Thursday, August 7, 2014

How to Save ReaganBook

In July of 2014, Conservative Christians launched "ReaganBook" a Facebook alternative for people who find Facebook too liberal. ReaganBook's "pre-release" lasted about a day before the site was put into "Maintenance Mode."

Running what appears to have been a stock copy of PHPfox, the site simply failed to handle the load it received when people found out about it. The site was also flooded with troll accounts posting offensive, satirical and blasphemous material.  The "Joe My God" articles linked above have a good write-up of the saga, and while the site's major public spokespeople appear to be blaming "hackers" for the death of the site, it actually failed because of slipshod deployment and inept planning. Here are just a few of the reasons the site failed:

1. Haphazard deployment. The "About" page was still lorem ipsum. Another page was lorem ipsum with a partial grocery list. If you tried to report a post you had only two options for the reason for your report: "Test" and "Test4." This shows very little effort was put into preparing the site for launch. A competently done beta or "pre-release" phase will offer a somewhat functional site to a limited audience. What ReaganBook did was not a "pre-release" but a public release of something that was nowhere near ready for public use.

2. Insufficient moderation. It's as if they expected the only people singing up to be like minded, polite members of their inner circle. That's an unrealistic expectation even with an invite code based signup, let alone an open sign-up like the one they had.

3. No email verification when creating a new account. This made it REALLY easy for people to create spoof accounts quickly. Remember, it was claimed this was a pre-release, yet it was left wide open to the public, not limited to a discrete base of testers.

4. No functions for reporting profiles, just individual posts. If they had a moderation staff, which I doubt, being able to report abusive, gag or pornographic profiles would be a very useful tool.

5. Left directory browsing enabled for image folders. People are going to eat up bandwidth indulging in curiosity alone. This isn't hacker-grade stuff either. The average 12 year old who surfs for porn will know to check for directory browsing being enabled in image folders. Even after putting the site into maintenance mode, the image folders still have directory browsing enabled:
6. Insufficient load testing.

7. Leaving unimplemented features in the site. An apps link for a site with no apps looks sloppy.

8. No Terms of service. Without a baseline for acceptable behavior moderation becomes haphazard and unpredictable. Yes, it's obvious that anyone posting explicit gay porn to ReaganBook should get banned, but things are not always that cut and dry. This is particularly problematic for a site like ReaganBook, explicitly founded to combat censorship but run by people who are probably among the strictest censors around.

Fortunately for the people behind ReaganBook, there's hope. Here are some steps they need to take to revive ReaganBook and bring it back from the dead.

1. Conduct an honest assessment of the technological reasons for the site's collapse. Don't scapegoat vague "hackers" as was done in the haphazard public statements during the one day of live activity.

2. Mirror Gmail's roll-out. For a long time, the only way to get a Gmail account was if an existing Gmail user sent you an invite code. This restricted traffic, restricted users and let Google add or upgrade hardware before performance issues became crippling, A similar invite code strategy would allow ReaganBook to restrict the early users to the social circle they trusted most, allowing them to address technological and social issues in stages instead of all at once. This would, in turn, allow volunteer moderators to arise from the early membership.

3. Disable directory browsing on image folders.

4. Add e-mail validation to the registration process. This is an incredibly useful tool for cutting down on spammers and trolls. It won't eliminate them, but it will reduce the number of garbage accounts people can create as well as slow down the more dedicated trolls and spammers.

5. Require unique email addresses. This will force people to use a different email account for each ReaganBook login. Since email accounts can be time consuming to create, this will further slow down trolls. As a bonus, it will reduce the number of people who accidentally create an additional account, especially if the registration process is combined with a notification that an email address is already in use.

6. Write Terms of Service. Run it past a lawyer and then assign the "report" feature's options based upon the kinds of behavior you don't allow on ReaganBook.

7. Accept that you will face accusations of hypocrisy from Liberals and Moderates. ReaganBook will be censored. There's no way the people behind ReaganBook will allow liberals to share their views with the freedom they do so on Facebook. Own up to it.

8. Actually FINISH the deployment and configuration of FOXphp. Don't leave it half implemented.

9. Remove the icons and links for features you haven't implemented or don't plan to implement.

10, Add the capability to report profiles, not just posts.

11. Hire full time moderators. If you use invite codes to keep the initial roll-out limited then you can get by with one or two at relaunch. Over time you'll need to add more as traffic and activity increase.

12. Stop being so precious and thin skinned. This is the Internet baby. There WILL be trolls. Many of them are trolling you not because of actual philosophical, religious or political diss agreements, but for the sake of trolling. If you get hysterical and rant about the trolls, you'll only attract more.

13. Focus. The vague goal of a censorship free Facebook alternative is a foolish one for Conservatives to undertake, because it means allowing uncensored posting of Liberal content or face legitimate accusations of censorship. Give up the pretense of being anti-censorship and embrace the fact that this is a deliberately, enthusiastically and sincerely conservative endeavor.

14. Get ready for the law enforcement calls. All this started because a conservative was censored by Facebook for posting threats. Regardless of how you explicitly you do or do not state it, you are deliberately inviting people who threaten violence to use ReaganBook as a social media platform. You need to know what you're going to do when the inevitable happens and the authorities come knocking over someone on your site posting death threats.


Unknown said...

If it comes back up I hope 4chan finds it.

Matthew Miller said...

ReaganBook would be vaporized. There's NO way they'd be willing to do the work necessary to build a site capable of weathering a 4chan invasion. They probably SHOULD do that work, given the antagonistic nature of their rhetoric and site, but they won't.

I think the folks behind ReaganBook are too addicted to their martyr complex to really do what's necessary to avoid being in a "persecuted" position. I think they're sabotaging themselves, perhaps subconsciously. Why else would they launch such a shoddily implemented, half finished mess of a site and then blame the inevitable failure on "hackers?" They either planned it that way, or subconsciously they don't WANT the site to become a success.