Subscription Models, Kids’ sites, and Human Mob Mentality: Fair or Unfair?

We launched our subscription (premium service) at Moshi Monsters nearly a week ago. This is my third launch in 15 years and like the last two, it was completely predictable. Young or old, there are always a handful of very noisy users who feel charging for a service, especially a web service, is “unfair” and creates social divides.

It’s fascinating to see how mobs work in online communities. They’re not really any different from traditional offline communities, in my experience. There are the “Unfairs” who think everything should be free and don’t understand that it costs money to run a company, web or no web. Then we have the “Fairs” who understand and appreciate the costs involved and like to support the company or product as well as feel like they’re part of the adopters/exclusive membership group. And then we have the “neutrals” who are usually the majority – waiting to be led by the most convincing argument from either side.

In the 90s at AOL, there was a lot of noise from a relatively small group (relative to millions, mind you) who were less than thrilled at the flat fee. It was 2.95/hr to be online in those days unless you were lucky enough to have University access (raises her hand) or you worked for the ISP (raises her hand again) or you were a Community Leader and received 2 hours for every 1 hour you worked (raises her hand for the last time). It was damned expensive, in other words. Why anyone complained, other than partners (who stood to lose quite a lot of income as eyeballs and minutes wouldn’t amount to much cash any longer), is beyond me. But, you can always count on people to complain regardless. I had a boss at RTI International (rti.org) back in the 80s who said to me “You could give away money and someone would complain it wasn’t enough.”

In the early 00s (2002 or 2003), we started a subscription service at Sulake/Habbo UK. There were two factors in the sociological reaction that I found fascinating as an American. The UK and Finnish sites (those were the only 2 sites back then) were made up of a majority of teens who grew up in a socialist or semi-socialist economy. Social medicine and subsidized schooling, “benefits” are readily available for the have-nots in the UK. One doesn’t live in luxury when on benefits, but it sure beats the streets of NYC or San Francisco. So, we launched a very inexpensive subscription service called “Habbo Club” and a minority of Habbo teens went off on us about the social divide we were perpetuating between the “posh and the poor” as they put it. It’s much more complex than this and a great subject for another blog, but for now, let’s just say that there was a lot of petitioning going on, complaining and some destructive behavior…for a time. Not a very long time but the anti-pay group was VERY noisy and took their cause very seriously.

A few weeks ago we started blogging about our approaching “membership” at Moshi Monsters. The expected complaints were lodged, petitions were posted in our Forums, scathing emails and posts appeared, and an “us” and “them” schism was officially born at Moshi Monsters.

I had a private moment of silence for how our fabulous community of early adopters (the creatives) had changed and had now found something they found as a division – something to set them apart from each other. The “members” and the “non-members.”

For about 10 or 12 days we didn’t censor much and watched the “unfairs” start mini movements, generate negative feelings, and share sad tales of woe that had little to do with Moshi Monsters. It was beginning to snowball and cause hard feelings and honestly, it turned into a Mob Mentality exercise in futility. There was nothing positive coming from allowing the “unfairs” to bitterly complain. They were becoming an angry mob machine, grabbing everything in their path and growing larger with each post, escalating the negative and diminishing the positive. It was tedious, pointless, and non-productive and no longer served any purpose. So, I asked the team to start censoring, denying and deleting posts that were negative, whiny and angry.

I spent many hours deleting, denying and censoring last Saturday and Sunday. The situation was now beyond the point of reason. I posted several analogies (“Why not go to Nike and ask them for free shoes!” “Let’s all go to the cinema and demand free tickets.” “A wii for free in every household!”) to no avail. They didn’t want logic and likely didn’t even understand what the fuss was about by now. It had become all about the whine (or the “winge” in the UK).

Some of the Community team members who are remote have been through this once or twice (AOL and Habbo) so they knew what to expect. Understandably, there was some concern expressed from folks who are new to the process about censorship and a possible backlash. My experience tells me that the handful who are bitter and angry are unlikely to support the site and our spending time and energy on the “unfairs” would not produce anything but frustration for everyone. It’s fodder for the fire to recognise the constant complainer. There’s no winning at all in this situation. Experienced community folks (professional or non) know this. Hence, the disdain for the wretched “troll” in every community.

One group of creative kids started a group called “WFKI” and relayed the following via email to our CS staff:

Memberships!
Hello, we are the WFKI (Websites for Kids Inspectors)
We have had a few complaints from Childrens Parents about www.moshimonsters.com with Memberships.
We understand that you will need some credit for making new stuff for your website but we think that £4.50 a month is a bit to much to ask for just for the extras they can get.
Also, some familys might not be able to afford this much a month and parents might start to think their children as spoilt.
We do really understand about doing memberships and we agree with you there, but we think that £4.50 a Month is a bit to much, and if we have many more complaints, I am afraid we will have to close your website down.
We will really understand if you lower the price a bit, to about £2.00 a Month then we will understand and have no need to shut down your website.
Thankyou.
Best Regards,
WFKI (Websites For Kids Inspectors)

It doesn’t get any better than that! Hats off to their attempt.

Give the “unfairs” a voice to express their concerns or dislike but at the very least they MUST complain or combat with RESPECT. If you aren’t respectful, you may not have a voice in our community.

That’s a pretty simple way to deal with children in general (and adults, mind you). I’ve raised a fair few of both and taught many children over the years. All they require are boundaries, the rules, and a voice that’s heard and recognised. But like all of us, they sometimes can’t stop themselves and get carried away. We step in and stop them so they don’t remain their own worst enemies. Like children having a tantrum (dread…) – you must intervene sometimes. We have a responsibility to ALL our community members, not just the squeaky wheels.

What about those who could and did support us with buying memberships? Was it fair for them to feel like a minority or outside or betrayer of the few but loud “unfairs?” Should they be denied in sharing their excitement and joy at what they found as new “Moshi Members?” And what of the new folks who came in for the first time – seeing a bunch of whiny users complaining that life is unfair because we have a staff to pay? What kind of welcome is that?

Though it’s all quite fascinating to observe and study, at the end of the day we’re a business and we’re about positive and creative interaction on a mass scale.

Recognise everyone but don’t recognise the few to the detriment of the whole. Nobody wins and Herd mentality can put your entire team in a funk that can be expensive to turn back around.

There are plenty of places to bitch and moan on the web. Unless you’re in the business of bitching and moaning, my advice is to let it happen but keep it brief and take care of your contributing, positive community members first and foremost. Young or old, posh or poor, there’s something for everyone at Moshi Monsters and within the larger universal web community.

The model is a very good one, in my opinion. It sure beats the micropayment nightmare where kids steal, I mean “use” their parent’s credit cards without permission. Then you have to convince parents that it really was their child who did it. You also introduce cybercrime (password phishing, etc.) when you have a full fledged economy in your site and that can be VERY expensive to deal with. Moderation, Customer Service support, parent support, password support, tech support – everyone gets involved and it can become a cluster…mmmmhmmmm.

I love the monthly subscription model because it means MANY can experience the same level of exclusive benefits – it’s much more affordable than micro payments and it keeps the crime to a minimum.

I’m thrilled to be part of the online culture, the online business culture, and the online kids and creative culture. I won the lottery when I found my way to “online” back in the late 80s and discovered “online communities” in the early 90s. I knew I’d won the virtual lottery. I still feel that way today after 15 years.
I believe that means I am right where I should be, among the “unfairs” and the “fairs” and the fence sitters.

www.moshimonsters.com/membership if you want to see for yourself!

About Rebecca Newton

Online Community and Safety professional, musician, I love dogs and kids...and most adults.

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