When Innovation Competes With Your Traditional Values

Sometimes, the very things that breed success on the web—be they social media or ranking high on the search engines—go against your organization's DNA. When faced with the decision to adapt or stick to tradition, which way do you go?

My favorite little piece of last week was an offbeat aside on author George R.R. Martin, the guy behind the books that became the HBO megahit Game of Thrones.

He’s a WordStar user, but more important, he’s a LiveJournal user, regularly updating his account, which he goes out of his way to emphasize is “Not a Blog.” People like him still exist, and as communities evolve, their value doesn’t necessarily go away as they age.

But that doesn’t mean outside factors won’t play a role in a website’s evolution. Another site from the early-2000s era of inter-webbing, MetaFilter, showed up in the news last week after it announced it was laying off much of its staff in a last-ditch effort to deal with a severe drop in revenue—a drop caused by a massive, unexpected decline in the website’s traffic.

MetaFilter’s decline essentially was tied to a change in a Google search algorithm. In an effort to stop spam, Google implemented a series of changes intended to stop the rise of spammy sites. As a result, MetaFilter’s popular sister site “Ask MetaFilter,” something of a proto-Quora, saw its traffic drop by 40 percent overnight, with no real explanation.

MetaFilter is old-school—it looks like a sparser version of Reddit, which is already quite sparse—and its design hasn’t really changed since it launched in 1999. It wasn’t aiming to game the search engines (“I find the whole business kind of gross,” founder Matt Haughey wrote of search engine optimization on Medium last week), but it got caught up anyway, somehow breaking some weird rule that Google has yet to explain to the founder of the site. The site was basically the opposite of spammy—heavily moderated by human hands, requiring a small membership fee to even comment on a post—but that wasn’t enough to stop the bloodshed.

The short version of what happened was touched upon by The Washington Post‘s Caitlin Dewey: Essentially, MetaFilter is the internet’s version of a historic building, staying largely the same even while the rest of the city grows by leaps and bounds in ways that couldn’t be imagined when that historic building first opened its doors. It’s beautiful, but it’s no skyscraper.

The internet doesn’t work like MetaFilter anymore.

The Competition Moves Faster

Earlier this month, The New York Times drew a similar to-do over a document that had been leaked to the media which suggested that, despite the outward image of the newspaper as an online standout, it was struggling to keep up with innovation. (By pure chance, I mentioned it in the same roundup as the Martin piece.)

The Times isn’t facing the structural breakdowns that MetaFilter did—where much of the strength of its business model suddenly disappeared one day—but it underlines the effects of technology disruption from the outside pretty effectively. When Gawker and The Huffington Post can shortly summarize one of your original articles and draw significantly more traffic from it than you ever could, something’s wrong.

When your newsroom is supremely focused on the front page of the newspaper—to the point where your company’s performance reviews are tied to it—at a time when most of your eyeballs are coming from the web, something’s wrong.

And when your Twitter page and Facebook page are run by two separate departments, something’s definitely wrong.

Past vs. Future

The thing is, when it comes to your web presence, you need a strategy to embrace these changes as they come. Every couple of months, it’s good to look at what’s going right and what’s going wrong and figure out how to keep these things moving. You don’t want the next trend in mobile or social to catch you off guard. You want to be ready.

But it’s never that easy, is it? There are stakeholders involved—your board, your members, your boss—and they may limit how far you can stray from the way things have always been done. Your traditions—and associations are nothing if not for their traditions—could be twisting your arm and holding you back, given the harsh realities of the ever-disrupting world around you.

The question that came to mind for me when thinking about this was a simple one: Where’s the line between tradition and disruption? Does it matter if you’re the biggest if it means you have to give up your values in the process?

MetaFilter is a great site because it drives great conversations and appreciates those who say smart things. It doesn’t ask for less or more than that. In an era where everything turns into an ugly fight on Twitter, it’s downright noble.

But the downside is that MetaFilter will never scale in the way a newer, flashier site does. Likewise, The New York Times is a publication that earned its reputation on strong traditions—ones that threaten to hobble it as it tries to keep up with the BuzzFeeds of the world.

I can’t speak for either organization, but my bet is that MetaFilter will figure out how to survive in its current form somehow—likely by leaning on user donations or subscriptions. The Times will probably take that massive report to heart, making some changes and finding ways to balance its tradition with the way things work these days.

If faced with a similar question, which direction would you go?


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!