Indie Microblogging by Manton Reece

Interview with Jean MacDonald

Halfway through the Kickstarter campaign for Micro.blog, I posted a stretch goal to backers:

Your web site is your own, where you have the freedom to write about whatever you want, but a service like Micro.blog has a responsibility to build a safe community for its users.

This is a core principle of the service. That we can draw a line between the content on your own site and the community, and when the line is crossed with @-replies, we can step in.

After I posted this, I got an email from Jean MacDonald:

I am very intrigued with the concept of a community manager who manages the line between openness and harassment. If there is anything I can do to help you reach your stretch goal and hire this person, please let me know, because I want to see this happen regardless of who fills the position!

When I read this, I was so relieved. I had been nervous about launching the stretch goal. The Kickstarter campaign was going great, so why rock the boat with something new? Also, I didn’t actually know how to find the right person. I just knew that I needed them and that curation and keeping an eye on the community would be important.

I’ve now been working with Jean for over 3 years, and in that time we’ve launched new features and helped the community grow. I sat down with Jean to talk about the progress so far.

This is an edited portion of the full interview, which is online and also in podcast form.


Manton: So before Micro.blog… I know you had blogged off and on a while back. What did your blog look like and had you been blogging recently, or was it kind of needing to be dusted off?

Jean: I started on the internet in the 90s as a web designer. So I always wanted to have some kind of blog, but it was before WordPress and I wasn’t super technical, like backend oriented. So I thought, well, if I have a blog, I’m going to have to redesign these pages every time I add something new. And then I got on Twitter pretty much early on. And the next thing I knew, I wasn’t really that interested in blogging anymore.

Jean: I started a blog in 2007 or 2008, which was my version of a parenting blog, but for aunts like myself, somebody with no kids. And so focusing on all the fun stuff that aunts and uncles get to do and not really worrying about any of the financial or, you know, health or nutrition things, they don’t have to worry about. So that was pretty fun. But I think being on Twitter siphoned off some of my interest in posting on my own blog for sure.

Manton: In that early time when we were emailing about this community manager job, the role I think was admittedly kind of vague when you first signed up. [laughter] What were your early expectations? What did you think it would be like?

Jean: I thought it was going to be more time spent being the Judge Judy of the community where people would be doing things that we thought were against the guidelines, or they would be potentially harassing other members. And I would have to step in and make a judgment call. I think what you said at the beginning was this person would be very involved in writing the community guidelines and then also making sure that any harassment that didn’t get screened out by automated systems was caught early and dealt with early. And so I actually thought it was going to be a more combat oriented job than it has turned out to be, so far. Knock on wood.

Manton: We’ve been really lucky, I think, that the community is fantastic. There have been been issues that come up that need to be discussed and judgment calls need to be made. And I’m sure that will continue to happen as we grow. So what you imagine may still come to pass. [laughter]

Manton: What did you find yourself thinking about and how you interacted with people in the community first? If it wasn’t the, “I’m going to make a judgment call and this person needs to go”, what was the experience like?

Jean: It wasn’t very different from other social media type experiences, except it had some some pretty definite and maybe unexpected to new users things that you couldn’t do or wouldn’t do. The truth is, I didn’t totally understand Micro.blog in the beginning. I thought it was supposed to be like just like Twitter, a Twitter thing that would would be able to be cross-referenced, cross-posted wherever and that you would be able to just be on Micro.blog but you could still keep things on Twitter going, and that’s all it was. It didn’t totally sink in until I had been working on this for probably a couple months that this was a blogging platform. And when you use the app or the web site to put up your little short post, your tweet-like micro posts, all of those were being collected and published on a blog site that was yours. That was literally like the lightbulb going off. And I’m like, “okay, now I get it.” So a lot of the early stuff was me trying to help people when I didn’t totally understand it myself.

Jean: And I think there were a lot of questions. You know, people hadn’t quite figured it out themselves. And so it was more being a a resource in the community. And a lot of that, you know, resource was like, “I will ask Manton about that.”

Manton: And early on, I don’t even remember when we built the help site, but pretty sure it wasn’t there at the beginning.

Jean: Certainly not in the form it’s in now. It’s been a really interesting process, and it’s a process I have been through before working with software developers who have really cool software, that is really useful and really great, except it’s hard to explain it in in one sentence. And I think for this, what we’re doing is people may think, “Well, I’m okay on Twitter, I don’t need another social network.” And that’s really answering the wrong question. The question is, would you like to have your work in a site you control, whether it’s short or long posts? And we didn’t have a long post in the beginning either. As things have been built out that has helped people to understand what they would do. But yeah, in the beginning, I think I was just trying to figure out what people were doing and for myself as well.

Manton: So we didn’t have long posts in the early days of Micro.blog and we also didn’t have podcasts. And one of the great things that you work on that I really love is the Micro Monday podcast that we’re talking on right now. What was the inspiration for that podcast?

Jean: I think it was probably a little before we started doing Micro Monday that Brent Simmons was doing the Omni Group podcast, which I thought was cool. Because there’s always this feeling like if you’re going to do a podcast, you’ve gotta have a big audience, you know, like, why would you do it? But what I’d learned, starting with Micro Monday definitely is like: doing a podcast for a specific audience that will appreciate it is as rewarding, maybe not necessarily financially, but it’s just rewarding to know that people enjoy what you’re doing. Certainly in our community, it’s really made a difference, I think, for people to figure out they can learn about people they want to follow because you can listen to them and you can say, “oh yeah, I wouldn’t mind hearing what this person is up to on a regular basis.” That definitely makes the users of Micro.blog who come on the podcast are now more fully fleshed out as human beings and not just short 280-character or less posts.

Manton: Yeah, it was a great kind of proof of concept for can we even hosts podcasts? So technically it was great, but even more than that… Getting a little insight into who people are and what their thoughts are on the platform or blogging. I really loved how that’s worked out.

Manton: You actually had a blog post recently about starting small and appreciating micro things. I have it here in front of me. You said:

Ever since I became the community manager for Micro.blog, I’ve developed an appreciation for the beauty of going “micro”: microposts, microcasts, micro meetups, microcosms of interesting humans interacting online on a human scale.

Manton: I thought that was really great. And it was kind of a nice reminder of you can start small with something and it can turn into something big. And I think the podcast is like that. When you look at so many episodes also like going back it has a nice history of all those members of the community.

Jean: Yeah, it’s interesting. Actually back when I was in my early 20s, I worked as a secretary in the history department at the University of North Carolina. And next door to my office was the Southern Oral History Program, which was at that time — so we’re gone back, you know, early 80s — was a new idea to do oral history, because most history up until that point was being written based on archives of documents. And that meant if you didn’t have something that got archived, then you weren’t in the history, right? And so the oral history program was actually quite famous there at UNC.

Jean: Their primary program at that time was going out and interviewing mill workers in North Carolina. Like cotton mill workers, that was very much a thing. Learning how they lived, how the jobs went, how all that kind of stuff that you wouldn’t get out of going into the state archives to look at the records of the mill or something like that. So I gained an appreciation for oral history. And I think, while I don’t do it in any kind of… I don’t have a methodology for this — I’m not trying to earn my PHD in anything — I just like that we’re capturing a moment and a slice of time that in the evolution of the internet and internet communities.

Manton: We’ve had a few in-person meetups. And you mentioned that in that post too, micro meetups. How has that been, talking to either members of the community or people who are just learning about Micro.blog? How does that compare to like talking to people on the podcast?

Jean: That’s an interesting question. For talking to somebody on the podcast, I get like 20 minutes, 30 minutes, at least, talking to somebody one on one. And for example, when we have meetups at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference there’s a lot of people and I want to talk to all of them. So people who are on Micro.blog seeing other people… When we do the name tags, I make the name tags myself and I put people’s usernames on them so that people can say, “oh, so you’re that person.” And it’s pretty cool.

Manton: The podcast is definitely one way to highlight people in the community. And we also have the Discover section, which has evolved, but it’s kind of settled into something I really like right now, which is highlighting posts that are coming from users in Micro.blog. Not actually highlighting a person specifically, but just posts. So it’s kind of a curated timeline of just like a little snapshot of what is going on in Micro.blog. How do you feel about the way that’s going and how that should evolve or how we can grow it or what more we can do with that?

Jean: Generally, I feel it’s going pretty well. It is hand-curated by myself and you. And so there are some limitations there. Eventually that’s not going to be the way we do it forever. It’s a good place to find the people who post their photo first Micro.blog post. We try to make sure if there’s somebody puts something up that’s anything more than just like “hi”. So if they make some effort, either they’ve they’ve put in their photo and their bio, like a way to know who they are. If they post something in the vein of “Hello World”, we add that to Discover, because that’s the idea for people. They want to know who’s new and whether they’re new people to follow.

Jean: It’s been very important for us because what we don’t have, that say Twitter has, is we have no algorithms. We have no recommendation engine. We’re not going to pop things into your timeline and say, “here’s some people you should follow!” Your timeline is your timeline, in chronological order, of the people you follow. And that’s the way it should be. But if you want to dip in to what else is out there, going to Discover is a way to do that.

Jean: We want to bring in more community curators for sure as the platform grows and the volume gets bigger. That’s going to be important. And. That’s the main thing that I can imagine changing over time. I think we could probably make the specific categories under tagmojis — so under the emoji tags that people have used for certain categories that we’ve been following — we could eventually find a better way to promote those to people because they’re a little easy to overlook. Maybe eventually we’ll have some specialized timelines that people in a certain interest group or whatever might curate. I don’t know. But the bigger we get, the more important it is to make it easy for people to find their niches.

Manton: I was thinking back to how the platform has changed. And one of the things we haven’t touched on, but it reminded me when you talked about there’s no algorithm that will recommend who you should follow is that we’ve tried to get away from the popularity contest kind of aspects of other social networks. There’s never been “like” counts and that sort of thing. And I wasn’t sure at the beginning if we would be able to stick with that, because it was kind of unusual for a social network. What did you think, if you can kind of go back a couple years, that we didn’t have those?

Jean: Well, I remember that I was campaigning for some of those features. [laughter] That was before it totally made sense to me. But not being able to see who’s following you is definitely a thing you have to get used to.

Jean: Back then, yeah, I was like, well, I wanted it to be like Twitter, but better. In my mind, meaning: we have all the features of Twitter. You had thought a lot of this through in a way that I had not. And over time, I became a fan of how we do it. If you don’t like how we do it, you’ve probably not hung around terribly long. So the people who are there are all discovering a different way of interacting in social media. And, you know, not having likes is very hard for people too because there’s a lot to like on Micro.blog. And it would be so easy if there was a little thing we could click to say, “I saw that, you know. I see you, I heard you”, whatever. But we’ve stuck with that. And what ends up being ironic is how other platforms are saying they’re gonna get rid of likes. And it’s like, yep, okay then.

Jean: Sometimes I’ll just post one emoji as a reply to somebody, usually somebody that I know and I’ve interacted with and they know that I’m not blowing them off with just one emoji. But I reach out to people and say “that is really cool” or “I really like the work you’ve done here” or “you raised interesting questions”. It takes a few seconds longer than clicking the like button. But it can lead to some interesting conversations and I would say friendships. I feel a lot of Micro.blog friendliness throughout that I maybe wasn’t expecting, since I was originally expecting to have to fight with everybody. [laughter]

Manton: Yeah, and I think there’s more we can do. Like your example of just sending someone emoji or a quick reply. I think that we can experiment with making that easier or encouraging that even more, especially for people who are clicking the favorite button right now, thinking it does something to notify the other person, which it doesn’t. And I know Instagram has experimented with quick emoji reactions also, and Slack has a similar thing. I think there’s more we can do, but there is something about actually taking the time to reply to someone that is meaningful. You’re being deliberate about telling someone, “that’s a great photo you took.” And that’s something I didn’t expect and I’m really happy about. I thought there was something to this idea of not having that how many followers you have because of the pressure of it. And just kind of like some people are more popular than other people and like judging people based on how many… I knew there was something that we wanted to avoid with that. But the fact that it also encourages conversations in some cases is a really nice bonus.

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