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February 5, 2010 5:11 PM   Subscribe

"A lot of people obsessed with venture capital see Metafilter as a lifestyle business, but in my mind, it’s a mature business. It works really well and yet nobody aspires to do something like this and I don’t know why. Nobody celebrates just simple businesses that work." - Interview with Matt Haughey by Sue Medha [via Matt's twitterfeed]
posted by Kattullus to MetaFilter-Related at 5:11 PM (96 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

Interesting, thanks for posting.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:34 PM on February 5, 2010


Nice. Can we have some kind of metafilter media campaign, just throwing "metailter" around all over the place. Then we get a whole bunch of users who use it for a day or two then quit, right? Can we use that money for a gigantic pizza party?

Thats all I'm after. Just a pizza party.
posted by hal_c_on at 5:36 PM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


For some background, I was kind of surprised to see this online as I thought it this was an interview assignment for a class in journalism and how to make money from it online in the future, so the questions were kind of skewed towards that. My pet hobby horse is that there's nothing wrong with building something, having it become big enough to earn some revenue, then sitting tight and maintaining that. I don't think everyone needs to be an entrepreneur that tries to take over the world.

Not too many people in the tech community talk about their fulfilling projects that sustain their lives and how much they enjoy doing them. It's all blah blah Techcrunch blah blah $15 million dollar A round of financing blah blah advisory board ousted blah blah.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 5:54 PM on February 5, 2010 [44 favorites]


5 bucks is a small price to pay for part ownership.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 5:55 PM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


To me, the beauty of the whole thing is that Matt makes his jack on the ads and I never see a single friggin ad. Membership has its rewards.

I think more sites should consider the model. I would pay certain sites $5 to not show me ads. Now, I just use a plugin that blocks ads but that does not help anyone but me. I would gladly give revenue to a site (in small amounts) to not bombard me.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:07 PM on February 5, 2010


Pedanticwankery: As of december 2009, there were around 45,000 users in the database, so 102,000 is a bit high.

Also, possible pattern: Matt tends to implement things after he's been "outflanked". See the opening of signups after MonkeyFilter's success, and now the possibility of TravelFilter after the starting of a travel guide on the Wiki (though this relies on the interview having been conducted after the start of the travel guide).
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:15 PM on February 5, 2010


Nobody celebrates just simple businesses that work.

To be worth celebreating you need to be not only profitable but constantly growing. This seems somewhat unrealistic in the long term, to put it mildly.
posted by ODiV at 6:15 PM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think metafilter should oust its advisory board. Oh wait, that's us users, right?
posted by cjorgensen at 6:25 PM on February 5, 2010


It's all blah blah Techcrunch blah blah $15 million dollar A round of financing blah blah advisory board ousted blah blah.

Yeah, I never get this either. "We had to dump that toxic waste because the shareholders demanded it!" OK, but the reason you have shareholders is that you got greedy and held an IPO for a quick buck. Why not make money the old-fashioned way1?


1Earn it.
posted by DU at 6:32 PM on February 5, 2010


celebreating?!
posted by ODiV at 6:36 PM on February 5, 2010


Also, possible pattern: Matt tends to implement things after he's been "outflanked". See the opening of signups after MonkeyFilter's success

Huh? There were plenty of us standing at the gates when they opened on 11/18/04, and I can't imagine it had anything to do with MonkeyFilter.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:40 PM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Matt has said somewhere (I think on the blog where he talked about making money through blogging) that MonkeyFilter made him realize how many people were standing at the gates.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:57 PM on February 5, 2010


Yeah, this is how my conversations usually go:

Me: My CEO works like 18 hours a day, he wants this startup to be better than the last one, which he sold for $X hundreds of millions when he was in his 20's.

American or Silicon Valley Resident friends: Awesome, he is admirable. He could be the next $FAMOUS_BILLIONAIRE.

Mexican friends: WTF? He has millions in the bank and works 18 hours a day? He is an idiot.
posted by dirty lies at 6:57 PM on February 5, 2010 [52 favorites]


Weird. I wouldn't have guessed that.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:58 PM on February 5, 2010


The best praise I can offer Metafilter as a business is that I never, ever think of it as a business.
posted by chudmonkey at 6:58 PM on February 5, 2010 [36 favorites]


and now the possibility of TravelFilter after the starting of a travel guide on the Wiki

The "possibility of TravelFilter" and indeed even (for a while) the actuality of TravelFilterBETA have been around for years.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:58 PM on February 5, 2010


It's pretty simple, really: simple, profitable businesses generate enough cash to make the owners a decent chunk of change, but don't generate the kind of growth and windfall profits necessary to sustain speculative investment -- so nobody makes a big fuss, because for everyone except the owner, there's no fuss to be made.

I do believe the proper celebration of your type of business, sir, is to kick back in your giant leather chair, put your feet on your overlarge mahogany desk, and light a cigar with a dirty $5 bill.
posted by davejay at 7:03 PM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


" Metafilter is actually run by me and two moderaters and a programmer. It’s really done by hand. "

I like to pretend that vacapinta is also a moderator ;)


Me: What makes Metafilter a success?
Matt: I’d like to think it’s intense moderation and customer service
AND THE REALLY AMAZING MEMBERS.
posted by iconomy at 7:07 PM on February 5, 2010


See the opening of signups after MonkeyFilter's success, and now the possibility of TravelFilter after the starting of a travel guide on the Wiki (though this relies on the interview having been conducted after the start of the travel guide).

Sorry, gotta call bullshit on both of those. I have said I was surprised that someone went to the trouble of actually building monkeyfilter when their tagline was something about MeFi's signups being closed, but I've never felt threatened by the site in any way. I brought back signups because people started ebaying the accounts, and I didn't want that to become a new trend. Five bucks seemed like a high enough barrier that I thought few people would actually pay it, and I was definitely surprised when many more people than that signed up in the first week. It eventually settled down though.

A sketch of Travelfilter is sitting on my whiteboard, since early 2007 and I see it every time I look up from my monitor. I've mentioned the possibility of bringing it back to the other mods for the past couple months because I noticed that travel questions don't take up the same chunk of new questions that they once did (like in 2007). The main reason we never launched the site was we didn't want to siphon off all the travel questions entirely and take possibly 25% of the questions away from ask mefi. I'd guess that it's under 10% of total new questions today and could be way more workable.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 7:15 PM on February 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


As of december 2009, there were around 45,000 users in the database, so 102,000 is a bit high

Sorry, I was just going off user IDs which I see fly by each day. We don't have a count of paid users handy anywhere, but I keep seeing new users pop in with 102k type numbers.

I like to pretend that vacapinta is also a moderator ;)

So do I, but it seemed too complicated to describe a part-time off timezone volunteer mod in the guise of a general overview interview for some class, so I left this major detail out.

AND THE REALLY AMAZING MEMBERS.

The question was repeated to me several times about what my hand was in making MeFi successful. I had to think of the only things I could that I had some direct input into.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 7:20 PM on February 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


I've never felt threatened by the site in any way.

I've never thought you've felt threatened by MoFi; that's why I put "outflanked" in quotes.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:30 PM on February 5, 2010


As of december 2009, there were around 45,000 users in the database, so 102,000 is a bit high.

Something like 7-day and 30-day users would be pretty interesting, but it's perfectly understandable if you don't want to publish that.
posted by effbot at 7:35 PM on February 5, 2010


Reads article, goes do'h.
posted by effbot at 7:38 PM on February 5, 2010


I'm totally threatened by MonkeyFilter.

Have you ever actually met a monkey? Those things are bloodthirsty animals.

Kind of like people. But with stronger arms, and big pointy teeth.
posted by loquacious at 7:41 PM on February 5, 2010


Sounds like my ex-girlfriend
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:07 PM on February 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


heh - It’s really done by hand. Usually the good things are. Thanks all you handy folks!
posted by zenon at 8:23 PM on February 5, 2010


You know, I never think of Matt as being an entrepreneur specifically, although I guess he is?
posted by shelleycat at 8:31 PM on February 5, 2010


That kind of disdain for stable, moderate-sized businesses that aren't on a track to either become a publicly traded behemoth or crash and burn seems to be a Capital-E-Entrepreneur wannabe thing... Of course it is the only thing the venture capital people are interested in because they are about the money and nothing else. I remember reading a book about Entrepreneurship and the author kept going off about the "seat of the pants" guys, the not-true-entrepreneurs who were "merely" making a living.
posted by nanojath at 8:33 PM on February 5, 2010


Nobody celebrates just simple businesses that work.

So true. In my experience (working first for an industry association that provides services for and advocates on behalf of tech companies, and then for a government agency tasked with growing a strong tech sector at the provincial level) tech businesses that rely on slow, incremental, organic growth are usually derided as "lifestyle business" or "Mom and Pops", with the assumption being that these businesses suffer from "founderitis" and cannot give up control, or are risk-averse, or simply do not know how to grow big and cash out.

Instead, it's exactly as Matt says. Startups are encouraged to either groom themselves for VC funding, or position themselves to be acquired by a bigger company.

There's nothing wrong with serial entrepreneurialism, but not everyone can do it, and so you have a long tail of folks with good ideas and good implementation but are wrongly focused on going big. There's a whole bunch of yapping, like Matt says, about VC action in the Valley or whatever, but it's more heat than light, and very often people get screwed over.

Plus, the whole "go big or go home" mentality does not encourage sustainable businesses, unless you are very good or very lucky (or both). So, you have people with mediocre talents but perhaps ruthless drive who get money, build companies, and then fail, and then just walk away to do it again. Meanwhile the tech workers that helped build the companies can get fucked over.

I've experienced this first hand myself, and find it alarming, especially when some of these mediocre, ruthless types have influence over government policy.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:37 PM on February 5, 2010 [9 favorites]


I remember reading a book about Entrepreneurship and the author kept going off about the "seat of the pants" guys, the not-true-entrepreneurs who were "merely" making a living.

It gets worse than that though.. There is that favourite statistic of the media that X% of new businesses fail in the first X years. But what exactly is their definition of failure? Lots of businesses operate for 5 or 10 years with modest returns, and then wrap up operations with no serious debt--the owner decides it was more work than they could handle, or they have lost interest in that market, or the market has lost interest in their offerings, whatever--those businesses aren't failures by any reasonable measure. It's only failure when the business ends with mountains of debt. Even then, only failure when the mountains of debt outweigh the value the business created over its years of operation.
posted by Chuckles at 8:47 PM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Excellent interview.
She asks good questions and your answers are very straightforward.
I am surprised she is a student.
I thought the interviewer was an experienced business journalist.

Congrats, both of you.
We don't know enough about the craftsmanship of community building.
This is full of important and interesting information.
posted by bru at 8:53 PM on February 5, 2010


You know, I never think of Matt as being an entrepreneur specifically, although I guess he is?

Entrepreneur is kind of a skunked word, just like SEO. What it's supposed to mean is not a bad thing, but what it references in practice is a whole other story. I think you can accurately describe and praise someone for their entrepreneurial accomplishments, and in that sense hell yeah Matt, but it seems like the only people I see who make a point of calling themselves "entrepreneurs" are spammers fishing for a banning and a punch in the face.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:54 PM on February 5, 2010


I should add that slow-growth businesses are great, but high-growth businesses are important, too, as they can employ more people.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:08 PM on February 5, 2010


Is moderater kind of like a hybrid between moderator and tater?
posted by qvantamon at 9:14 PM on February 5, 2010


I think there would be more demand for CatFilter than for Travelfilter.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:32 PM on February 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


You know, I never think of Matt as being an entrepreneur specifically, although I guess he is?

Puh-leeze. Webpreneur, tyvm.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:44 PM on February 5, 2010


There's another thing about a business owner/manager that doesn't seem to get much attention, and that's his 'flywheel' function - which works in two ways:
- those occasions where the 'underlings' come up with this GREAT idea, which we 'gotta do right now! The boss needs to have enough 'inertia' not to be easily pushed into every such plan, at least until the idea has had a chance to percolate through, and be looked at clearly, not emotionally.
- then there is the other end of it, when things are flagging. People are down, lots of things seem to be going wrong, etc. etc. He's the one who has to keep things on track, and people motivated.
posted by woodblock100 at 10:01 PM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I thought that this was a really interesting view into the financial and managerial side of this site, which I don't think about often. Between adblocking extensions and the no ads for members policy, I just don't think about advertising revenue, for example, so it was interesting to read about it being the major financial driver of the site.

Which leads to my next thought, about how I think of this site as being about interacting with the other members -- but as the advertising revenue suggests, there is a much larger audience of non-members. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but it is worth remembering that they are always there, watching over our shoulders, especially when the right key words are used. (Actually, I'd be interested to know what topics bring in the most outside readers: nsfw issues? computer questions? product searches? something else entirely?)
posted by Forktine at 10:09 PM on February 5, 2010


Good question, Forktine. How many page views come in here on Google searches for "LOLXTIANS"? "DTMFA"? "this will not wendell"?
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:50 PM on February 5, 2010


Nobody celebrates just simple businesses that work.

That's because, to the extent what I'm about to say reflects actual cultural change and not rose-tinted glassery on my part, running a small, successful business is no longer, generally speaking, considered a worthwhile accomplishment. A successful dairy, family farm, what-have-you. You gotta pump yyourself up (actual profitiability be damned) and hope Google or Microsoft or Apple or whoevere's sexy this week) buys you.
posted by rodgerd at 11:14 PM on February 5, 2010


The 7 million reader number is just astounding to me. It's weird that so much time is spent dealing with the 15,000 people who actually post, when they're almost entirely irrelevant to the revenue of the site.

Really, if you think about the business that metafilter is in, you essentially have 15,000 staff writers who pay you for the pleasure of writing for a large audience that actually pays the bills.
posted by empath at 11:19 PM on February 5, 2010 [9 favorites]


I was thinking about what kind of words I would use to describe Matt and 'tall' kept popping in there. So then I was thinking about how tall men with good hair are more likely to be powerful and high flying and whatever, and it came to me. Matt as president of the USA.

He'd need a more serious politicky-type running partner so people take him seriously so maybe Chelsea Clinton as Vice President. And Jessamyn can be attorney general and put Cortex in charge of the military. Matt could get rid of all the think tanks and lobby groups and just use ask.me for research, and the monthly music competition could be used to freshen up the national anthem. But seriously, think about America being run with the same values of openness and community used to run this place.

Do it Matt, it's your destiny.

(I figure it's either this or a charismatic cult leader anyway)
posted by shelleycat at 11:21 PM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I figure it's either this or a charismatic cult leader anyway

oh hey, I made jello shots for all! take one!
posted by mathowie (staff) at 11:36 PM on February 5, 2010 [14 favorites]


Just have to note that the mods really do an excellent job and are both sensitive and reasonable. And I say this as somebody who had a comment deleted today. (Mea culpa.)
posted by jokeefe at 11:54 PM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know, I don't normally think of MeFi as a business, but seen in that light - Metafilter has the best customer service of any business I've ever known.

Think about it.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:55 PM on February 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


Just have to note that the mods really do an awful job and are both insensitive and unreasonable. And I say this as somebody who had a post deleted today.



And Joseph Stalin was the greatest poet of the 20th Century.
posted by philip-random at 12:49 AM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is as good a place as any to say that Metafilter has been better than ever re: FPP quality and lack of drama. So thanks to Matt and the mods for keeping up the good work.

Hitler.
posted by bardic at 12:57 AM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I had no idea philip-random was Marie of Roumania.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:59 AM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


shhhh.
posted by philip-random at 1:08 AM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


the only people I see who make a point of calling themselves "entrepreneurs" are spammers fishing for a banning and a punch in the face.
That's the difference between people who are described by others this way and those who are self-identified. If you have to call yourself an entrepreneur, you probably aren't one.
posted by dg at 4:16 AM on February 6, 2010


empath: "Really, if you think about the business that metafilter is in, you essentially have 15,000 staff writers who pay you for the pleasure of writing for a large audience that actually pays the bills"

Great encapsulation -- cool.
posted by dancestoblue at 6:13 AM on February 6, 2010


If this: Really, if you think about the business that metafilter is in, you essentially have 15,000 staff writers who pay you for the pleasure of writing for a large audience that actually pays the bills

is true, then this: the 15,000 people who actually post...[are] almost entirely irrelevant to the revenue of the site.

isn't.
posted by mediareport at 6:32 AM on February 6, 2010


"Really, if you think about the business that metafilter is in, you essentially have 15,000 staff writers who pay you for the pleasure of writing for a large audience that actually pays the bills"

The staff's bigger than that, since without the people producing the targeted content, there'd not be much of a site.

This is why I tend to get snotty about people handwave answers to, "and how will we do an analogue of investigative journalism in this new world of not paying anyone for shit."
posted by rodgerd at 8:05 AM on February 6, 2010



Really, if you think about the business that metafilter is in, you essentially have 15,000 staff writers who pay you for the pleasure of writing for a large audience that actually pays the bills.



Where's my smoke-filled mid-century writer's room Matt? Huh?!
posted by The Whelk at 8:30 AM on February 6, 2010


I've frequently though Matt displayed some pretty good business acumen. He markets, sponsoring podcasts like Sound of Young America, and he sells the t-shirts. The t-shirts are both a promotional tool and a revenue source—nicely done. I understand from Jessamyn's blog that they're getting some decent insurance this year. He pays well enough that both Jessamyn and Cortex could quit their other jobs. And pb seems like the kind of person who could choose whomever he wanted to work with and he works with Matt. Matt clearly recognizes and rewards talent and quality. There's revenue from the Amazon links. He makes smart donations that publicize the site. All of those seem like pretty good indications that he knows what he's doing. I suspect it's more joy than pressure, but that he loves his work and is good at it, is especially evident. Those all seem like the sorts of qualities you find in great business people. Not necessarily rich, but successful business people. Though, I wouldn't mind if it made you filthy rich. So long as you don't sell it. And please figure out a way to become immortal.
posted by Toekneesan at 8:30 AM on February 6, 2010


Matt, I thought it was a great interview, so kudos. It's a feel-good story about a guy and a website, which I think we can all appreciate.

That being said, I'm confused as to why you don't understand why more people don't do what you're doing here. In the current MetaFilter model, only one person really makes money: you. Sure, you have 3 employees who also get paid, but your slow growth model 1) Doesn't generate profit/wages/income for many people; 2) Doesn't employ many people; 3) Yet still can help tens of thousands.

So while it appears like a noble venture that helps tens of thousands of users and millions of readers, from an economical standpoint, it doesn't add that much (kinda like libraries, really). Which is fine, from a philanthropy perspective, but not great from a " put people's excess capital and employ lots of people" perspective.

I think it really depends on what your values are to judge this site: are you more interested in the dissemination of knowledge, or generating jobs and income? Venture capital is about the latter; you seem to be about the former. Which is great, and I respect the hell out of you for it.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 10:17 AM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Travel? What about MetaCat, for all your cat related questions and answers?
posted by anniecat at 10:30 AM on February 6, 2010


Such as Kittens: How Cute Are They?
posted by The Whelk at 10:31 AM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's an interesting point, SeizeTheDay. I see it from a couple different angle (in my decidedly non-business-minded capacity):

- Metafilter pays four people well* by leveraging the ad bucks generated by millions of passersby and owing fundamentally to the long participation here of thousands of users who create content in the process of enjoying their time here. If it takes that many bystanders and direct volunteer participants to get us four people paid, that suggests a sort of few-to-many problem in scaling this kind of business model up, since there's not the everybody-times-a-thousand population to support everybody doing a Metafilter.

- But what Metafilter does is engage a whole lot of people on one small slice of their life. Four people can make a living off keeping ten thousand regulars entertained for a small chunk of their day/week/month (and a much smaller group of core folks engaged for a larger chunk of that) and taking incremental bits of ad revenue off the mostly-incidental moments of collision with that larger crowd of millions. Another four people don't need to aim for the same chunks of time/interest of the ten thousand or the same particular small slice of the millions' life.

Take a thousand or ten thousand businesses all doing something different that's particularly meaningful for a different ten thousand or meaningful in a different way for the same ten thousand, or that adds a different tiny bit of value for the incidental millions, and instead of having a competing-for-the-same-resources problem you've got a whole great big additive pile of value.

Which, I dunno. It's handwavey stuff, this is again very much not an area of expertise for me, but I think the apparent problem of many small businesses doing their own small-but-profitable thing isn't really a problem at all per se—the problem is having potential business owners see that as something they want to do and having an idea of how to do it well.

*Taking as a given that this is simplifying things a bit, as money also ends up going to other folks indirectly, too—hosting/hardware service providers, business support folks, recipients of charitable giving, etc.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:39 AM on February 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm generally less intrigued by the provision of goods and services than I am by sustainable excitement, and in the latter category, I think metafilter is just tops!
posted by Greg Nog at 10:53 AM on February 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: a feel-good story about a guy and a website


SPOILER ALERT: they fuck
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 12:34 PM on February 6, 2010 [7 favorites]


just to add to what cortex said, even Core77 is run essentially by four people adn on a very similar model with most of the community services free of cost while being supported by advertising adn job lists

could one say that in a way Craigslist was a precursor to this "business model" ? essentially self sustaining (and fun) community based services?
posted by infini at 12:43 PM on February 6, 2010


It's always amazing to me how much money a site with consistent, high-quality traffic can generate. Where "high-quality" means not doing stuff like keyword arbitrage on google, etc. There are sites run by a couple dozen people that generate $50M+ annually based solely on advertising. It's incredible. But I think that Matt's approach is much better as those who try to grow too quickly or too big inevitably end up running into problems.

At any rate, check the 10K filings for Answers.com sometime. If MeFi is doing a fraction of that then it's a pretty amazing business.
posted by GuyZero at 1:16 PM on February 6, 2010


MedhaFilter.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:51 PM on February 6, 2010


Oh hey I just realized that the interviewer is named Suemedha Sood. Sorry, Suemedha.

EMBARRASSING
posted by Kattullus at 7:37 PM on February 6, 2010


I think there's a lot of reasons not to start a business like metafilter. The fact that it took years to be profitable and was and still is a huge amount of work makes it a seriously risky proposition. Plus the internet's bigger enough now that I'm sure it would be more difficult now than it was in 1999.

And, for all we know a bunch of people are doing this now, but we won't know about it for another few years when they grow to the point where we notice them.
posted by aubilenon at 10:00 PM on February 6, 2010


Travel Filter, [a travel-only section]: we fretted about it for years and then didn’t do it even though we built it. We didn’t want it to take away from Metafilter. But now we’re thinking of putting it back. [Because there are so many travel threads, we wanted] location-based tools, geocoding, better findability of previous questions.

YAY. I really want TravelFilter, and was very into contributing when it was being floated out. I think it could work fine if the question components lived on AskMe, still drawing all they input they always draw, but were indexed on TF. Then TF would add geotagging, search by location, and "Trip Reports" - with linked photos - which are very awesome, but could never belong on AskMe as such.

High hopes...

Nice interview, Matt. Congratulations on being grounded in your particular vision. I especially like the mention about creating a site you would want to be a part of.
posted by Miko at 8:21 AM on February 7, 2010


could one say that in a way Craigslist was a precursor to this "business model" ? essentially self sustaining (and fun) community based services?

Yeah, Craigslist has some stupidly low number of employees. Under 50, I want to say.
posted by smackfu at 9:01 AM on February 7, 2010


(eBay has 16,000, for comparison.)
posted by smackfu at 9:02 AM on February 7, 2010


Metafilter has the best customer service of any business I've ever known.

I used to do support for Speakeasy way back when. It's really cool to get to work somewhere where you get to do the same sort of helpful stuff, but no one thinks that "getting yelled at by assholes" is part of the job description. This doesn't show up on the site much, but mathowie's always willing to do the tough boss-like work of dealing with some truly unpleasant people [on the rare times that sort of thing comes up] instead of telling cortex or I to suck it up and handle it. This is a major factor [along with all the decent pay, health benefits and MaxFunCon trips] in why working here is such a schmoopfestival most of the time.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:07 AM on February 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Has anyone else noticed that Jessamyn is on her way toward introducing or popularizing as many new English words and phrases as Shakespeare?
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:34 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's just a natural extendment of her Vermontsome ways.
posted by Greg Nog at 10:01 AM on February 7, 2010 [5 favorites]


MetaFilter is great for everybody involved: members participating, readers enjoying entertainment and knowledge, passerby searching and clicking on ads, mods happily working here, founder-owner loving his work and harvesting its financial rewards.

Pause.

The interview and this thread are interesting because they show that MetaFilter has reached a point of equilibrium for an hybrid model of new and known: content mostly generated by members (new), revenues mostly generated by advertising (known).

But I think nobody, including Matt, implies that this model is stable. It's just a snapshot of a relatively calm spot in turbulent times. We are not even halfway to the implementation of the mechanisms supported by the Web. The levels of possible exchanges are growing fast, opening great opportunities (new and new) - and some dead-ends.

MetaFilter is uniquely positioned to survive and prosper during this accelerating change, but that doesn't mean its provisional formula could or should be imitated by others launching new businesses. The initial conditions have changed. Meanwhile, I acknowledge this fantastic accomplishment and join everybody in enjoying the present cruising speed.
posted by bru at 7:46 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


content mostly generated by members (new),

Even that is worth qualifying. Though the bulk of the written material hosted on the site is generated by members, the content about which this bulk is written is actually relayed (filtered) here from elsewhere, where someone else has produced the content. I think when considering new media models, that's worth remembering, as it ties into the question of how creating an amount of original new, high-quality media content can be supported with advertising alone. At present, a lot of the content that ends up here is produced by for-profit media outlets, universities, publicly funded institutions, and the self-employed.

As someone interested in the problem of how we remunerate people to do the work involved in creating new, interesting original content (to which the rest of us can respond), I'm not sure that MetaFilter's contributions lie in demonstrating that content (as opposed to response and commentary) can be mostly created by an outlet's members. Some new content is definitely generated here - MeFi Music and some things that appear in Projects and some excerpts of excellent topical writing or aggregated research or experience in response to an AskMe - but the links that form the site's basic FPP mechanism still represent imported content.
posted by Miko at 8:03 AM on February 8, 2010


Very interesting point of view, Miko.
But I observe the situation from another angle. I come from journalism, and I can assure you that there is not much difference between the content created in MetaFilter and "content generated by for-profit media outlets, universities, public funded institutions and the self employed".

Journalism is not about creating content, it's about gathering information (from elsewhere), filtering it and presenting it in an easily understandable narrative. A great part of scholarly research follows the same pattern. That's exactly what's happening in MetaFilter: gathering, filtering and presenting. It's probably at an even higher level of sophistication than news and other "created content", because Mefi is filtering already filtered content and presenting it in a more accessible way. In the economy of knowledge, gathering, filtering and presenting have a very high value at every level.

In this view, the whole content of MetaFilter is "new and original". And I can't see why this media should be in any way involved in remunerating people who have already been remunerated in the first (or second or third) level of publication (media, universities, institutions), anymore than you would ask a journalist to pay for the information gathered from a published university research.

That leaves the question of the self-employed creating new and original content. This is a good question. We can imagine that new media of the MetaFilter kind (but not necessarily MetaFilter) could make a business out of gathering this content and remunerating their authors. A kind of Etsy for digital content. Why not? There are probably a few around already. But this is not the purpose of MetaFilter and should not be placed on its shoulders.
posted by bru at 9:30 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


there is not much difference between the content created in MetaFilter and "content generated by for-profit media outlets, universities, public funded institutions and the self employed".

I also have journalism in my background, and there is an important difference: that of the effort involved in newsgathering. To report a story as a journalist, I may have to conduct interviews, usually in person or on the phone; conduct library or archives research; visit a place; and/or witness an event and take notes. The content about which I am reporting does exist, but the 'gathering' is a significantly larger investment than the kind of gathering done for a MeFi FPP, which consists mostly of searching the internet for conveniently pre-gathered information, and writing some connecting copy to offer insight into what the links will contain.

Your argument that it's a "higher level" of filtering doesn't really wash, when, as you say, often journalism does the same kind of filtering of information - not lower or higher. MeFi is just the same old journalistic filtering applied in a new medium that's free to access, and requiring much less individual effort to gather, relying as it does on the work of others to gather, organize, present, and host that information.

Without anything to filter, MeFi would be purely a conversation. The question that arises is: without content generated by others who were paid to do it, what would form the structure of MetaFilter? What would FPPs be about? Would they contain links? To what - material written by MeFi members?

There's nothing wrong with MeFi and I'm not suggesting MeFi should somehow pay for the content it aggregates. What I am noting is that what MeFi does happens on a new medium, but is not a new process, and relatively little new content is generated here - as it's not really the site's purpose to generate content. Therefore, whatever one can learn about online media as a place for generating new content is probably not best learned at MetaFilter.
posted by Miko at 9:57 AM on February 8, 2010


without content generated by others who were paid to do it, what would form the structure of MetaFilter?

I would love to see an analysis of what percentage of stuff that is linked to here is paid content [i.e. authors or journalists or other people writing professionaly] and how much of it is hobbyfarm stuff. Not disagreeing with your basic points Miko, but I'm not sure if paid-for content is a necessary part of this equation. Or, I'm curious if it is or is not.

AskMe is almost entirely "original" content, though many people create answers in the form of links to other content. However, many also do not. AskMe gets more traffic than MeFi now. To content that is essentially grown here. So maybe you guys are talking about MeFi specifically, but I think the bulk of what constitutes stuff on the span of metafilter.com sites may be generated here with other [paid] content providing authority, jumping-off points and "expert" opinions.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:09 AM on February 8, 2010


My gut instinct is to compare Metafilter-style engagement with existing content not so much with journalism (where the general goals and function and motivations are to my conception very different even if there are time when they overlap, and specific sorts of site other than mefi where that's more likely to happen) than with criticism: mefites as a group often function as an aggregate critical body, of writing and of media production and design and basically thoughtcraft in general.

Where the line is drawn then between "criticism" as a formal discipline or institution and "random bullshitting" as the sort of lowest-common-denominator description of people just jawing at each other about whatever passes in front of their vision, I don't know. I wouldn't really characterize it as a line at all, really, so much as a spectrum, and my feeling is that Metafilter and a lot of other community sites sprawl rather messily across a whole stretch of that.

As far as that goes I feel like mefites frequently manage to throw some pretty satisfying work into pinging the critically-utile end of that continuum, often engaging a lot more substantially with the material that folks share here than I could ever expect from somebody sitting next to me on the bus.

Anyway, the mefi-as-critical-body thing sort of inverts the "we couldn't exist without someone else's content" thing nicely; the existence of content in the first place is pretty meaningless without some sort of critical attention and commentary to it. A site like mefi digging in and chewing on someone's work is at least a validation (if not always a positive one) of that work.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:22 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter is uniquely positioned to survive and prosper during this accelerating change, but that doesn't mean its provisional formula could or should be imitated by others launching new businesses. The initial conditions have changed.

The lesson to be learned from MetaFilter's rise (and rise) is to be in tune with the immediacy of what's going on. MetaFilter started in 1999. This was when I discovered slashdot and the blogosphere in general (although they just called them web-logs back then). At the time I was working for a bloated showbiz related dot.com that had no clear business model, just way too much cash to throw around.

I was getting paid very well to do not much at all (certainly not much that made sense) so in my spare time, with a little help from a bored geek, set up a slashdot-style site to reflect the ongoing STUFF that the music/film biz were going through, with a slant that was less fan-boy focused, more working-pro focused (like slashdot's take on the Linux world).

Anyway to make a short story even shorter ... eventually the dot.com gravy stopped flowing and the site died a quick death just as it was starting to achieve a little critical mass. And now, pretty much a decade later, there is still no effective open-ended general-yet-specific metafilter/slashdot style site for pros (and wannabes) in either the film or music biz ... just a whole lotta everything, the best of which occasionally gets linked to by the likes of Metafilter
posted by philip-random at 10:28 AM on February 8, 2010


I'm reading the comments by Miko and Bru, followed by the observations made by Jessamyn and Cortex and the word that needs to be brought into this discussion and perhaps I've overlooked it if it has been already is "curation". Having addressed this issue of information overload in conjunction with the high cost of browsing in low income markets - crafted curation is what MeFi offers, high quality moderated content available in one feed from a diverse, global variety of sources and interest areas.
posted by infini at 11:11 AM on February 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


oh hey, I made jello shots for all! take one!

I'm still waiting on something else from you, mister.
posted by me & my monkey at 11:50 AM on February 8, 2010


I'm not sure if paid-for content is a necessary part of this equation.

I think on the whole MeFi is about curation, as well. But yes, most of the FPP content of MeFi appears to have been created by someone who was paid, or at least supported in some non-trivial material way, or in some cases hoping to be paid. it's always hard to know the full details of other institutions, but today, for example, I went through the FPPs to see where posters are drawing content from. It's actually kind of astounding how overwhelmingly the traditional for-profit media are represented. Today, the FPPs are links drawn from the following list of sources:

The LA Times blog - print news
Theme Park Insider - ad-supported travel site-cum-industry rag
The LA Times - print news
The Washington Post - print news
Advertising Age - ad industry rag
CNN - broadcast news
Time - print news
Multichannel News - consumer media industry rag
The American Bar Association - nonprofit professional association
LiveScience - ad-supported vehicle for TechMedia network; aggregated content
NFL.com - for-profit enterprise
A bunch of YouTube videos of songs created by many diifferent users about the NO Saints - some original content made by user, some grabbed from local TV, some professional artists
Nola.com - local news
NowPublic - crowdsourced news reporting site, ad-supported
The Miami Herald - print news, (republishing something from the Washington Post)
NewTimes - ad-supported Miami news blog
WLOX 13 Biloxi - broadcast news
KOTV News on 6 Tulsa - broadcast news
AL.com, print news - an Alabama newspaper group)
The Stars and Stripes - print news
The Boston Herald - print news
Buddy's Boards - seems to be a sports fan site, has ads by Google, a little unclear - hobbyfarm?
WTSP, Tampa - broadcast news
Wisconsin Historical Society - publicly funded not-for-profit
Rotten Tomatoes - media enterprise
Boogalu Productions - media enterprise
NYTimes Wheels blog - print news
Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Museum Collection - publicly funded, donations, not-for-profit
Health Physics Society - not-for-profit professional association
PhysicsWorld.com - site of the Institute of Physics, publisher and trade group
Salon.com - online print news
Chicago Sun-Times - print news
The entire movie Slackers posted by Film Buff on YouTube
Wikipedia - online crowdsourced nonprofit
The Wall Street Journal - print news
World Heritage Tour - nonprofit, donation-based photography pool
UNESCO - United Nations funded
The Suburban Emergency Management Project - grant-funded public-health consortium
Inkling Magazine, - for-profit ad-supported science news site, aggregator
Torkzadeh.com, - artist and photographer promoting his work
Tomorrow Museum - ad-supported blog, aggregator
Internet Archaeology - not for profit project w/ donors (the Internet Archive among them)
The Guardian - print news
Jesus, Kirk, and Vinny - hobbyfarm?
posted by Miko at 12:05 PM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think the bulk of what constitutes stuff on the span of metafilter.com sites may be generated here with other [paid] content providing authority, jumping-off points and "expert" opinions.

In word count, perhaps. But the content that provides authority, jumping-off points, and expert opinion is what helps to differentiate the site from yappity-yap sites - the insistence on citations for controversial claims, for instance, creates a continual level of appeal to authority that resolves many points of conversation. Without some recourse to sources of reliable and trustworthy content, conversation easily devolves into you-say-this, well-I-say-that. For some topics, particularly AskMes, that can be enough. But for the more debate-driven, finite-answer threads, a degree of trusted authority becomes necessary at some point.

Sometimes that authority can be represented by users who know a lot about a topic, such as ColdChef on mortuary science, for instance. Experience can create authority. But either way, authority is built on trust. Community trust in an individual can establish them as an authority, but community trust in a media outlet known to create good, vetted, reliable content also establishes a source like a newspaper or a website as an authority.
posted by Miko at 12:12 PM on February 8, 2010


Miko, I get that the following point about media (assuming media means journalism) is wrong:
there is not much difference between the content created in MetaFilter and "content generated by for-profit media outlets, universities, public funded institutions and the self employed".
But you seem to be implying something about intellectual property at the same time as refuting that point, and that part of your comments completely baffles me.. What are you getting at exactly? Bemoaning the economic conundrum of traditional media, maybe.. It almost seems as though you are claiming that link aggregation is some kind of intellectual property crime... Thinking about it more though, that quoted point starts to look accurate in certain cases. Consider Metro International, which seems to just pull a bunch of AP articles. Anyway, there is a lot more to the quoted argument than the comparison to media (aka journalism?).

Zooming out a bit, there is a clear line between Blue Posts themselves and the rest of the site. The posts are just link aggregation, and that doesn't seem to have traditional parallels (though it does seem a lot like a news source sometimes). Almost everything else on the site is either noise/jokes, or contains a lot of original work. The original work consists of anecdote, fiction, or pseudo academic writing, and essentially no journalism at all, but it is certainly still original content.
posted by Chuckles at 11:27 PM on February 8, 2010


Oh, and opinion. Lots and lots of opinion.
posted by Chuckles at 11:31 PM on February 8, 2010


you seem to be implying something about intellectual property at the same time as refuting that point... It almost seems as though you are claiming that link aggregation is some kind of intellectual property crime...

Er, not at all. That's not something I'm saying or even implying.

However, I do think that some internet boosters tend to vastly overestimate and overstate the amount of really top-quality, widely shared and widely desired content that is user-generated as a volunteer/hobby effort. I think there is a bit of internet utopianism that fails to recognize that there are usable historical models for internet activities, and gives credit where credit may not be due. The internet creates some important new possibilities and some truly innovative developments in the handling of media, but I'm always wary of calling things "new" that are really "old model, new possibilities due to improved ease of creation, dissemination and immediacy". And internet models for content creation and dissemination sometimes fail culture in really significant ways, because they presume an unlimited generosity of talented contributors to continually donate or undervalue their work.

There is a lot of content that is made and shared by volunteers/hobbyists, an amazing amount, and a lot of it is mindbogglingly good. But the bulk of the material that gets traded as widely as links on MetaFilter do is still created within some context of material support - whether that's a nonprofit (museum, library, university, advocacy group, project) or a for-profit (media company, business, trade journal, self-promoting artist) institution.

The costs and efforts involved in creating really well-developed, well thought-out content are pretty high. Some people are willing to donate this effort because it's not their primary means of making a living and they are already financially secure enough, or they are just profusely creative or driven to achieve a particular vision, or because it's fun for them, or because it builds social capital. But as often, and probably more often, people who have the talent, energy and ability to produce content that tens and hundreds of thousands of people want to look at and share widely find that in order to do it to the standards they'd like, it needs to remunerate them and allow them to not work at other jobs to support it, or at least cover its own costs. Or they recognize that what they want to do is so ambitious, difficult, or esoteric that it requires some support that won't be forthcoming from the ad-revenue model or from a free model. Creative acts can be free and generously shared and often they are. But creative people need to eat and need somewhere to live, too. In our present-day economic system, most endeavors that require a lot of work and effort and time need to be worth the investment on the part of the creators, or at least need to pay for themselves so as not to bankrupt the creators or force them into distraction from the creative efforts we want because of the need to maintain other paid labor.

I'm not making any argument about intellectual property here. I maintain a general stance that very limited (but not nonexistent) intellectual property law is good for culture. What I am doing, as someone who generates a lot of content, is recognizing the reality that for the most part, despite the user revolution, most of the content that makes it over the filter has come into existence because its creation or creator was fostered, or supported, in some way.

there is a clear line between Blue Posts themselves and the rest of the site....
I agree that blue posts are different, but they function like salon topics in opening up the topic-focused discussion. So I wonder: if we believe the content generated doesn't need to relate to or rely on links as either a content source or an authority, why not try Day Without Links? No external links in either FPPs or comments or answers. What would that be like?

The original work consists of anecdote, fiction, or pseudo academic writing, and essentially no journalism at all, but it is certainly still original content.

Sure. I guess I'm making a distinction between original content that would be excerpted and make it off the site and into another format and content that really remains here and is focused here and is mainly understandble within this context and not self-contained outside this context, essentially content comprised of discussion amongst MeFites in social dialogue. In other words, I'm thinking primarily about content created for dissemination, as opposed to content created for the use of a community as primarily a recreational activity. Content created within a community for recreational purposes isn't aiming to do the same things as traditional widely disseminated media, so it doesn't change that game or threaten its purposes. That distinction between kinds, qualities, and uses of content isn't always recognized.

In some ways AskMe does generate content that is still very useful when exported. AskMes routinely pop up in Google searches and one doesn't need to know any site context to understand the responses to most questions. They are capable of standing alone and being traded or shared as complete content.

I think cortex really nailed the general thrust of MetaFilter (the blue, mainly) as a center for critical discussion. I tend to think of it myself as a salon or forum, rather than a mill for content generation.
posted by Miko at 7:57 AM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Creative acts can be free and generously shared and often they are. But creative people need to eat and need somewhere to live, too. In our present-day economic system, most endeavors that require a lot of work and effort and time need to be worth the investment on the part of the creators, or at least need to pay for themselves so as not to bankrupt the creators or force them into distraction from the creative efforts we want because of the need to maintain other paid labor

this is a major challenge. until i read this excellent articulation (thank you Miko) I couldn't figure out the conundrum. framing it thus now helps wiht solution finding.
posted by infini at 9:31 AM on February 9, 2010


Miko: why not try Day Without Links? No external links in either FPPs or comments or answers. What would that be like?

Well, it wouldn't be MetaFilter, for one. I know that MetaFilter is many things to different people. For me it's still largely about the links. I love the community here, which is created primarily through discussion (and when people don't partake in those discussions they can become outcasts, like in the case of hama7, though he's a far outlier and therefore hard to generalize from) but I was drawn to the site originally because it filters the internet into a manageable chunk (William Gibson predicted many years ago that the internet would soon have people whose jobs it would be to filter the internet, and sites like Boing Boing are definitely that, but what Gibson didn't predict is that people would filter for free, like here or on DMOZ). I still like to go off wandering around the web, but I appreciate that there's a net that catches a lot of the good stuff for me. MetaFilter is links, without them there is no MetaFilter.

That said, I've long wanted something like a MetaFilter Salon, or The MetaFilter Review, where people can post their whatevers, essays, poems, reviews, short stories et cetera, but that would require mathowie to hire at least another full-time moderator, if not two or three, if only to keep the spammers and SEO mooks off the site. So I understand that it wouldn't be very practical to do.
posted by Kattullus at 12:46 PM on February 9, 2010


I'm with Kattullus ... but all caps:

METAFILTER IS THE LINKS

Everything else, however brilliant, hilarious, moving, insightful, informative (insert a thousand other relevant adjectives) is extraneous (or, to be nicer, supportive).
posted by philip-random at 1:28 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, it wouldn't be MetaFilter, for one.

I completely agree. That would be something different entirely, more of a 'zine, and more created as content to be read for its own sake. I just wanted to speak to the idea that MetaFilter is read primarily for the content generated by members. I think it's definitely read for critical response by members, but even that's optional, and the content created as response is just that - response, which wouldn't be what it is if it didn't address or build on content created elsewhere.
posted by Miko at 2:07 PM on February 9, 2010


This is dialogue of the deaf.

Miko maintains without evidence that some people are robbed from their right. I don't get it: if you don't want your content to be linked to or to be alluded to on the Web, don't post it on the Web. Or put it behind a pay wall. Period.

If you post it voluntarily and people find it interesting enough to link to it, I don't see where is the problem. It works. It's supposed to work that way. Nobody is forcing anybody to display any content you don't want to display.

MetaFilter has been a link machine from the start and your fiction about "a day without links" is just absurd and bizarre. A bike without wheels is also an interesting concept.
posted by bru at 2:21 PM on February 9, 2010


bru: Miko maintains without evidence that some people are robbed from their right.

I've gone back and read over what she's written in this thread and I can't see that she's said that anywhere. In fact, she said pretty much the opposite: "I'm not suggesting MeFi should somehow pay for the content it aggregate"

Did I miss something?

Also, your "deaf dialogue" metaphor is somewhat outdated, what with the creation of sign language.
posted by Kattullus at 3:09 PM on February 9, 2010


Sorry about the metaphor.

The more I re-read all this, the less I understand the nature of the argument.
For example, you are right about the quote, but this one, also from Miko, seems to suggest exactly the opposite:
"internet models for content creation and dissemination sometimes fail culture in really significant ways, because they presume an unlimited generosity of talented contributors to continually donate or undervalue their work."
Let's just say I don't get it.
posted by bru at 7:37 PM on February 9, 2010


Miko, thanks for the clarification!

I think people are coming at this from radically different positions, and that is confusing the discussion.. Miko is drawing a hard line between work done for income and work done without income, and making a lot of strong arguments about the economic benefits and challenges of the two choices. Since that is pretty much right on topic of this thread, I shouldn't have been confused about what was being said.

Lots of potential debate about economic structures and how to find your way without submitting to corporate culture, but I just can't articulate it very well right now..
posted by Chuckles at 9:56 PM on February 9, 2010


METAFILTER: but I just can't articulate it very well right now




sorry.
posted by philip-random at 10:55 PM on February 9, 2010


Miko maintains without evidence that some people are robbed from their right.

No, I'm not saying that.

What I am doing is recognizing that some of the new dissemination models we have created via the internet are failing to take on the burden of the costs of content generation; failing to lift the burden of those costs from traditional models of support for the creators (companies, institutions, small businesses). I think that internet utopianism often did (does?) not always reckon with that reality, instead sometimes predicting a world of rich user-created content that would no longer need to rely on the financial models of old because so much wonderful stuff would be out there coming into existence purely for the love of creation and information. Some of that has certainly happened, I would argue largely due to the drop in the costs of production of media, but we haven't seen that most sophisticated content generation has migrated to web-only, low-support models, and that means that sophisticated content generation is thrown back to the drawing board to come up with a way to support content creation in an environment in which it's expected the content will mostly be traded for free. What I'm saying is that, despite the revolution in ease of creation and dissemination of content, most of what we want to read and look at is still not created by volunteers. (Most, not all!)

I'm very far from suggesting we pay for links on MetaFilter.
posted by Miko at 7:17 AM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


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