10 Questions with Andrew Mason of ThePoint.com

The PointIf you haven’t seen the (relatively) new site, The Point take a swing by. The concept is extremely interesting (more on that below), but I’ve been blown away by the way they’ve designed the site. A social designer like myself gets all giddy when feature after hoped-for feature is there, creating a fantastic user experience. I’ll be writing more about the site design soon, but in the mean time, Andrew Mason was kind enough to kick on with the ongoing 10 Questions series. Thanks, Andrew!

(By the way, The Point is looking for a Community Manager. Check out the listing on the Community Guy Jobs Board)

1. So what is The Point?

The Point is a web site for organizing group actions. We help people congregate around the issues they care about and combine forces to make things happen. Campaigns (group actions) on The Point are all based on the “tipping point” model – participants take action to solve their problem, but only once a critical mass of people have committed such that the combined force will “tip” the issue. The Point helps you know in advance whether your participation will make a difference.

2. What’s the difference between Problems vs. Campaigns?

Campaigns are designed around actually doing something. When someone creates a campaign, (s)he specifies an action to be taken by the people who join. Once the campaign reaches its tipping point, everyone is expected to do that thing, whether it’s showing up somewhere, donating money, or changing your behavior somehow. The idea is that campaigns, once they tip, graduate into the physical world.Problems are more like focused discussion forums. They’re for when you’re frustrated about something but unsure how to fix it, so you want to work through it with other people. Also, Problems tie together campaigns that address the same issue. For example, you could look at a “Global Warming” problem to see all the campaigns on the site that are addressing global warming.

3. While not at all difficult, the function of the site seems a bit complex at first. Do you find that people who are upset enough, or want something to change or happen bad enough are more inclined to spend a little more time building something to address that?

Most people don’t have trouble understanding the concept, but it can be tough to immediately think of a campaign that addresses a problem you’re dealing with at that moment. I think this is generally due to the (understandable) atrophy of collective action as a tactic for getting things done. I say it’s understandable because collective action has inherent problems that lead to cumbersome and unpredictable results. People don’t do it because, so often, it doesn’t work. But the Internet changes a lot of the underlying conditions that caused us to discount collective action in the first place. It’s our great challenge to tease people’s imaginations into dreaming up what’s possible in a world where collective action works, and you can get a disparate collection of people together to take an action designed to realize a shared goal.

Here’s the dynamic we’ve been observing. People see The Point, they get the way it works, think it’s cool, and then go on with their lives. But then something pops up, a frustrating problem that they can’t address alone, and The Point pops into their mind as a tool that’s uniquely appropriate for attacking the issue. So they come back and start or join a campaign. While a lot of our time early one was spent identifying current events where The Point could be useful and then finding people to start campaigns, we’re now seeing those campaigns pop up organically, before we even know about the issue. That’s been nice.

As to whether we think that people are upset enough, the only person that needs to really do much is the campaign creator, and then other people just need to join. The whole idea of The Point is to reduce the time required to care about something by only asking people to act once the conditions exist for action to matter. For me at least, that’s a lot more attractive than the alternatives — a petition or a rally — where you have no idea what you’re going to accomplish. The Point is trying use the Web to make group action as efficient and predictable as Netflix makes renting movies.

4. It seems like content moderation would be crucial on a site built around complaints and problems. How do you address this issue?

First, I wouldn’t say we’re build around complaints and problems. We’re build around group action. Anything that takes a bunch of people to get done, you can make it happen with The Point. It just so happens that complaints and problems often require a bunch of people to solve, but so does funding the re-beautification of your neighborhood park, or getting a group discount at your gym.

That said, your question is still important. We have a staff that censors the blatantly obscene. We have plans to involve our user community in policing the site, as well as a censor.thepoint.com sub-site where the curious can review and pass judgment upon our manifestations of absolute power.

5. How does your team handle community management functions? Do you have a full-time community manager?

We do. We have one guy that works with campaign creators, helping them fine-tune their campaigns and get the word out. We have another guy that scours the Web for things that would work great on The Point and encourages people to start campaigns. And I do a fair deal of both.

Community management can be really time consuming for us. Sometimes, we spend several hours a day working with a single campaign organizer. It’s not just about telling people how to use Facebook and Digg to attract people to their campaign, we have to help them design it too, which often requires an understanding of the issue they’re trying to address. For example, say you’re upset that a chemical company is polluting your lake. What’s a group action that will force that chemical company to stop? You have to find out who buys their products, and if they’re upset enough to take action. If not, you have to find out who has influence over the buyers, and see if the situation upsets them. And so on. Once you find a constituency, you have to decide on an action they would be willing to take, and how many of them it will take to offset the benefit of polluting the lake.

Some campaigns are really straight forward, but others require a lot of thought to do right. That, again, is why we have the Problems section — for people to call on each other’s expertise to work through these questions.

6. Since it’s fairly simple to join a new campaign, how do you ensure members take the joining of a campaign seriously?

For campaigns that raise money, it’s easy — we take your credit card information up front, we just don’t charge you until the tipping point is reached. The answer is more interesting when it comes to the campaigns that ask people to do something.

Through the language on the site, we try and make it clear that people are committing to do something, and if they are asked to take action, it is only because it is necessary to bring about change. We also send people monthly reminders of their commitments, and make it really easy for people to resign from a campaign if for whatever reason they no longer want to participate.

To some extent, we’re starting with the assumption that people are perfectly reliable and will do exactly what they say they’re going to do. I think that the healthiest communities start out by assuming the best of their users, and then only shorten the leash where it’s proven necessary. Once we start getting a sense for how people are following through on their commitments to action, we have a lot of ideas on how we can create fun incentives for people to follow through and stay engaged.

Also, many campaigns are self-enforcing in the sense that the tipping action is something they’d like to do, but they can’t for some reason. These are the “safety through numbers” situations, i.e. if a few people take the action, those people lose big time, but if you get enough people, everyone wins. For example, say your job has a business casual dress code. If you and you alone wear jeans, you’ll be punished, you lose, it’s not worth it. But if everyone started wearing jeans on the same day, everyone wins. So if this were organized through a campaign on The Point (“we will start wearing jeans to work if X people join”), you’ll take it seriously because wearing jeans is your preferred state. The persistence of policies like “business casual” relies on an inability to coordinate hairpin changes in group behavior. With The Point, you can’t rely on that inability anymore.

7. The Point has a fairly robust invitation and sharing process to help drive awareness of a specific campaign. Are users putting these tools to work? What’s your dream scenario for how users would build support for their campaign?

Yeah, people have been sending invitations. We’ve also seen a lot of people embedding campaign widgets in their web pages. But there’s so much more we want to do. For example, we’re in the process of changing the way you sign up for your first campaign. Right now, you have to create an account first, and then wait for a verification email — it’s a pain. We’re making it a seamless, one step process. We’re also encouraging people to make use of sites like Digg, and we’ve just released a cool Facebook application called “Ultimatums.”

As for the dream scenario: As much as The Point can be a self-contained community, we really see ourselves as a tool that enhances existing communities. So if you’re upset about something, chances are, there’s already a place on the Web where people are talking about it. The problem is, there’s no way for them to bottle that frustration and release it once enough builds up to force change. We want to see our users inject our tools in those places. We want campaign widgets to be like dream catchers, sprinkled in communities all over the Web. Except, instead of catching dreams, they’re catching pissed off people. We register their pissed-offedness, and send them on their merry ways. And then once the bottle fills up, we shoot the a note saying, “Hey! There’s enough of you to fix the problem! Do what you said you’re going to do and you’ll have your solution!”

8. When I’m looking at a particular target, say AT&T, I can set my relationship to the target (in my case, I’m a customer of AT&T). Why is this important? How do you deal with people saying they’re an employee when they’re not?

Right now, it can be used to find other people who share your relationship — e.g. you want to find other customers of AT&T because you’re launching a campaign to get them to stop proverbially killing kittens and you think other AT&T customers would be interested in it.

But we have embarrassingly grandiose ideas about what this information could enable. I imagine a tool like The Point acting as a market system for corporate policy decisions. Imagine, you come to The Point, and the first thing you do is enter all the companies you interact with somehow. Who makes your computer? Your shoes? Your toothpaste? Who cuts your hair? Not so we can “deliver you a more targeted advertising experience,” which is about as compelling as eating razor blades, but so we can tell you what those companies are doing, and give you a direct path to influence corporate policy. We have a “supply chain” feature that maps the relationship between different companies. So, for example, logging company X sells to paper mill Y which sells to consumer-accessible stationery store Z. You tell The Point which companies you interact with directly, and we’ll tell you all the ones you’re supporting indirectly.

With that information, we can tell you whenever a company that you support institutes a new policy. Company A has changed their return policy. Company B donated is lobbying for something. Company C is logging rain forests. Never heard of company C? Well, they sell to company X, who sells to paper mill Y who sells to stationery store Z, where you buy your paper. Are you interested in joining a campaign to end Z’s relationship with Y?

When effectively aggregated, the consumer’s purchasing power is ultimate power. The Point could be a tool for individuals to, in effect, regulate corporate policy by wielding their pocketbooks. No need for government. This is true democracy, this is what America’s all about! And the efficiency of the process, I think, is a win for individuals and companies alike.

9. What are the tricks of the trade for making a campaign successful?

The site is young, so we’re still figuring it out. But I a few educated guesses:

Write your campaign to appeal to the lack of risk intrinsic in our model. Make sure you play up the fact that there’s nothing to lose — you won’t be asked to do anything unless enough resources have been gathered to reach your goal. A good example of this is the campaign about building a winter dome over Chicago. Do you think something like that would have raised a dime if people had to consider whether it would actually get done? All they have to think about is what it’s worth to them, and that simplification has resulted in over $200,000 being raised.

Also, use a tone that’s going to appeal to a wide variety of people. Don’t say that you think George Bush should be put in jail unless that’s the purpose of your campaign. Avoid superfluous alienation.

Finally, the campaigns that have had the most success are the ones that have gotten traction in existing communities. Post links in the places where people already care about the issue, and you’ll have greater success.

10. What do you not see The Point users doing much that you’d love them to use more often? What feature(s) would you just love to implement, if not for those pesky technology limits?

I’ve talked about some of the features above, and there are a lot more like them. The toughest thing for us to answer is, “how much of a learning curve will people tolerate?” We could build an extremely robust system for decision making and campaign governance, but if it gets complex, it won’t be worth investing the time to learn for many people. We struggle with that every day.


For information about my Community Consulting, Training and Speaker services, or to find out more about Dinner5, my unique community for community builders, contact me today.

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