On July 14th, 1999, a programmer named Matthew Haughey made the first post on a blog he'd set up for himself and a few friends in an attempt to collect interesting links. It was a link to a site called 'Cat-scan.com'; this being the Internet, of course, it had little to do with medical imaging.
"Cat-Scan.com is one of the strangest sites I've seen in some time," wrote Haughey. "I have no idea how these people got their cats wedged into their scanners, or why."
This was how MetaFilter started, 10 years ago: with wry humour and some cat photos. Next week, thousands of people will be toasting its anniversary - hundreds of them at parties in rented-out pubs in cities from Toronto to Tokyo.
For MetaFilter, a funny thing happened on the way to success. The Web is full of sites that started small and grew to unseemly proportions. But a good conversation is hard to have online. Popular sites often wind up as fiefdoms run by the self-important, overrun by zealots, and prone to bring out the baboon within.
Matt Haughey's creation got big, too: those three or four friends became tens of thousands of members. But MetaFilter became that rarest of online creatures: a booming online community that's mostly intelligent, mostly civil, and mostly functional. It's not just a good read, and it's not just popular and lively, but it actually makes one feel slightly better about being human. It might be the best site on the Internet. The trick is trying to explain why it happened.
MetaFilter is terrifically simple in concept. Every day, members post two or three dozen entries to the site's front page, then gather round to discuss them. The posts attempt to gather the "best of the web," though exactly what that means is the subject of endless debate.
Last Monday's mix, for instance, included a roundup of online resources about California's disintegrating budget, a discussion of the death of Robert McNamara, an intriguing obituary from Cleveland, and an eye-opening introduction to the Giant Pacific Octopus (which turns out to be larger, smarter and nastier than you'd have thought).
There's considerable pressure on posters to make their contributions good. Interesting entries get showered with praise; the dull, dated or irrelevant will draw complaints (or worse, a "meh"). The site plays out like a never-ending editorial meeting, with members hashing out the relevance of each new story as it comes up.
MetaFilter's denizens have a penchant for overthinking, a penchant for being too clever by half, a penchant for the occasional in-joke. The prevailing sensibility leans toward the liberal and the smart-ass. But there's also a pervasive spirit of fair play. The discussion is usually free of the ad-hominem bickering, and MeFi has a way of drawing out personal connections.
A discussion about the birds that brought Capt. Sullenberger's plane into the Hudson was enlivened by a lab-worker who studies bird-strikes. A debate about whether the Road Runner says "Meep meep" or "Beep beep" was settled by a family friend of the Looney Tunes' creators.
It's all a bit utopian, in its way. In an age where websites are always hunting for the next great trick for keeping unruly commentors in line - voting mechanisms? User scores? Enforced real names? - MetaFilter seems to be held together by the sheer stubbornness of its culture. A crew of four moderators keeps an eye on things, pruning judiciously, but their presence is hardly noticeable.
The site's rules are simple and loosely enforced. The moderators enforce a strict ban on posting self-promotional links, for instance, but many of the site's other mores are up for debate. (A separate discussion board is reserved for discussions of the MetaFilter itself, sparing casual readers the endless self-examination.) People who violate the site's spirit of civility have to worry more about irate locals than vengeful moderators.
"MetaFilter has a very active immune system," wrote Josh Millard, one of the site's moderators, when I e-mailed to ask how the site's civility had lasted a decade. "People on the site have long memories, a keen sense of the spirit of the site, and a willingness to speak up when they think something is wrong."
A few practical decisions helped along the way. Chief among them was managing the site's growth. Haughey kept a tight grip on new signups, even shutting them down altogether in some of the early years. Nowadays, to post links and comments on the site, members have to pay a one-time $5 fee. (A fee, in the spirit of disclosure, that I've paid myself.)
It's not much, but a buy-in is a buy-in. It's also enough of a barrier to discourage those who would join on a whim, drop a stink-bomb, and leave. The influx of new members is kept to a manageable dozen or so every day - only a fraction of whom will become active contributors - and the result is an exercise in controlled assimilation.
"It's enough that there's always new blood, new perspectives, new expertise showing up, but it's not so much that any surge of newbies is going to dilute the extant site culture," notes Millard.
Over the years, the community has the same model to other endeavours. A thriving question-and-answer site, Ask MetaFilter, queries the hive-mind for most answers local or global. MeFi Music encourages members to post their songs, and runs regular challenges. (A June challenge to cover Leonard Cohen led to the appearance of no fewer than 28 different recordings of Hallelujah; the best was recorded as ska dance.)
The MetaFilter example puts the lie to a some entrenched online myths. One is that you can't have a conversation online without leaning on props like voting systems and heavy-handed moderation. Another is that growing websites are doomed to suffer from entropy, losing their focus and culture with time. And another is that "community" is just a euphemism for lettings commentators run amuck and calling it progress.
It doesn't have to be that way. A decade later, MetaFilter is thriving. Every year, on July 14, someone re-posts that original post from Matt Haughey as an item on MetaFilter, even though Cat-scan.com itself stopped working years ago.
"Cat-scan.com is one of the strangest sites I've seen in some time," it says. It's a happy-birthday message, and many happy returns follow. For new joiners, the in-joke's origins can be confusing, but they figure it out. The old folks are good at explaining.