A False Dichotomy

Why Fred Wilson is wrong about openness.

I read Fred Wilson’s latest blog post, “Inclusivity,” with great interest. As the co-founder of Branch and a former Meetup intern, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about communities – both online and off. Though my experience isn’t nearly as extensive as his, I’d like to challenge a few of the assumptions that Fred makes in his post.

Open Does Not (Always) Mean Inclusive

Fred’s post hinges on the belief that “open” inherently means “inclusive.” I don’t agree.

Fred is right that Reddit is large and messy and magical. But it is also notorious for having norms, inside jokes, and a personality that makes outsiders feel like, well, outsiders. 4chan is infamous for this. So is The Huffington Post. And Hacker News.

So it is wonderful that Fred lets anyone comment on A VC, and even more admirable that he regularly responds. But that doesn’t mean it “allows anyone to come in here [to A VC] and be a regular.” That’s just not true.

Whenever I visit A VC’s comments section, the same few names always appear at the top (often with a colorful badge that I don’t have and don’t know how to get). Just look at Inclusivity: its top comments were written by William Mougayar, Charlie Chrystle, and falicon (i.e. A VC’s regulars). The first perspective that disagrees with Fred’s is in the 98th comment. In fact, it’s not even on the first page. I had to “Load More Comments” to get there and sift through a tangential debate along the way. When I did find it, I discovered it was written by another A VC regular, kidmercury, who is already well-known and well-respected in the A VC community.

Do you think that makes me – a visitor with a contrarian perspective – feel welcome? Not at all. Even if Fred means otherwise.

In middle school, there was often an open seat at the cool kids’ table at lunch. But that didn’t mean I felt comfortable sitting down.

Your Internet Is Not My Internet

When I worked at Meetup, one of USV’s portfolio companies, I was shocked to learn that Parenting and Moms Groups are the backbone of that network – not technology or politics as I expected. And unlike the quintessential New York Tech Meetup, which is public, open to all, and optimizes for growth, these Moms Groups are largely private and invite-only.

But that doesn’t make these moms elitist or exclusionary. They don’t think negatively of other moms, or consider their perspectives to be of lesser quality. They just want a more intimate, safeguarded community to talk – and include their kids – in.

So it irks me when Fred says, “the best communities on the web … all follow this [open] approach.” That’s like saying every Meetup group should be as “noisy and messy” as the New York Tech Meetup, simply because it is “magical” and “scales.” What if the Astoria Moms Meetup Group doesn’t want members to yell whenever someone asks about pacifiers, like the NYTM yells whenever someone asks about revenue? Should we call “bullshit” on them?

Of course not.

That’s the wonderful thing about the Internet: the Internet you love is different from the Internet that I love – but we both love the Internet! We can all inhabit different communities, the same communities, multiple communities, or none at all – and it still works.

So Fred may believe that open communities, which are messy and noisy, work “best.” But those aren’t the lunch tables I want to sit at, and that doesn’t mean I’m looking for a country club.

Openness Is A Spectrum

Even if we agree that open groups are “better,” or more financially-viable, than closed ones, there’s a spectrum to openness. Disqus is open to anyone. Twitter is very open, unless someone tweets an @reply and you don’t happen to Follow both people. Facebook is completely closed, unless you’re a Friend, in which case it’s largely open. Typepad, which hosts A VC, is completely closed, unless you’re Fred Wilson.

So in the end, I think we’re misserved by moralizing about openness because it’s not as simple as “open equals good and closed equals bad.” It’s a spectrum. And when we talk about “velvet ropes” and “country clubs” and calling “bullshit,” it strikes me as accusatory and, ultimately, distracting.

I wouldn’t dare call “bullshit” on Fred, but I’d like to respectfully disagree.