Scaling pains at a community site

· The Power of Many

Quoting from The LitKicks Board Archive (I interviewed Levi and discussed Literary Kicks in the book):

In January 2001, I was playing around with some Java software at work when I heard the poet Gregory Corso had died. I decided to try this new software out by putting up a Corso tribute board, and this is how the LitKicks boards were born.

The boards grew and evolved into a massive social experiment, often taking on a life of their own. Last July, 684,000 messages later, Caryn and Jamelah and I decided to shut down the boards and redesign the entire site for a more focused, literary experience. We’ve been getting hate mail ever since. Take, for instance, this charming missive that recently arrived: “You should know that you have singlehandedly destroyed a great community. I could never have guessed that you would commit such a selfish and domineering act to people who were your friends, by which I include myself.”

The truth is, we like getting hate mail because it makes us feel like someone cares what we do. But, in fact, it was a very difficult decision for us to change the site, and I guess it was my own techie pride that prevented me from revealing one major reason we had to make this change. By the summer of last year, the board software was falling apart.

Once healthy and fast, the system was choking on its backlog of data, and it could take two or three minutes to pull up a message more than a few months old. In early 2004, many of us tried to read through the old boards to find the best poems and stories to use in the Action Poetry book, and this was when it became clear how bad the situation had become. Any message over a year old had been lost in a cold oblivion, from which it might be coaxed out if the software felt like it. I had always viewed the boards as a literary experiment, but literature is something that endures through time, and the software wasn’t letting this happen.

In fact, I work as a web systems architect, and I know how to build scalable community software that can elegantly handle massive amounts of traffic. But LitKicks wasn’t built that way. I had never set up the infrastructure required to handle the level of activity we were getting on this site, and by the summer of 2004 LitKicks was a Titanic waiting to sink. If you ever tried to read a LitKicks page and saw a Java error — well, yeah, that was the iceberg peeking through the hull.

I liked the old boards a lot. There was a creative anarchy there, and a real spirit of fun. But there was also an overriding mood of underachievement, a sort of prevailing “dumb chic” (no doubt inspired by Charles Bukowski, the epitome of dumb chic), that seemed like a creative dead end. Occasional moments of genius cropped up on one board or another, but there were also long stretches of depressing banality. By the spring of 2004 I wasn’t sure if I wanted to rebuild the existing site with a different software package or instead come up with an all new format, a new beginning for LitKicks. I asked Jamelah and Caryn if either of them felt remotely satisfied with the boards, and when they both told me they didn’t, the decision seemed clear: shake things up, try something new.

The new LitKicks is still “finding itself”, I think. The public reaction to the board shutdown was more negative than I’d expected, and I think some people are still warming up to the new format, which is designed to move slower and generate more thoughtful writings and conversations. But LitKicks has been around for more than ten years, and the site is designed to change, to evolve, to do surprising things. The current version is our latest attempt at being what we should be, but we’re not going to rest or stop here, just as we’ve never stopped at any of our previous incarnations.

As for the old boards, I’m happy to tell you that I’ve moved them all to a brand new archive server, designed to be fast and error-free. Here it is, for all posterity: the permanent LitKicks Board Archive.

Looking back at this vast array of human-generated spontaneous content, I have to wonder, what does it all mean? There are over a hundred thousand poems here, for instance … but what do they all add up to in the larger scheme of things? How can these poems be read? What significance does yesterday’s stream of literary ephemera hold today, if any?

I was very proud when the Library of Congress included posts from various LitKicks boards in September and October 2001 in their web archive of that moment in history. But what about the rest of this huge mass of content? I am really not sure what good this archive is, and for that matter I am still not exactly sure what good LitKicks is. I’d like to hear what you think, and I’d like to know whether or not you think these old boards are worth archiving at all, and why.

I also wanted to explain why I left two of the more popular (but less literary) LitKicks boards out of the permanent archive. It was a hard decision not to migrate Mindless Chatter to the new server. But this board had about three times as many messages as any other LitKicks board, and while most of it certainly was mindless, I really didn’t find that much of it was timeless. We had laughs on this board, but you probably had to be there, and you can’t be there anymore, so Mindless Chatter didn’t make it to the archive.

I felt less ambivalent about my decision not to move the Flames board into the archive. This actually felt good to me. During the 42 months of the LitKicks Boards Experience, I often had to remind writers that the point of LitKicks wasn’t to help strangers dislike each other, but to help them like each other. Flames was a fun place (some of my own best posts showed up there, I think) … but I am not going to pay disk charges to store hatred and misunderstanding. Both these commodities are cheap, and readily available elsewhere.

Anyway, I do have text-file backups of these boards, along with the others, so nothing is lost to posterity. I hope you’ll go visit the LitKicks Board Archive in its new home, and I think you’ll agree with me that there’s a hell of a lot of interesting stuff there. Thanks for being part of it, if you were. And whether you were or not … hang around, and help us figure out what the current version of LitKicks is supposed to evolve into.