We have a special treat today; an interview with NY promoter, writer, and creative force of nature Chi Chi Valenti. She presides over two bustling communities: Motherboards NYC and Queenmother.TV, both powered by Hoop.la. Growing her communities over the course of more than a decade, she has a lot of great advice for those just starting out as well as the experts. (Thank you for chatting with me, Chi Chi!)
As the Empress of NY nightlife, should we greet you with any special salutations?
“Your Grace” is always nice!
You’ve seen online community evolve and grow since 2000, what do you think has been the biggest shift over the last 12 years?
When we started the Motherboards in March 2001, we constantly had to explain to people what an online community was, and its potential power for worldwide collaboration and dissemination of alternative cultures. Now, through so many examples including the Hurricane Katrina response and the Crisis Commons movement, people really understand how important and even life-saving these “places” can be. That is the biggest positive change.
The biggest negative change since we began is the popularity of having a single online identity only – logging in to freestanding communities with your Facebook or Twitter persona, for example. This makes people more false and self-aware in their posting, to the detriment of niche communities and conversations. I think independent online communities like ours are more vibrant when users can have a distinct identity from site to site. No one should have to be a brand all the time!
As a fairly public person here in New York who has worked in nightlife and written about alternative culture for decades, I have always appreciated having my privacy to discuss important subjects online and many of our hardcore members feel the same way. Some of them come to the boards to escape their Facebook or Tumblr stalkers, we are just a more private place by design.
What was your original reason for starting the communities?
Our original community The Motherboards was founded soon after our underground NYC nightclub (called MOTHER) closed in June 2000. MOTHER (recently remembered in a BLONDIE song by the same name) was a very vibrant place for its four year run, and the different tribes who produced and attended our weekly parties needed to keep in touch and spread word of their latest events. These ranged from costume designers, poets and drag stars to scene veterans of the Warhol and Haring eras and vampyre enthusiasts, and there were questions about how well they would mix online.
I was a seasoned online community participant, but a total newb about servers and the back-end of bulletin boards. I began to examine different bulletin board software, and OpenTopic, with its completely hosted solution with lots of support seemed the best way to go. We “opened” in March 2001 with a few hundred members invited from our club email lists.
As a barely six-month old community, on 9/11/01 we found ourselves suddenly running the default check-in place for nightclubbers and downtown NYC expats all over the world, from our vantage point a mile and a half from the WTC in New York City’s East Village. That was a very early and defining moment for us, one that personifies the very special value of online communities.
What need are your online forums meeting?
Eleven years later, the Motherboards and the Queen Mother forums are still focused towards their original mission – keeping their communities connected and letting people know where to find them as the party (and its satellite projects) moves around the city and the world.
The Motherboards have also become a collective resource of NYC nightclub history and lore, a sort of wiki if you like, especially for the pre-internet period of 1970-1995. People from teenagers to Golden Agers often arrive at The Motherboards after an online search for an obscure star of a 1980s club or a weekly party they may have loved fifteen years ago. Some stay and leave their own stories or recollections in the topic, and become permanent Motherboards enthusiasts. We even have a memorial forum for NY nightclub folk, called The Endless Night.
And finally, The Motherboards throws the occasional BIG event, like ARCADIA, a giant collaborative art project at the late CBGB’s gallery and KREWE YORK, a boards-produced trip to the first Mardi Gras in New Orleans post-Katrina.
Is this a labor of love, or is it monetized? Are you offering premium memberships?
The Motherboards are really a community effort, self-sufficient and modestly profitable on a combination of Adwords, individual donations, personals on the QueenMother.tv website and other support. We offered premium memberships for many years when we were an Eve community, which really helped at the time, when our hosting bill could be 3-4 times higher than it is as TWO Hoop.la sites now. Since we moved last year, we’ve been fine without reinstating premium memberships.
Do you have a team helping you administer and moderate the communities?
My husband (the DJ Johnny Dynell) and I have a longtime production company The Jackie Factory, and the small team that goes along with that to help monitor both communities and do simple upkeep. We also have one or two volunteer moderators per site at present, but both communities’ active members are pretty vigilant about flagging spam or hate speech, so it really more about monitoring the queue at this point!
Are there any specific strategies for dealing with two different communities? Do you have a lot of overlap in membership? Does this create any special moderation issues?
Last year when Hoop.la became available, we were moving from our old Eve Community platform anyway, and decided to split our Queen Mother forums (for NYC transgender and drag topics) to their own site. We had wanted to do this for awhile as there really wasn’t that much overlap between the Queen Mother forums and the original Motherboards any more.
The Queen Mother forums are more purely social and party-specific at this point. Many of those parties tend to move around a lot, and don’t really do press in the same way as non-transgender parties, so forums present a perfect place to make plans, ask questions etc. Our biggest moderation problem is when people get a bit too frisky on there – but the producers of these parties and some of their regulars are vigilant about monitoring their own topics.
What are your tips for bringing fresh blood to a long-term community with established members?
Make sure that titles of topics or blog posts truly reflect the content within, and if you have interesting niche discussions going on, many new people will find you simply through web searches. Also, use the social sharing features to tweet or post specific topics to Facebook and other communities you may participate in. Your members will do the same!
You migrated from Eve Community to Hoop.la; do you have any advice for others who might be considering a move (either Hoop.la specific or just for any community owner who wants to move to a new platform)?
We admins and moderators do find Hoop.la a lot easier to use and to explain than our Eve Community was, though we did miss a few of the Eve features when we first migrated. Hoop.la feels more modern to our users, and the price is great! These days your members will want the ability to tweet or share directly from their topic and Hoop.la makes it so easy for them to do that. I would even recommend Hoop.la to new community owners and those with very little experience – as always in my eleven years with Social Strata and its previous iterations including Infopop, the support is always flawless.
What do you see as the best way to establish ground rules and tone for a large, rambunctious community? Has it been challenging?
We owe a lot to our early technical helpers and moderators, who were all volunteers and helped set a clear community tone in their various forums.
They included a cross-dressing ex-Marine and a transgendered artist who both had pretty major careers in technical computing. When you have that kind of commitment to a project, it invites others to see it as important and worth preserving too.
I think every community administrator will tell you that keeping civility intact, especially during political discussions, is always a great challenge. That is why we encourage our frequent posters and core visitors to flag whenever they like, and we really keep up with those notifications. And of course, monitoring for spam, which had increased enough to make us finally start an approval queue for new memberships recently.
What’s next for The Jackie Factory? Any big projects or events you’d like to shout-out?
Our upcoming Stevie Nicks extravaganza NIGHT OF 1000 STEVIES 22 will fill the Highline Ballroom NYC on May 11
HOWL! The East Village Arts festival that we co-produce every year is free June 1-3 in Tompkins Square Park
Thanks Chi Chi, we wish you and your communities continued success!