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Hot Tubbing an Online Community by Caleb John Clark, 1999

Some years ago I read Caleb John Clark’s essay (blog post, really) about online community and it has stuck with me ever since. It’s currently not easily searchable on the web. A shame. I am extracting it from the Internet Archive and placing the text here.

“Hot Tubbing an Online Community”

Caleb John Clark, January 12th, 1999.

Email listservs often parallel in person group growth patterns and grow very fast, too fast. Sometimes this will lead to a situation where pleas to the list have no effect and the list is in danger of degrading into flames and lots of useless noise.

Here’s a proven way I’ve come up with to get a list back on its feet and back to its core misson and people.

In Oakland California there’s a hot tub in the back yard of an early producer of the Grateful Dead. You have to go very quietly along an ally next to his house, and then punch the code on a redwood door to get in. My friend did not let me see the code.

There’s a changing room, a hot tub, a redwood deck, a hammock, and a few small redwoods and plants on a lot behind his house that he never developed. Talking is discouraged. No drugs of any kind are allowed. Clothing is optional.

I have an image of the friend I was with during my visit. It’s burned into my brain. She is quite an attractive woman and was standing buck naked in a light drizzle of warm summer rain. The ex-producer had came down from his house (which is inches from the tub) and they had struck up a conversation.

So here’s this soft friendly 50 something original hippie, fully dressed, talking to this young naked woman, at night, in the rain, beads of misty water dripping from his hair, and her body, and all among redwoods in the middle of Oakland. I just swung naked in the hammock I was in and marveled at the scene. We ended up going into his house and he played some jazz on these new speakers he’d just got. They were 8 feet high, three inches thick, and looked like the Monolith in 2001. They sounded smooth as the slick redwood decking of his hot tub.

Later that night my friend told me about the hot tub. She said it had been around for years and at first there was no gate. But then a few incidents happened. Negative things, like drugs or violence. So a gate was installed with a code. The code was then given out to only a few long time users of the hot tub. They in turn shared the code with close friends they trusted. Eventually the code would spread over the years and something negative would happen. Then the code would be changed again. This had happened a few times in my friends long experience with the tub.

I took this over to email mailing lists and thus we have “hot tubbing”.

When a list gets too big, has too many flames, and won’t respond to cries for sanity from it’s core members, hot tub it by doing this:

  1. Send out a well subject headered message saying something like: “in 24 hours this list will end. A new list will start up. The new lists’ address will be given out at local meetings in person only. If you want to start your own local list, please do so. We are sorry for the this but this list can no longer support the number of people on it.”
  2. Kill the list.
  3. Start a new one.
  4. Give out the address at an in person meeting.
  5. Your core group will immediately subscribe to the new list and email out their close friends the new address. In a few months you’ll have a good list again, albeit much smaller.

two comments so far...

I’ve been using twitter since October 2006. That’s not a short amount of time to be using a service. 16 years!
It’s deeply weird to return to what was once called “internet time.” Internet time was what we called the era where brand new web pages or services would pop up and get massively popular overnight. Think about Hot or Note or Nosepilot or Flash games that made the rounds quickly. To see Mastodon suddenly get tons of interest and activity (I joined in December 2021).
This here blog persists.
Instagram seems like it’s felt no impact from the changes.
I suspect Facebook usage numbers have had no change.
Twitter however has been eroding as people try to reckon with what the new owner who took it private thinks the site needs. I’m not sure a $20 $8 per month charge for Twitter verification was what it was crying out for.
Given the Twitter destabilization and the Mastodon growth I’ve been thinking about “Hot Tubbing” a bit. I remember the old Webmonster mailing lists — awesome discussion of web tech in the late 1990s. I think they made some managerial change or structural change – I can’t even remember what it was – but it was enough for a mass exodus to take place and WebDesign-L and Evolt I think were created out of that.
Moderating an online community—which is to say—governing a group of people—is not easy. It’s hard work. The satiric and yet accurate Hey Elon: Let Me Help You Speed Run The Content Moderation Learning Curve is an excellent short distillation of just some of the issues any large community faces on 21st century earth.
It’s an interesting time. Which is to say, it’s a mess.

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