The Quality of Free Discourse

By Deane Barker

I’ve participated in a lot of online forums. The value of the information you get from them varies. Some of it is good, but you get a lot of cruft, especially from hit-and-runners – people who are there to ask a single question based on an acute need, who will then disappear without ever having contributed to the discussion…until they need help again.

I got wondering the other day if limited-access participation is better, rather than having a wide open space where anyone can contribute. Is the quality of information better in forums that (1) require you to pass an approval process, or (2) require you pay for access?

I’ve recently joined one of each kind. I was “accepted” into a members-only, non-public forum (more on this in the next couple days), and I joined a professional association.

I haven’t had a chance to dig too deeply into either of them, but at first glance, the level of participation in each seems very good – much better than most of the public forums I participate in. You get people who need information, of course, but you also get the most crucial piece: people who will answer questions for no benefit. These people are rare and valuable.

Some time go, we discussed the possibility that you put more value on information you’ve paid for. By the same token, do you participate more fully and capably in a resource that you’ve paid for or been selected to join?

In general, is money a good crap-filter? One thing the Internet is not good at is commitment – it’s so easy to flit from one thing to another, than you rarely commit to anything. Does money make you more likely to commit?

Metafilter, that bastion of Internet community, has always charged $5 to join. They claimed the $5 was for expenses, but it had the added benefit of making people…commit. I know it’s not a lot of money, but you don’t throw $5 around casually. If you pay $5, you much more likely to get some use out of the account and join in the discussion.

Is this true? (Or am I’m throwing stones in a glass house considering that I run a free forum of sorts? Coming soon: you’ll need to pay $1,000 a month to comment here…)

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