How To Run An Internet ‘Cycling’ Forum

Background Reading

To:
Webmaster

Name:
Michelle

Email:
michelle-milhams-email-address
Subject:
For the Record

Message:
For the record, I was banned. For daring to argue that it is not ok to use the word “retard.” Shortly after saying the moderation sucks. 

***Off the record:*** IDK what you’re talking about half the time on here, but I do know that you piss them off. Please do that for me. Thanks.

Summary

Michelle Milham contacted me today via the CONTACT area on my website. She is the young lady who had the rather tumultuous encounter with the ChainLink Crowd yesterday and the day before. It is a bit like walking into a dog pound to choose a cuddly pup only to discover that the holding pen where you were sent contains several rabid canine whose only purpose on this earth is to devour your flesh.

But you do not discover this until you kneel down to pet the most adorable looking puppy of the lot and then suddenly you are attacked from behind. They front either side and before you know it you are bloodied and calling for the staff to come and assist you, but they are in another room having a birthday party (complete with photo-op) for the director of the pound and are signing ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow‘ so loudly that your screams cannot be heard.

The Lord of the Flies is the one literary illusion that has always come to mind when I think about being on the ChainLink Forum. It is that bad and perhaps worse. But it does not need to be. Unfortunately a sense of paranoia pervades the place and they react out of fear and ignorance. So let me try and do a de-briefing on what goes wrong there and how to fix-it.

‘No Censorship’ Is A Myth

Michelle found out the hard way that the most treasured posture of this group is the fact that there is ‘no censorship‘. That is why they are so adamant about being able to say just about anything ‘under the sun‘. The irony here is that while they feel it their birthright to use words like ‘retard‘ in a casual manner, they will ‘go to the mat‘ if someone reports a collision between a cyclist and an automobile as an ‘accident‘.

Now this gets a little like the Alice In Wonderland passage where she meets the queen whose use of language is almost 180 degrees opposite the ordinary meanings. But that is really and truly how this group thinks.

Let someone on Sports Radio use the same kind of ‘offhand‘ in jesting about ‘dooring‘ a cyclist and the group goes into high dudgeon. But something equally offensive like planning to Taser a pedestrian or jogger in the ‘bike lane‘ and silence reigns.

So the very first place to begin is with this unrealistic notion that you can run a website without having some control over its contents. I have been running discussion boards since the early 1970s. I have seen just about all of the silliness that one could hope to see in the behavior of users who for some reason decide that the Internet is essentially a ‘virtual bathroom wall‘ and that your particular site occupies just one stall in that bathroom. And of course their Constitutional Right is to say whatever they desire without regard to the consequences.

I had one user decide that he was going to post ‘bomb making instructions‘ on the site. He was oddly enough part of a bicycle club and he claimed that it was his son and not he who was at fault. I explained to him that his son could register for his own account. But the father was adamant that they had the right to post such things and that I was being ‘overly reactive‘. So I simply canned the entire cycling group.

Here is why. When the came to me they wanted to ‘piggy back‘ off of my BBS system. I was in essence offering them the use of my software and computer to provide group communications for the cycling club. I decided that they were not good guests.

You simply cannot hope to run a site of any size if the inmates are in control. That situation existed at the ChainLink for a very long time until they did a jumpstart last year. They collected over $15,000 and to this day I have seen nothing that even remotely resembles ‘change‘. But change of itself is not what is needed here, rather it is ‘improvement‘.

Supposedly they are moving to WordPress. That is a step in the right direction, since the biggest worry these days is website security. You need to be able to ensure your customers that their information is secure. Nothing is entirely secure on the internet, but having a product with as much real-world testing as WordPress gets is a good thing. And I really think that their Re-Blog feature is great!

But running a website is a bit like being the owner of a restaurant or cafe. Your chef might have wonderful ideas about ‘his style of cuisine‘ but unless you can actually get people to eat the food, all the decorating pizzazz in the world will not pay the bills. People cannot eat ambience.

So Lesson #1, Know Your Audience

This is where I think the ChainLink Crowd has it all wrong.

The vast majority of folks who will in future become cyclists will not be commuters. At least that is my take on things. Neither will they be diehard activists. They are going to be ‘ordinary people‘ who like to ride on sunny days in warm weather, but will have no real interest in trying to commute between Chicago and some suburb 25-miles to the west on a daily basis. I am guessing that even if you put an underground heated bicycle highway between the two points that only a few people would venture to try that sucker out. Why?

Well it boils down to options. If you handed me a magic wand (à la Harry Potter) and said you can either take a plane to your destination, or this cruise liner or this train or even this luxury automobile, a goodly number of folks would waggle the wand. Presto! I am transported to my destination of choice without having to exert myself, wade through TSA lines, load bags, endure sea sickness or nose bleed from high altitude or whatever.

Living in a urban metropolitan area like Chicagoland means never having to ride 25 miles on a bicycle in freezing cold through areas you find ‘sketchy‘ in clothing that costs more than your weekly paycheck (assuming you want the very best in clothing technology). You are easily capable of paying for a ticket on a commuter train which will deposit you in the Loop area and from there you could walk or Divvy to your destination. My personal choice would be to unfold a Brompton and ride away to the very door of the building where I work and fold it up and walk inside.

For some reason the ChainLink Crowd has bought into the notion that suburban cyclists are ‘not real cyclists‘ and that only those who brave the elements on city streets have earned that moniker. Wrong!

Every person who hoists a leg over a frame of any size and sort is a cyclist. That includes children who are toddlers, grandparents who are retired and or frail, mothers trying to get their kids to school or dads doing the same, people shopping by bike or not. In fact I would easily imagine that 90% of the folks I know who are cyclists here in the suburbs are also automobile drivers!

In fact the way you can spot a cyclist here in the suburbs is because we are the ones with bike racks on our cars and SUVs. We normally drive our bikes to remote starts and then begin our ride. That fact must really turn the stomachs of the folks on the ChainLink Forum. They are more than proud of ‘going car free‘ and I am proud of them for doing that. But if I am running a website I need to be cognizant of the fact that the vast majority of my customers are probably using some form of transportation other than a bicycle, most of the time. After all we cyclists who commute to work represent less than 1% of the total transportation landscape.

So if the ChainLink Forum hopes to succeed it will have to be far more welcoming of drivers and their automobiles. After all it is the folks who drive trucks, buses and cabs who could help inform cyclists of the things to watch out for when plying the mean streets of city. Keep in mind that in terms of mortality rates motorists have the highest rate, followed by pedestrians. Cyclists come in dead last!

You cannot dream up solutions to traffic problems by the Mikael Colville-Andersen method alone. He likes to crow about the fact that traffic congestion can be resolved by simply removing cars from the mix. Yep, that will work. But you need buy-in from your society. Otherwise you are forced to resort to the tactics of a Hitler to get the results you want. Don’t like Jews, Gays or Gypsies? No problem. We have a concentration camp for that.

Lesson #2, Design Your Site For Your Anticipated Demographics

If you want to attract the single largest number of cyclists to your site, then you need to understand the needs of suburbanites. Many of them wear, Lycra and Spandex. Dwelling on alternative fabrics can be useful but will probably not help those folks looking for the best place to score that professional team jersey that they desire.

Likewise lots of articles about fixed gear bikes won’t satisfy the needs of folks whose bikes are more carbon fiber than steel. In fact if I were to suggest that your site should be centered around recumbent bicycles and folders you should smile sweetly and politely show me the door. While I love these bikes I know that uprights are the kings in the bike world today. The occasional velomobile notwithstanding all of the hoopla will be over ‘plastic bikes‘.

But realizing that not everyone can afford a $7,000 close of the retirement bike of Jens Voigt, I probably ought to have some articles on bikes sold at REI, L. L. Bean and even big box stores. But how do you know all this stuff to be fact? You have a survey of your readership. You find out what they own and what they have interest in. You ask about their gender, age, race, ethnic origin, home country, body type, interest in things like racing versus commuting or shopping or just club riding.

Head Up Ass The 'ChainLink Prayer Position'

Head Up Ass
The ‘ChainLink Prayer Position’

You get your head out of your ass and realize that your job is to inform the world about cycling and that means knowing what it is they want to hear or read. It does not mean focusing on nose rings, tattoos and beer. Sure you can have areas on the site where that sort of thing is discussed but you cannot assume it as a given.

I am a vegan. I would love it if restaurants all served a couple of vegan dishes no matter where I went. But on the other hand they do not as a rule even know what a vegan meal looks like. So I have to find ways to locate which restaurant chains have offerings that can assist me in eating meals that I find suitable.

All that any chain has to do is survey their customers and determine just how many of them are interested in eating few meat meals and instead focusing on fruits and vegetables. The trick is in supplying your stores with the kinds of meals that they can prepare for a very small number of people. Vegans are not the largest food eating group on the planet. Knowing that informs my expectations as a consumer and I am happy to know that.

Lesson #3, Track Your Audience

Finally it pays to know the facts about your success at shaping your site. Every WordPress owner has the option to track his site’s traffic. You get daily statics, monthly, weekly and yearly information. You know which countries are following your site and even which areas within those countries.

You know which search engines are referring readers to your site and which links to other sites your readers are using to head elsewhere. You get to know which articles are receiving the greatest number of hits per day, week, month or year. Heck you can even know which single article has the all time lead on the rest.

So if you realize that after the latest ‘meltdown‘ on your site your viewership starting flagging you can make some informed decisions about how to avoid such events. But that means being a censor at times and encouraging free activity at others. Its a bit like being a parent of a teenager. That is part of the job description you are given when you decide to run a website.

Lesson #4, Social Media Is Not All There Is

ChainLink Forum has a problem with its software design. It is heavily weighted towards the Facebook model. I like Facebook. So do a lot of other people. That means therefore that in designing my site I have to ask if I am using my site to provide a service which is already covered by a larger and more effective source?

Between Google and Facebook most groups have all the bases covered. Google provides maps, calendars, discussion groups and much more. Facebook makes it easy for individuals to keep up with others as they go about their daily lives. It almost makes it seem as if even bothering to run a website is unnecessary. But that is what your survey is all about. Find out where the gaps are.

Neither of these two services is able to easily provide ‘detailed content‘. But you could gather that sort of information and use their services to distribute it. If you have a group that plans rides each week you can announce the next one on Facebook. But let’s suppose you are a large and vibrant club that has dozens of ride leaders and as many groups of folks looking to hookup. Then you might choose Google Calendar. That way ride leaders can provide a visual clue to their rides by means of a specific text color.

The most successful forums I have come across were on technical issues. These range (in my case) from photography to computer programming to the effective use of a software package like Photoshop or InDesign. Both of these are Adobe products and even have their own User Groups. This kind of division is only possible if you have a cadre of assistant web managers with technical expertise. They are part father confessor to the group and part guru. Finding folks like this that you can trust is not easy. They have to have the same kind of vision that you do for the future of the site. And they have to be willing to step on a few toes if necessary from time-to-time to subdue the inevitable ‘class clowns‘.

Lesson #5, Play To The Strengths Of Your Leadership Group

A well run website is a bit like a football team. Sure there is the head coach. Be his is part CEO and part Queen. In the role of the Queen he represents the ethos of the team. Like Queen Elizabeth he is the face of the team. When people think of the Chicago Bears they think first and foremost of Mike Ditka. He was the Queen Elizabeth of the team. But even Ditka had assistant coaches.

A well run site will have assistant web managers and frequent de-briefings to discuss why this one area of the site keeps suffering ‘meltdowns‘. You might have a rogue user whose using your site as a means of fomenting hate and discontent. But when you examine your user log file it becomes evident that there are several folks who seem to be working as a team.

You decide how best to address this challenge. You could indeed contact them via the email arm of the site. Let them know that having more than one account assigned to the same IP address is not allowed. Let them make the decision whether to drop the secondary accounts and if they won’t help them along by doing it yourselves. Or my favorite approach is to disallow account creation in the first instance where the IP Address is already in the database.

Software packages have the ability to screen language for profanity or other objectionable things. This is going to be a bit like operating a restaurant. You have patrons who are smokers. The law says that they cannot smoke inside public establishments like restaurants. Do you uphold the law or look the other way? If you value the health of your clientele and you know that the bulk of your business is with families having children the choice is easy. But you will have to do something.

The current practice on the ChainLink Forum is to have the ‘inner circle‘ folks behave as they see fit and to allow them to perform their Cyber Attacks on unsuspecting members who are doing the equivalent of asking them to put out their cigarettes. Currently when that happens all the other smokers or beer drinkers circle the wagons and go after the ‘offender‘. If the offender will not back down then they ban them from the site.

This act alone means that the very notion of having no censorship on the site is a lie. There is indeed censorship with respect to dissenters.

I would hate to operate an establishment where the KKK were part of my clientele. What do you do when in fact the larger part of your staff are members as well? That is part of the problem with the ChainLink Forum. Hateful statements are tolerated so long as the Grand Wizard and his henchmen are the ones making them. Now let a group ISIS warriors stroll in for dinner and you suddenly have a conflict. The very language and joking that was tolerable under the KKK about ‘retards‘ and such suddenly becomes offensive to even the KKK when they become the butt of the jokes being told by the ISIS warriors.

The key of course is to keep your clientele informed of you no profanity or intolerant language policy. Then everyone is on a level playing field. It won’t be easy to enforce in circumstances like the hypothetical one I am describing but it will certainly let you sleep at night if you and they know what your expectations are.

I Wish The ChainLink Forum Success

Chicago deserves a world class cycling forum. Goodness knows we have far too much negative publicity to sustain anything approaching a weekly meltdown. Banning folks who dislike your ethos (assuming it is a healthy one) is counterproductive. Being a leader means that you have to want to Do The Right Thing and that will not always make you the most popular person on the planet.

As with being a supervisor or a business owner you are left with the ultimate responsibility for the welfare of that business. That might mean that you won’t be able to go out for beers with the guys because you have to tend to the business problems at hand. But it might also mean that because you are the Boss, you cannot be everyone’s Buddy and still maintain authority. ‘Heavy lies the head that wears the crown.’

The business that the ChainLink Forum represents is cycling itself. Not Urban Cycling, Not Fixie Cycling, Not Recumbent Cycling, Not E-Assist Cycling, just Cycling. And to the extent that you are most relevant in Chicagoland it would mean that you focus on issues near and dear to the hearts of cyclist who hail not just from Bucktown but from Aurora, Elgin, Naperville, Elmhust and Frankfort.

I know that I missed a few suburbs like Evanston, Oak Park and Barrington Hills. But you get the point. If you are President of the United States you owe it to the country to not focus too heavily on Chicago, your home town. If you are the leadership team at the ChainLink Forum then you have to be well-versed in the issues of lots of different places in Chicagoland.

You do not represent hipsters alone. You might have to be knowledgeable about places where Greek is possibly the dominant language. You might be as often required to provide information on where the best chitterlings are available as dim sum. The best places for ribs might be out in the suburbs in places like Naperville.

You have to know and understand what sorts of bike lanes work best in which areas. And you need to enlist thoughtful information from your viewership. How on earth does the ChainLink Forum hope to be useful if instead of offering a place for ‘collaboration‘ it continues to be a place where ‘meltdowns‘ are the only fare on the menu?

Maybe the time is ripe for something other than the Missed Connection thread? Maybe it is time for the truckers who also bike to offer advice and insights into how best to coexist with big rigs when on streets? What about hearing from high-end German automobile drivers who happen to bicycle as well? And I have noticed a rather lopsided involvement on the distaff side.

Are there discussions and information pools that need to be there for women who want to bicycle. Not just commute, but bicycle. Is there a forum for those who ride Divvy bikes back and forth to the office from the train? Where can we find a list of the top ten places to visit while on a Divvy bicycle?

I could go on. But you folks know what needs to be your focus. And if you do not, you need to find out what that should be.