AUSTIN, Texas--If you run a social media site, from a blog to a virtual world to a network like Facebook, you're going to have to deal with angry users, and that's a fact of life.
Such was the theme of the discussion at a South by Southwest Interactive panel on Saturday afternoon called "Social Network Coups: The Users are Revolting."
The all-female panel (a rarity in the tech world!) was moderated by Annalee Newitz, editor of the Gawker Media-owned science fiction blog IO9.com, and consisted of Jessamyn West of MetaFilter, Gina Trapani of fellow Gawker Media blog Lifehacker, and Jeska Dzwigalski of Linden Labs, creator of virtual world Second Life.
"What happens when people on a social network or who are part of some kind of Web service become disgruntled or pissed off with the people who are running that service, and how can they make themselves heard in a way that is effective and nondestructive?" Newitz asked semi-rhetorically. The hour-long panel aimed to touch upon both how users can effectively mobilize and how online community organizers can deal with it. Ultimately, it focused primarily on the latter.
Newitz explained that there are at least three very separate kinds of users revolts on social-media sites. First, she said, there are "anarchist-style pranks" like the one she once rigged on social news site Digg as fodder for a Wired magazine story. "I wanted to find out if I could buy votes on Digg and get something really stupid on the front page," she related, talking about how she paid a shady company to power a fake blog she created to the front page of Digg "to show how easy it would be to buy votes on Digg."
She also talked about "grassroots rebellions," like the mass chaos that ensued when Digg users posted the crack key for high-definition DVDs' digital rights management technology and the site's executives pulled it down. They then retracted their decision in the wake of user protests that crippled the site's servers. "I would call that a genuine grassroots result," Newitz said.
Finally, there are "high-profile people claiming to speak for a larger community in a public forum," like the open letter that a small group of Digg users posted to criticize new changes to the site and ultimately was part of the reason why executives Jay Adelson and Kevin Rose kicked off a series of "town hall" discussions with users. Alternately, there's the controversy over Facebook's Beacon advertisements that resulted in loads of high-profile press on behalf of liberal activist group MoveOn.org but ultimately flew under the radar of many of the huge social network's users.
"Second Life is kind of built for user revolts," Dzwigalski said, explaining that there are all kinds of rebellions in the virtual world, but that the most visible are the ideology-fueled demands like the "revolts" that took place in 2003 when Linden Labs attempted to tax Second Life users and the 2006 controversies over a piece of software called CopyBot in which many in-world retailers shut down their businesses for a day.
The overall gist of the panel seemed to indicate that user revolts can be extremely annoying and difficult to manage, but ultimately an important part of a social-media site's evolution. Dwsigalski said the CopyBot controversy "led to greater transparency from the company to the community because people were demanding to know how changes impacted the (Second Life) economy."
"We have this kind of hippie trust thing going on," Jessamyn West said of MetaFilter, a moderated group blog with 35,000 users that lets anyone contribute for a $5 registration fee. Since the community is overwhelmingly made up of young white males, sexism issues have become high-profile, from "I'd hit it" remarks about pictures of female users to more serious harassment issues that have caused some users to ditch the site entirely. "I wake up every morning and I tell boys on the Internet to stop calling each other names," West joked.
Most of the time, these user revolts never really go away. Sexism on MetaFilter, for example, remains controversial. "I have enemies on MetaFilter," West explained and said that she'd made a promise to change her MetaFilter username to the racy slang term "cooter" if the site went a month without any "I'd hit it" remarks. "That's been in place since November and I'm not worried," she said.
Trapani's account of a user revolt was a bit different; she talked about what happened when a toiled company bought ad space on Lifehacker. "Their ad campaign involved butts. Smiling butts," Trapani said bluntly, and said that she received several dozen e-mails from readers who weren't particularly happy about seeing, um, naked behinds. Many were concerned about what might happen if the ads showed up at the workplace or if readers' children happened to be within viewing distance.
Then discussion of the "smiling butts" started to overtake comment threads, and Trapani finally negotiated to have the ads removed from Lifehacker--though they remained on Gawker Media's racier sites. "We didn't feel good about mooning our readers all day long," Trapani commented.
Discussion briefly touched the debate surrounding the Anonymous hacker group, which has used many social media sites to promote an agenda critical of Scientology. West talked about that sort of debate on MetaFilter, and said that debate was welcome but that zealots who couldn't talk about anything else were not. "We had Tom Cruise's lawyers after once us," she said.
See more stories in CNET News.com's coverage of SXSWi (click here).