. Make it a distributed human’s problem. With Yahoo Answers, I worked with their team on the reputation model that we applied to get rid of trolls and spammers on Yahoo Answers.

The way Yahoo Answers works is a front … kind of like when you think of a forest fire. It spreads outward consuming everything leaving ash behind in the middle. Supposedly, you want the questions and answers that are in the activity of the past to be useful. That’s a Quality of Service issue but as the fire spreads, there’s more and more questions than answers and on the outside of experience on the home page where people interacting with it, that’s where all the hot activity is. That’s where all the trolls go. They don’t care about being left there forever. They just want to irritate people that are trying to tweak and so what they’ll do is they’ll post really horrendous questions so leave their spam there, just really garbagey questions to the home page. What would happen with those that have fallen with the standard customer care model, they get a report and they go into a queue and there’s a human being somewhere on the planet takes it out of queue and looks at it, decides it’s a violation, removes the content. Typically, this would take over 12 hours. After twelve hours, it is back in the ash somewhere. The flame has long since moved on. The graffiti did all the damage it was going to do. It was too late. It’s closing the barn door after the horses have escaped. We worked to build a reputation model that let the users who were paying attention to this and reporting it, suspend it immediately and when we compare the reporting percentage accuracy of the people who reported the error if ever there was a violation against the reputation of the host since trolls typically have no reputation. This allowed them to suspend the content immediately and then we implemented an appeals process so that we would contact the person and say, “Hey, your post has been taken down. If you want to appeal, go here.” Appeals then went to customer care where a human being would look at them. They said the net effect of reducing the 12-hour, 95% of the stuff that was suspended. It used to take 12 hours to suspend 95%. It got down to less than 30 seconds. So what’s happening is, you’ll be put out as soon as… the same thing about your truck, your story about paint. As soon as it was visible, it was taken down. An interesting thing happened, which is the trolls left. After a while, the reporting count went significantly down. It was because they stopped trying, the graffiti guys paint somewhere else. The place that’s always being abated is no longer the interesting place, it’s [the story of] broken windows.

JAKE: Wow, that’s very cool. Well, so when a brand manager or a client comes to you and say, we just don’t have the time or the resources but we can’t hire people. We don’t have the head count to hire people to do what you’re talking about but we’ve got a check we can write to some firm. Is there a good way to outsource this kind of stuff or is this a… How do you build a great culture when you can’t necessarily involve the people who are putting the tool in place?

RANDY: So I actually recommend the opposite. I have no problem if someone can put together this split I made between community management and customer care meaning handling the dregs. If they can specify it cleanly in such a way that they can farm out the latter, that’s fine. I’m not sure they can but if they can, great. Yahoo runs a whole department which is separate from each one of the properties that handles that. The community management, you can’t outsource. In fact, most of the clients I’m working with, I recommend they increase the dialog with their customers directly. If they don’t have a community manager, that they get one and if they have a community manager and they’re just doing customer care, I suggest they promote them and have them run the company blog. This is not a big insight for anyone [OCRN memeber] that’s watching this interview. Corporate dialog is critical for at least all the clients I’m working with. If you’re talking about having an online community, you have to have a dialog between the company and the community. Otherwise…

JAKE: (overlay) Perhaps more importantly, how do you get that conversation to happen between colleagues? A lot of times, one brand versus another may not really communicate but there’s great lessons to be learned in what somebody’s learning about how they’re developing reputation system. How does that get across you and smaller companies?

RANDY: Well, the good news is, smaller companies are small. Hopefully, so the way I always used to put it – even before I worked for Yahoo – is when working with online games, there will be a very similar split as there is now on social sites. You would have that product people were designing a product, operational staff were kind of keeping machines running and making sure controlling – throttling logins, that’s where you handle a lot of the trolls then we’d have the engineering staff. Typically, those would get separated and I always saw it as the kind of community stewardship role which usually falls in a senior community manager to actually be connected to all three groups to attend critical meetings and do communication. They are an advocate for the user to the company. And who needs to know about what’s going on with users? Well, pretty much everybody at the senior level of the company. I know it’s been a long term discussion on the Online Community Research Network. I’ve never had a problem with it because wherever I work, there’s someone like me. At Yahoo, I played that role. I was a free-floating strategist. I was in the platform group but I was both defining… I was meeting with the direct customers (the individual properties) and writing specifications for platforms which I would then meet with the engineers and making sure it was being designed properly, implemented properly and then when they were deployed, we were tracking all the metrics all the time to see if they were actually working. So in a situation, like I said, whenever you have communities as an important part of your revenue stream, direct or indirect, you need a community manager because you need that dialog and you need to facilitate all those interactions that are generating the virtual circle for you to be reflected up into the product groups and engineering.

JAKE: Got you. I couldn’t agree more. Okay so we’re about out of time but I’m curious, what is the one thing that you feel just doesn’t ever get paid attention to enough in these kind of conversations about designing a good online Quality of Service or Terms of Service moderation system? You find yourself saying over and over again but it’s new for everybody you talk to but not necessarily new for the conversations you’re having with them.

RANDY: Believe it or not, it’s the dialog between the company and the users that almost always gets forgotten. You’re right. The community managers are often thought of as customer care agents and they’re just taking care of the worst but they don’t focus on quality of service and when they’re gonna start talking about quality of service, what’s the kind of stuff we want to happen on the site, you need the word we to mean something, we as the company. What is the company looking for? I like to describe three participants in the win-win-win cycle. If you want a successful social site, you have those that are producing the content, so those are the bloggers or the videographers or the life streamers, or the people who are reviewing restaurants or whatever it is that they’re doing and interacting with each other. We have these consumers, those people who just got there through a search link or reference or they clicked on a video in a blog comment that was now hosted in YouTube and they all need to find benefit. They need to find the strong benefit, but the company also needs to find benefit. Everyone seems to think, well, as long as I make the consumers and the producers happy, everything’s fine. We crashed the dot-com era on that. We’re about to crash another one on it. Users don’t have a problem with participating. If you look at all of the crowd-sourcing stuff, if you set it up right, people are not gonna have a problem with the company earning enough money to keep doing the cool thing that they want to. And the company needs to spend some of that money on keeping those three groups happy, having someone that communicates between them.

JAKE: Excellent. Well, thanks for your time. Where can we find more about you or more about the pending book later on?

RANDY: Sure. I blog at a blog called Habitat Chronicles. If you search for that on Google or Yahoo search you’ll find it. Yeah, that’s probably the best place to track me. There’s going to be several news items coming out soon.

JAKE: All right. Thanks for your time.