No End in Sight for San Francisco Web Developer Group
by Janelle Brown
SAN FRANCISCO - In a shabby YMCA hostel, complete with mismatched
sofas and a cast-iron stove, 60 webheads gathered this weekend
to hike in the rain, play Internet charades, and talk about the
meaning of community. A celebration of the two-year anniversary
of the local Web developer mailing list and social group NoEnd, the slumber party came at a critical point in the group's existence.
For the second time in its history, the group faces problems arising
from a popularity that threatens to drown its intimate feeling,
as well as the low-noise to high-combined-knowledge base, that
list members prize. The question members face is how to preserve
focus and group dynamics in both the physical and virtual worlds,
without having to turn away newcomers.
What started as a handful of Web developers and designers getting
together at a bar to share their woes about working online has,
two years on, become a group of mailing lists with more than 300
members, a series of meetings with speakers ranging from Thomas
Dolby to the designers of Salon, plus parties, bonfires, and copious
amounts of microbrewed beer.
Unlike most online groups, NoEnd was built around face-to-face
meetings, from the group's belief that working online could be
a lonely and alienating job, and that meeting in physical space
was the best way to "humanize technology."
At the twice-monthly AA-style meetings, each person tells the
group about their week and how they are feeling - a warm and fuzzy,
San Francisco-style routine intended to get everyone to participate
and connect on a personal level, rather than simply looking for
tech tips or good business contacts.
Not that business interests aren't served by belonging to the
group. Beyond just building a support group, the network is designed
to put people with questions together with people with answers
on everything from ad rates to Perl scripting, and numerous projects
have been spawned by people that met via the list. As one woman
attested this weekend, she can now charge twice as much for her
production services as she could a year ago, since she can tap
the collective knowledge set of several hundred Web-whizzes.
While the meetings are considered the glue that holds the group
together, the mailing list has often been the force that draws
new faces in the first place. A mishmash of technical advice,
industry gossip, and plain old chitchat, topics range from deconstructing
Though nearly all vital lists at some time or another face the
same issues when noise-to-signal ratio increases with the number
of subscribers, the responses to ever-larger group sizes have
been diverse. The 2,500-person-strong WWWAC Web-developer mailing list out of New York resolved the issue
by breaking down into special interest groups, matching writers
with writers and database specialists with database specialists
both in the mailing list and meetings.
craigs-list, a jobs-apartments-events mailing list with 1,000 subscribers
in the San Francisco Bay Area, has simply broken the list down
into "subjects": subscribers can pick the types of posts that
they want to get, and all messages are filtered through one moderator,
eliminating most chitchat.
"NoEnd is smaller - and it has to stay that way because of the
nature of conversation," says Craig Newmark, moderator of craigs-list,
who also stays on NoEnd because he enjoys the social aspects of
it. To preserve community on his list, "the idea behind the problem
of size was to keep splitting the list into subcategories; earlier,
it was important to do a digest form.... But people could still
get their names out there and reveal something about themselves
in a way that means a lot."
But with the mandate of "humanize" rather than "swap information,"
NoEnd is trying to preserve the organic but unified group while
still reducing the noise - an issue that became the focus of the
discussions this weekend.
"The growth mirrored classic group growth. Excitement, rapid growth,
crash, readjust with a core, slow growth," says Caleb J. Clark,
the group's original founder. "Love and caring for others, not
self advancement and networking has kept it going. We've found
that networking happens better this way anyway."
Last year, the group faced a similar dilemma when the group's
size neared a thousand members; then, the solution was to quietly
move the list to a new server, so that only the diligent and truly
committed would stay on. This year, they're looking for a less
discriminatory approach. One solution proffered was to post initial
questions or topics to the mailing list, and then move the thread
to a Well Engaged bulletin board. Other ideas included implementing 24-hour "blackouts"
once a week, adding topical micro-lists for technical questions,
or simply appealing to members' ability to self-censor those "couldn't
agree more" kind of posts.
Meanwhile, a satellite NoEnd group is forming in New York, founded
by former San Franciscans and bicoastal commuters who miss the
NoEnd meetings or are looking for a more personalized alternative
to the WWWAC group. Other NoEnders are talking of pooling resources
and time to help build Web sites for needy organizations - perhaps
even becoming a nonprofit group (as WWWAC and craigs-list have).
"If you attract people interested in only taking from a group
- taking names, taking information - then unless you also take
their money, it's hard to survive. If you attract people ready
to trade in like value the information and caring they receive,
even giving a little more at times, then you can survive and grow,"
points out Clark. "NoEnd's hardest challenge is resisting the
temptation to grow just to grow."
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