Hot Tubbing an Online Community

How to “Hot Tub” an Online Community

By Caleb Clark, January 12th, 1999.

Email listservs, online communities, and social networks often parallel in person group growth patterns and grow very fast, too fast. Or sometimes a community can get hijacked by members who have agenda’s of their own, or are just not on the same page as the group. Sometimes this will lead to a situation where pleas to the list have no effect and the list is in danger of degrading into flames and lots of useless noise.

Here’s a proven way I’ve come up with to get a list back on its feet and back to its core mission.

In Oakland California there’s a hot tub in the back yard of an early producer of the Grateful Dead. You have to go very quietly along an ally next to his house, and then punch the code on a redwood door to get in. My friend did not let me see the code.

There’s a changing room, a hot tub, a redwood deck, a hammock, and a few small redwoods and plants on a lot behind his house that he never developed. Talking is discouraged. No drugs of any kind are allowed. Clothing is optional.

I have an image of the friend I was with during my visit. It’s burned into my brain. She is quite an attractive woman and was standing buck naked in a light drizzle of warm summer rain. The ex-producer had came down from his house (which is inches from the tub) and they had struck up a conversation.

So here’s this soft friendly 50 something original hippie, fully dressed, talking to this beautiful young naked woman, at night, in the rain, beads of misty water dripping from his hair, and her body, and all among redwoods in the middle of Oakland. I just swung naked in the hammock I was in and marveled at the scene. We ended up going into his house and he played some jazz on these new speakers he’d just got. They were 8 feet high, three inches thick, and looked like the Monolith in 2001. They sounded smooth as the slick redwood decking of his hot tub.

Later that night my friend told me about the hot tub. She said it had been around for years and at first there was no gate. But then a few incidents happened. Negative things, like drugs or violence. So a gate was installed with a code. The code was then given out to only a few long time users of the hot tub. They in turn shared the code with close friends they trusted. Eventually the code would spread over the years and something negative would happen. Then the code would be changed again. This had happened a few times in my friends long experience with the tub.

Meanwhile I had co-founded a group called NoEnd that was dedicated to humanizing technology and met every week in person to ask each member how their week was going, and have guest speakers who were allowed only brief presentations before we had a much longer time to question them.

NoEnd had an email list with the same humanizing mission. The group, and the list, had experienced rapid growth. The list was suffering from 900 people who had collectively descended into choas and flames with too many emails, of too little humanizing content.

I had the idea from my hot tub experience map over their same tactic with changing the locks. Thus “hot tubbing” an email list.

Hot Tubbing an Online Community

When a list gets too big, has too many flames, and won’t respond to cries for sanity from it’s core members, hot tub it by doing this:

  1. Send out a well subject headered message saying something like: “in 24 hours this list will end. A new list will start up. The new lists’ address will be given out at (local in-person meetings, or two a core of members to pass on). If you want to start your own local list, please do so. We are sorry for the this but this list can no longer support the number of people on it.”
  2. Kill the list.
  3. Start a new one.
  4. Give out the address to only a few folks to “get” the list’s mission.
  5. Your core group will immediately subscribe to the new list and email out their close friends the new address. In a few months you’ll have a good list again, albeit much smaller.

It worked for NoEnd, and to date we’ve not had to Hot Tub the list again, although we all know it’s an option, which helps when things begin to get sticky.

Copyright 1999, Caleb Clark

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