Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 16

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Without our staff of volunteer moderators, Chowhound would long ago have ceased to be Chowhound. Our users see friendly, focused, honest conversation, but the raw version behind that well-gardened veneer is a fearsome thing, rife with guerilla marketing, flaming, trolling, self-promotion, and all the other familiar online detritus. For their trouble, these guys receive no credit, and take endless crap from users, none of whom like to be moderated.

Our moderators are heroes. I'm intensely grateful for the job they've done (and continue to do; all our moderators stayed on board after Chowhound's sale to CNET, and we have lots of new ones, all drawn from our user base). Looking back, I see that we made some smart decisions in how we recruited and managed them, and, before continuing with this tale, I need to explain one of the more counterintuitive precepts of volunteer management.

Anyone who ever volunteered in any capacity for Chowhound (four or five dozen people in all, working on publications, business or tech issues, etc., as well as moderation) was informed that no commitment would ever be expected. No one is "responsible" for any given task. For example, no moderator takes responsibility for a given message board; everyone lends a hand everywhere. In fact, no one even commits to showing up! If someone needs to drop out suddenly for weeks or months, we wish them a cheery bon voyage, and that's that. No one's locked in, tied down, or hooked up in any way. They come and go as they please, and determine their own respective roles and workloads.

As a result, moderation feels just as recreational as surfing the Chowhound site for food tips; it's a pleasant diversion undertaken on momentary whim. And great things can come from the proper channeling of whim! Consider Wikipedia (which Chowhound predated by four years), where a critical mass of users enjoys managing and editing as much as reading. Both the back end and the front end are handled in the same carefree, self-paced spirit.

Paradoxically, the slack we offer our volunteers ties them more tightly into their roles. Freed of any concern of bogging down, or any sensation that they're "working", they happily contribute countless hours. We literally could not pay people to work this hard or this well.

And so, counterintuitively, paying would actually mess everything up. It would drastically change the entire dynamic. Because here's the thing: if you pay people, they've got to show up. They have to commit. And regardless of how much you love what you do and believe in it, if you have to show up, it's a job. You're working...period. Helping Chowhound would come to feel like work...and all these folks already have work lives. In fact, moderating Chowhound is their diversion from all that! If we paid moderators to moderate, and posters to post, the whole enterprise would turn to crap in weeks. Just think: could you pay people to compile a Wikipedia?

Why maintain a forum for free? For the same reason they chip in food tips for free: it's a pleasant hobby, and the results are highly useful to themselves and others. I experienced this, myself. Difficult though my unpaid slogging years were, there was an underlying playful glee to it, which was utterly stamped out during the year I was drawing a good salary from CNET. I'd worked hard on Chowhound all along, but there was never so much as a whiff of that stultifying time clock/workplace feeling. When that cut in, I could feel the life force draining out of me. Jesus, what a buzz kill.

But Chowhound had two volunteers who, over the years, had gone way beyond whim. They took on a managerial role, and while they were free to disappear at any time, per our policy, they didn't. They could be counted upon, and I started to involve them in more and more decision-making. In the final year, when my workload and stress level had grown grotesquely overwhelming, and I was damaged goods (my memory shot, my judgement shaky), they covered for me, taking on many tasks far beyond their roles. These were not mere volunteers, and I owed them.

Every once in a while over the years, I'd daydreamed about Chowhound winding up a financial success. The high point of my fantasy was the part where I'd send generous checks to each of these two, along with hand-written notes, which I'd already composed and polished in my mind. So as we started wrapping up the particulars of our deal with CNET, I announced to my lawyer that a share of our proceeds would be going to these volunteers. The lawyer blandly questioned me:
"Are these people paid workers?
"No."
"Do you have a contract with them?"
"No."
"Do you have a verbal agreement to pay them a certain amount in the event of acquisition?
"Uh-uh."
"Then...unnh...why, exactly, are you paying them??"
"Because they deserve it."
On the other end of the phone there was a vacuous silence while the word "deserve", that most nonlegal of terms, was pondered and chewed upon. Then I heard a long, slow inhalation through tense nostrils, followed by a weary, pained promise to take the idea into consideration.

The news of my request was relayed to our accountant, then to CNET's accountants, and their lawyers. Each, in turn, asked the very same questions: Are these paid workers? Is there a contract or verbal agreement? Then why, exactly, are you paying them....???

These were all experienced professionals, very strong on mergers and acquisitions. They'd seen it all. But I'd stumped the band. Cold. This was not a move they could wrap their minds around; it completely threw them. Why, why, why, why are you paying these people? It's just not done that way! There's no precedent! This is madness! Everything's growing cloudy....can't think...

I'd done psychic damage by throwing this wrench into the machinations of corporate power. Our corporate treasurer threatened to resign her position as an officer of Chowhound, Inc., out of fear of legal spill-back. CNET railed against it, and our lawyer offered me the following sole hope:

If I could persuade these individuals to affix their signatures to a page full of cold legalese in which they'd swear, for the love of Jesus Christ and the preservation of their dainty, uncrushed kneecaps, to never sue, or try to get any
more money...then, ok, fine, we might find a way to accomplish this.

The document would, essentially, read something like this:
"I, XXXX, do hereby agree to accept $XXXX in blood money under the provision that I release Jim Leff, and the awesome, intimidating powers standing behind him, from any delusional notion I might be owed even so much as a spit in my face. This is an unearned gift, and it's all the money I'll ever be getting, and I understand that I won't even get this without explicitly renouncing my claim to anything else...ever. I will grab your check in my hot, greedy, litigious little hand, and kindly get the F away from you."
[Obviously, I've just slipped into surreal mode again; something I hesitate to do because so many aspects of this story are genuinely surreal, and I don't want you to think any of it is invented or exaggerated. But I'm aiming for vicarious impressionism here, so indulge my kookiness...which I'll always clearly label as such.]

The document, obviously, would be starkly dissimilar in tone to my long-imagined hand-written note of gracious thanks. My loyal colleagues would open their mailboxes and find this insane bit of ugliness, which would utterly poison the loving impulse behind it all. I tore myself up, lost sleep over it. I protested loudly that these people were
not going to sue anyone, for God's sake. My assurances were politely ignored.

Adding to the excruciating discomfort was the issue of a particularly damaged and damaging ex-girlfriend of mine who'd provided some key help with Chowhound's formation way back in 1997. Bob and I had promised her, at the time, that if Chowhound ever amounted to anything, she'd receive a cut. (Note to entrepreneurs: don't ever do this. Sign a formal agreement or just shaddup!) We obviously needed to honor that promise.

My two colleagues were, as ever, completely understanding about this whole affair (the ex-girlfriend was handled via our accountant). They signed the scary document. And then, at the eleventh hour, for reasons I can't recall, the whole thing was off. CNET was refusing, even with the legal protection of signed affidavits they'd insisted upon, to pay these guys directly out of the deal. It had all been for nought. Bob and I would be paid, and afterwards, if we liked, we could cut personal checks to send as gifts. Which meant that Bob and I would be forced to pay the (substantial) tax, plus we'd use up a substantial portion of our lifetime allotment of non-charitable gifting.

It was all so crazily screwed up. But nowhere near as screwed up as things were about to get...

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

more please.

mr overnight said...

You missed your calling, Jim. Serials! What a cliffhanger. I fear "not to be continued"..

Louuuuu

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