Another five+ year old post, recovered from elsewhere. Why now? Why not?
What happened Last Thursday
I have a story to tell. It’s a true story, or at least as true as I remember. I suspect the new people on ecademy won’t find it particularly interesting, although some of the older hands might, Either way, I’m not really writing this for anyone but me. It’s a story I need to tell; have needed to tell for about five years. The story covers approximately nine months of my life and so it’s perhaps longer than most “blogs” you encounter. Sorry about that.
I will mention some people by name, but only where it is necessary to help the story along, or where the people concerned were influential to events. What I will not do is point my finger at anyone in accusation. Well, perhaps that’s not true: but I’ll only point at myself, because LT’s failure as a business was entirely my fault.
I’m quite sure I’ll upset someone by writing this. That’s not my intention, but you can’t write history about living people without that happening, and it’s likely I’ll be dead before most of the rest of the people in the story, so there doesn’t seem to be very much sense in waiting.
On the off-chance that anyone is still reading, I’ll start with a very brief overview of Last Thursday.
That Very Brief Overview in Full
Last Thursday was – and still is – a Social Networking site based on drupal, a later branch of the code upon which ecademy is based, and initially owned and operated by five (later to become six) members of ecademy. It’s inception in late summer 2005 was partly a reaction to ecademy’s rules at the time, which were somewhat stricter than they are now. This was the time of the ecademy swear filter (which hasn’t really gone away, it just doesn’t operate when you are signed in) ecademy jail, (which has gone away, at least in name), and fairly regular bannings (which don’t appear to happen all that often nowadays). My involvement in Last Thursday began in August 2005, and ended around May 2006. Most of that time was quite stressful.
It began with ecademy.
I joined ecademy one Thursday in November 2004, didn’t really look at it again until the weekend, but once I did I became captivated, and began my paid subscription within a few hours. I didn’t know whether it would be worth it – I was, as I saw it, just a nobody with no business experience, and I was over-awed by all the high-flying business-types on ecademy.
Fairly quickly I became involved with some local “regional clubs” and made some contacts relatively local to me. It wasn’t difficult in those days – I lived in Milton Keynes – networking capital of the UK – and so there were plenty of people keen to make my acquaintance. Through Lawrence Archard I was introduced to the Baldock regional club, at that time run jointly by Mike Marr and Gary Stapleton, and the monthly meetings became an essential part of my networking, as it did many others – people came to that monthly meeting – and for that meeting alone – from near and far, even from as far away as the USA. But more about Baldock later.
In February 2005 I attended an “Open Space” session, hosted by Jim Wade, for the Business Referral Club. I won”t go into detail about what Open Space is – if anyone is interested drop me a PM and I’ll introduce you to Jim, who can explain it far better than I possibly could.
I was quite scared when I arrived at the event because I wasn’t sure how I would fit in with all these high-flyers. Would they look down on me? The one thing I was genuinely looking forward to was meeting Mitch Sullivan, who had assured me he would be there. In the meantime I “mingled”.
While I was mingling I was introduced, or plucked up courage and introduced myself, to a number of even then well known ecademists. Mike Segall, Patrick Moore (no, not the astronomer!), Fay Olinsky (BTW you ignored me, Fay – although you were at the time knee deep in Jamaican pancakes or something similar, so I forgive you). William Buist, Kate Shaw, others; people of whom I was in some awe. But all throughout I had half an eye on the door, watching for Mitch.
I should explain. Mitch is a phenomenon. Those of you who joined ecademy more recently than about September 2005 won’t understand, but Mitch – well, Mitch was in those days the King of Blog. I’m not even going to try to explain why; you’d have to read his stuff to understand. That isn’t to say that everyone liked what he had to say, but that’s when you knew he was at his best.
Anyway, Mitch arrived, I made my excuses to whoever I was talking to at the time and made a bee-line.
We did the pleasantries; “Good journey?” “Liked your blog the other day.” “You did? Yours wasn’t bad either.” And so on. Mitch introduced me to Jim Wade, and assured me that Jim is “one of the good guys”. I was pretty sure at that stage that all ecademists were good guys, but I didn’t want to upset Mitch, so I didn’t say anything. And anyway, Jim seemed a straightforward kind of guy, if a little distracted, since he was running the show.
We took our seats, Mitch and I, and after a minute or two I owned up to my fears. “I feel a bit out of place here, ” I said. “Surrounded by all these heavy-weights, and me, just a bloke.”
“They are all c***s,” Mitch reassured me. “Just c***’s.” (The asterisked word can’t be written on ecademy, but it shares three letters with “Aunt”.)
I remember I laughed. I didn’t believe him. It wasn’t until much later that I came to realise that everyone is someone’s Auntie.
Back to Baldock
Sometime early in the summer of 2005, at one of the Baldock meetings, Nick Gendler and I were talking about ecademy and the now relatively frequent bannings. Nick asked me what I’d do if I was banned. I shrugged. Not something I was really worried about, but if it happened, I’d probably start my own networking site. It was one of those throwaway comments that you forget about almost immediately – particularly when you have someone else to drive you home and the bar is still open. And I did, and it was, so I did.
One Friday in August, the day before I went on holiday, I received a phone call from Gary Stapleton.
“Do you remember talking to Nick about setting up a networking website if you were ever kicked off ecademy?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, how do you fancy setting one up anyway?”
“Sure, ” I said. Well how hard could it be?
When I got home from holiday the following Saturday – a fantastic week of walking in the Lake District – I set to work. By Sunday afternoon we had a basic site up and running in a sub-domain of my then business website – and Gary announced its arrival in the Last Thursday club he had set up on ecademy.
I should mention at this point that Gary had a specific business plan in mind, and to fulfil that plan he had identified several roles, the holders of which he recruited from his ecademy contacts. I was the code monkey (I gained a grander title than that later, but that’s really all I was). Paul Turgoose was Marketing Director. Steve Bridson Sales. Helen Moore – forgive me, Helen, I can’t remember what your official title was. I think Gary was CEO. Damon Surridge joined the team a couple of months later as MD.
The business plan
It wasn’t particularly imaginative (that’s not a criticism, Gary, if you are reading). It was simply this: get a networking site started, bootstrap it and then run it for a couple or three years. As soon as it was up and running properly we’d sell it for a few million and split the proceeds. I think we all bought into it – I certainly did. But first we had to get things going.
Social networks need members, and they are the one thing you don’t have when you first start out. The challenge is to recruit enough members to reach a critical mass, after which point the site becomes self-sustaining. Without enough members posting interesting content, people get bored and move on to pastures new. Gary’s first attempts gained us maybe a hundred and fifty members; when you realise that the active membership of a typical site is around 5% to 10% of the actual membership, you’ll appreciate we had a problem. If we were to survive, we needed to get some more people on board.
Let’s back up a little
If you’ve been around ecademy for a while; if you have happened to notice my blogs and comments; you might have noticed a certain “style” I have. I tend to be direct in my postings; this annoys some people, and that is how it should be. I also accept that occasionally I am too direct. That’s not how it should be, and I’m working on that. But …
That style I learned from usenet – the predecessor to web forums like ecademy. On usenet you stand or fall on what you know, and what you share of that knowledge. It really is the nearest thing I’ve come across to a meritocracy. When you arrive on usenet you arrive empty handed, without kudos, and you have to earn your place. That might sound harsh, but I much prefer it to pink-and-fluffy love-ins mixed with a liberal dose of blog-verts, which was what ecademy had become back then.
And I had this idea. A web-forum which operated on the same principles as usenet. I’d not seen it done before, but I was convinced it would work. The vision was of a community which ran on cooperative grounds. Where any moderation that was required was done by the members. Not by hiding or cancelling posts and comments, but by debate and argument and (dis)approval. Where grown-up people behaved like grown-ups, and chastised or sanctioned those who behaved like children or were abusive or were spammers. Where anyone was permitted to make an a*** of themselves, and from time to time everyone did – because we are all human.
That was my vision. The basis of the dream. It was also my first mistake. And my fellow directors first mistake was to not tell me it was crazy to even attempt it. Perhaps I was too persuasive.
Back to Bootstrapping
We needed to get members on board. We had a nice site, but we were something of a backwater. We knew that we ultimately wanted to become a pay site, and we also knew that we needed members or nobody would be prepared to pay to join. If you want to run a networking site there is one important fact that you need to bear in mind. The site is not the product. The members are.
In desperation, we hit on an idea. The idea was this: anyone who joins Last Thursday before the end of October 2005 would enjoy one year’s free membership. Normal price £97.97 – you know the drill.
According to expectation, recruitment started to increase – word had obviously got around. But it still wasn’t enough. We needed a miracle.
Early in October 2005, Jim Wade posed a blog on ecademy that the management didn’t like. It was something to do with an interview on Radio Four, where Penny made some claims about ecademy which Jim questioned. He was banned immediately.
Jim was at that time a member of Mitch’s ecademy club “Reservoir Dogs”. Although he couldn’t post to the club – banned members can’t do anything, not even log on – somehow he was able to email the other members. Somewhere on one of my machines I still have a copy of that email, but in essence it said: “Huh? What did I say that was so terrible?”
Speaking of “terrible”, I almost forgot about Mitch. By coincidence, the same day, Mitch posted a blog. There is something you should understand about Mitch’s blogs. Mitch doesn’t post blogs about juggling, or cake making, or cars. Nor does he post blogs about how awful it is that the postman didn’t deliver his Love Film DVD on time, or how much better the Cornish Pasties were from the bakery near the house he used to live compared to the bakery nearest to this new place. Mitch’s blogs ask questions which you have to dig deep to answer. Well, sometimnes. Other times he just tries to shock you out of your comfortable niceness, or make you laugh or cry. Often all three at the same time.
So: on the day Jim was banned for asking a question, Mitch was banned for posting his usual challenging stuff. I didn’t even see it. It, along with Mitch and all the rest of his content, was gone within a few minutes. All I saw was Mitch’s email (remember, banned members can’t talk to ecademists) expressing his astonishment at having being banned for something so – well, run-of-the-mill.
You said there was a miracle
Oh, sorry. I digressed a bit. Yes, there was a miracle. It turns out I wasn’t not the only one who thought highly of Jim and Mitch. When Jim and Mitch were banned, a number of active ecademists were quite upset. Some of them were upset enough to follow Jim and Mitch to Last Thursday. Well, in those days, pre-Facebook – where else were they going to go? Our membership doubled, quadrupled, and so on. We hit the 1000 mark well before the end of October; the cut-off, as I am sure you remember, for the “free one year’s membership”.
There was a pause in membership at around the 998 mark. We’d been seeing sometimes a couple of dozen sign-ups a day, and then when the counter got to 998 it just seemed to stop. We waited for ages for member 999 but they never appeared; it seemed to me that everyone was hoping to claim member number 1,000. Finally I added a new account, and recruitment started again. Weird. But there were a number of weird things happened like that. For example we noticed that the site was busiest during the working day, then got quiet around 5-6pm – we assumed it was “drive time”, and then started to pick up in the evening but never reaching the same level of activity as it had during the day. Weekends were reasonably busy, but 9-5 on weekdays could often be mental.
This was the bulk of our “easy” membership – they had all arrived in a flurry of anger at Jim and Mitch’s bannings and they wanted blood. Any blood would do. And we’d promised one year’s free membership for anyone who signed up before the end of October.
I can tell you are way ahead of me: you know where this is going.
I told you already I had a vision of a web forum where the members moderated themselves. Although I don’t recall ever putting it this way at the time, essentially this meant shouting down anything you disagreed with.
And so we set out our stall. We were the antithesis of ecademy. We would not moderate. We would not censor. We would only ever remove posts if they were deemed to be illegal. You could say anything here, as long as it was legal and you were prepared to stand by it, it was ok. This was our USP, and our members bought into it.
In the early days, it seemed to be effective. The few members who were active seemed for the most part to rub along very well together, and when the odd disagreement did occur it was in every case cleared up by discussion. “Look,” I said to the other directors at every opportunity. “Community moderation really works!” And it certainly appeared that way.
However, once the site started to fill up – particularly with angry, resentful people who needed to lash out at someone – the trouble started. Some just wanted the opportunity to post swearwords, or photos of people vomiting (I kid you not). People liked being able to assume an alias, and use a “funny” picture on their profile (ecademy at the time insisted that people’s profile pictures we photographs of themselves. I don’t know if this rule is still in place, but it doesn’t appear to be enforced any more).
Some members wanted to poke fun at ecademy members who hadn’t yet come over to LT – some even posted material which bordered on the libellous, or even crossed the line on some occasions. Some of these were removed, and the member would be notified of the reason, and they usually accepted it, although not always happily.
It should be said that not everyone on LT was posting this stuff. Many, I think probably most, members just wanted a networking site free of censorship. Many of them didn’t like what was being posted but I think they realised, just as LT’s directors did, that freedom to post whatever you like and can stand by means just that: you can post anything you like. There were arguments, and falling’s-out, and a lot of members we would have liked to keep asked me to remove their accounts. I’d usually ask them to reconsider; they were the kind of member we wanted (yes, I know how that sounds) but the majority stuck by their decision and so were blocked.
So: for the first couple of weeks after the mass arrival, almost every other post was about ecademy, its members or its officers. “They’ll settle down eventually,” we (the directors) said to one another. “They can’t keep harping on about ecademy forever.” But as it turned out, they really could. It seemed that ecademy was a well that never ran dry. Two weeks turned to three, then to a month. But finally, just when we felt the gig was up and we had to either throw in the towel or introduce moderation, the anti-ecademy postings seemed to slow down to a trickle.
Interlude: Finding work
In the months since August I’d been spending so much time working on the Last Thursday code that I’d not really had much time for anything else, much less paying work, but that couldn’t go on for much longer. I needed to find work. As luck would have Gordon (I forget his surname), a former colleague from my contracting days, called out of the blue telling me there was a contract for a COBOL programmer at a company where I’d worked for a few years in the Nineties and early Naughties. I didn’t know the manager of the department concerned, but I did have a few contacts in the company, so made a couple of calls. I was interviewed a couple of days later.
The interview was strange, by the way. When Gordon called he told me that he’d been interviewed, but had been rejected. When he asked why, the manager who interviewed him was kind enough to tell him it was because he failed to answer a particular question in “the right way”. The question went something like this:
“You are working at GCHQ, attending a meeting in a sealed room with an “A-Team” who have been selected to solve a particular problem. Someone has come up with a possible solution, but it can only work if the amount of water – H2O – on Earth is within one degree of magnitude of a particular number. You have no reference materials, and no internet access, how would you go about establishing whether the solution could work?”
Apparently, this was a question which was designed to reveal how the candidate thinks. In my case, with fore-warning, it really only tested my ability to use a search engine. Armed with some figures which I had googled the day before regarding the circumference of the earth, the average land coverage, and the average depth of Earth’s oceans, plus my existing knowledge of how to work out the volume of a sphere (which is the only maths you really need) and realising I only had to be within one order of magnitude, I passed the interview with flying colours.
It was a bit of a shame; I much prefer technical interviews, where they ask about database triggers, SQL syntax, common storage or esoteric COBOL verbs. I guess I’m a bit of a show-off when it comes to my craft. But hey, I got the job, so that was ok.
Back to Last Thursday
Even though I was working in a new department, it is inevitable that I’d want to catch up with former colleagues too. After a couple of weeks I found myself chatting with my old team, and somewhat hesitantly I told them about my new venture: a networking site. I told them the URL, said I’d be pleased if they would have a look and let me know what they thought. I’ll admit, I was proud of what we’d accomplished, and how far we’d come in such a short time.
The drive home from London was mercifully short. You know how some days the usual obstructions just don’t appear; there was no snarl-up on the A40; Staples Corner was a dream; J10 for Luton was like it must have been in the old days, before they built an airport there. I arrived home 40 minutes after I’d set out, at around 5pm.
The first thing I did after kissing the family “hello” was to log on to Last Thursday, see what was new. Top of the blogs list was a post by a very angry member: “Why Thomas Power Is Somebody’s Aunt” (That wasn’t really the title – I couldn’t post the real title on ecademy). I read the blog, and it was a diatribe about something quite trivial (IMHO) that Thomas had done which had upset the author.
I’ll admit it, I flipped. I’d just invited some of my friends and former colleagues to take a look at the site, and now this Aunt had started the anti-ecademy stuff again. I wrote a long, shouty blog with the unassuming title of “I RECOMMEND YOU READ THE WHOLE OF THIS POST!” I admit it, it wasn’t subtle.
Anyway, what it basically said was: “This isn’t on. We aren’t ecademy, and we aren’t interested in ecademy. If you want to slag off ecademy or it’s members or officers, do it somewhere else. If anyone posts anything else negative about ecademy on this site, I’ll ban them, and they won’t be coming back.”
My fellow directors thought I’d gone mad, and maybe I had, but hey. Freedom has its limits.
There was a pause for a few hours (this was evening, and would normally be very busy, with several of new blogs an hour). Then, after a while, the protests began. Some members complained that it was censorship. I agreed, and said so, but it was how things were going to be. Some asked if they’d get their money back if they were banned. I told them they would (it seemed the fairest thing to do.)
For a couple of weeks it worked, but then the anti-ecademy stuff started again. Quite subtle to begin with, we noticed it but nobody really crossed the line, and foolishly we thought “as long as it only stays at that level, it’s ok”, and let it pass. We should have exercised a zero-tolerance policy, but weren’t smart enough to do it, because if you let something mild through, and then something a bit stronger, then yes, there *is* a line to be drawn, and *yes* you do know when someone has crossed it, but they can then point at the ones you didn’t moderate as evidence their post is ok.
We also knew that the first time we banned someone would be the last time we saw the majority of our members. I think the learning point for me here was: don’t make threats you aren’t prepared to carry out.
Finally, in desperation, we hit upon a solution. Up until that point practically all the site’s content was in the form of blogs. We had a handful of forums but they were mostly for things like bug reports, suggestions for improvements, and for asking questions about the site.
The big idea was to move the member’s content into closed clubs. A basic drupal install is essentially all open or all closed. I wrote a “club” module which emulated the drupal forums, but enabled privacy (a bit like the “groups” on ecademy, although with some differences). We set up some “official” clubs and also enabled members to create and manage their own clubs. We appointed member moderators to police the public, official clubs, and gave them role-specific user ids to help keep them anonymous.
To the clubs module also added the concept of a “library”; a club in which no new postings were possible, but members of the library club could read the content. All the past blogs were moved into the library, so all those old threads were still available to members but couldn’t be added to. We considered deleting the old stuff and starting again, but in the end we felt that the content was the property of the authors, so it was only fair that they should have access to it.
People could still operate their own blog, but it was isolated from the rest. There was no place where you could go to view all the blogs in one place. The idea was that people could use the clubs socially with other members, but also have a blog which would behave more like a personal blog, even though it was on the LT site. This was, actually, a dreadful idea on a social site, and not something we could have sustained long-term, but it was a stopgap solution; for the time being we needed to lose the “melting pot” which was the cause of our problems. The irony is that that same melting pot is the lifeblood of a site like LT.
There were complaints, tantrums, some people left (actually, lots of people left: they left to the site which was eventually to become the new Last Thursday) but we stuck to our guns. We had to. We knew that if we didn’t do something it was only a matter of time before a writ flopped through the letterbox. We also knew that the anti-ecademy content was driving people away. Who wants to join a site whose primary focus is to slag off the site next door? And a social networking site needs people; one run as a business especially so.
We also changed some of our policies, the most important of which was that people must post using their real name (remember, prior to that, we’d allowed people to post under aliases).
We muddled along like that for a few months, but in reality, we directors had had the stuffing knocked out of us. The site wasn’t making money: recall that most of our members had a year free (although some were gracious enough to pay anyway, for which we were grateful) and what little money we had was being eaten up by hosting fees. I don’t recall what was the final straw, but one day in May 2006 all but one director resigned, gave up their shares, and became ordinary members. I agreed to stay on as techie until a replacement was found, although as I suspected there really wasn’t anything for me to do.
Within a couple of weeks Gary sold gave the site, domain names, everything to Richard Alberg. I’m not sure how long it was before Richard also threw in the towel although he did last quite a while, and since I’ve not asked him his reasons for doing so I won’t speculate on that here. But ultimately the keys to the domain were handed over and LT is now run on a not-for-profit basis.
It’s a long time since I’ve looked in over there; John’s policy is to block inactive accounts, so I don’t expect I have a login any more. But the last time I visited there was some ecademy stuff but not as much as there used to be. Maybe we just needed to hang on in there, but frankly, six years was rather too long to wait.
I promised at the beginning of this blog that I would point the finger at only one person, and I stick by that. I, and I alone, was the author of the Last Thursday’s failure. Not the members. Not my fellow directors. It was me, who believed that it was possible to run a site without moderation, and who staked everything on that belief, who was to blame.
Was it a bad experience? At the end, yes. I fell out with a number of people who up until then I had considered friends. I’ve since made peace with some, hope eventually to make peace with all. And I accept, finally, that none of the people with whom I was angry were to blame at all. They were just behaving in the way that people do.
Would I do it again? Possibly, although probably not for money. I learned a great deal from “The LT Experience” and I’ve helped several others set up networking sites. Nothing on the scale of Facebook yet, but there’s always time.