If there's one fundamental truth here at Japers' Rink, it's that we're nothing without our readers. You guys support, inspire and challenge us, and keep us grounded. We don't do anything around here without our readers first and foremost in our minds, because that community - our community - matters to us.
As the community gets bigger and bigger, however, it gets trickier and trickier to maintain the integrity of what has helped us to grow in the first place, namely offering the very best place to discuss the Caps with the best-informed Caps fans. So we wanted to get a feel for the "State of the Blog," so to speak, from the perspective of the community members, focused not so much on our content, but rather on the interactions we have with one another in the comments to posts. We wanted to ask a few of our more frequent commentors a few of questions and let them hash it out, roundtable style, but encourage everyone to chime in in the comments. So without further ado, here are the questions and we'll turn it over to "the people"...
What is Japers' Rink, fundamentally?
What enhances or detracts from your experience on the site?
What would you like The Rink to be?
How do we get there from here?
Gould Old Days: In the Time of Bob Gould, there was nothing but the Post, the Times, WTOP, and HTS. True story: My brother once wrote to the Hershey Bears because he heard they were the Caps' minor league affiliate, and he asked them for more information. They wrote him a nice note and sent him a press guide. So he got one magazine, with stats from the previous year. That was the only way to keep up with the farm, and I'm sure less than a dozen Caps fans even did that.
Now we have the opposite problem. Information about every player the Caps have drafted or signed is available, whether they play in the NHL, AHL, ECHL, SEL, KHL, CHL, OHL, WHL, college leagues, you name it. Every story of interest to a Caps fan is instantly available on the internet -- somewhere, and in some language. And that's the problem. Information overload. How do you cut through it all? How do you try to make sense of it? And where do you find a like-minded group of people who want to talk about it?
What is Japers' Rink, fundamentally?
This is the first and last place I go for Caps information, analysis, and conversation. I have only three other primary sources: the games themselves on TV; the Capitals Report podcast; and the Old Barn Hershey podcast. At this point, if I read, listen to, or watch anything else, it's probably because someone on the Rink told me to.
Information: The Rink is a phenomenal aggregator, and most of the credit goes to JP. I really believe that people take the links posts and "what we're reading" sidebar for granted because they just sort of magically appear. But it's a heck of a lot of work. The Rink really helps us all keep up with the news, and I'm sure it makes a huge difference for folks like Ed Frankovic, RMNB, or John Walton to get a steady audience push from us whenever they write something good. This role is the one that, in my mind, makes Japers' Rink the center of the Caps media universe.
Analysis: Aggregating news makes the Rink valuable, but the analysis makes the Rink excellent. "Scholarship" is not too strong a word for what goes on here. And the real strength is the different voices. JP's empiricism. Getz's analytics. Pepper's poetry. Tuvan's humor and perspective. And Becca's ability to cut through to the heart of something. There is some seriously good writing going on here, and I think in the future we'll come to realize that this place turned out to be the formal record of what happened with the Caps and what it meant, even more than the Post or capitals.nhl.com.
Community: The intro above by JP stressed community, but I'm listing it third here on purpose. Because what goes on above the red bar that says "Comments" truly is more important than what happens below it. This may sound funny coming from me (5000+ comments). Of course I enjoy commenting here. I genuinely like the people and find the conversation very stimulating. As a Caps fan living on the other side of the country, this is a great way to connect. But we have to keep things in perspective, and not put the cart before the horse. It's the content, not the comments, that makes the site.
Bald Pollack: Gouldie pretty much covers this, but I think hands down Japers' Rink is the most analytical and objective source of information and recommendations about the Washington Capitals. The only real newspaper in town doesn't provide analysis (when their writers aren't doing schtick berating the sport), and Joe B./Locker are among the best in the league for its objectivity and analysis. The Rink ties this altogether on their own, doing it with a degree of writing quality (the second quality I like) not found in many other blogs. Each voice who contributes large content to the site, while being their own, share their insight and passion for the Capitals and those who wear the sweater and for the site they represent, and do it damn well.
The third thing is how organic user-discussions and contributions can turn into measurable wins. Whether it's content for articles or its own individual ticket exchange, these were first started by a modest idea and now are valuable parts of the site. We even helped get someone engaged for goodness sake! It's those contributions that not only help make the Rink a more valuable component for Caps fans, and the result, be it meetups, contests, pickup games at KCI or other content you wouldn't get anywhere else, make for a site that's growing in popularity in leaps and bounds. I have no doubt that respect will follow.
Knee high to a duck: Throwing my hat into the objectivity/analysis ring; I found Japers’ through the CI blogroll when I was looking to educate myself on matters Caps, read an article pertaining to - guess who - Jeff Schultz, who was being roundly panned in the CI comments at the time. I can’t remember the exact whiches or whereabouts today, but I was hooked – again reiterating, the writing was top notch and there was real, thoughtful analysis of both the statistics in question and the subjective observation of his play. I clicked the comments and found some profound hockey discussion that expanded my knowledge of the game and my perspective. To me, that’s Japers’ in a nutshell – high-test content throughout the user experience.
Gouldie talked about not putting the cart before the horse and I could not agree more; the community here is very good, but it absolutely wouldn’t exist without a huge amount of original, very high quality content coming from the site authors - hockey content in general, usually Caps-centric content in specific. Japers’ is fundamentally a lens through which we view the team we root for, be that in gathering and disseminating information, analyzing what’s been gathered, or refining that analysis through what amounts to crowd-sourcing, or all three at once. However, you need the first for context, the second for content and only then can you have the third and a thriving, engaged community.
Fehr and Balanced: I second what the other guys. have already said, so I won't repeat the same stuff. The sheer amount of time I spend here reading and participating should make it clear how much I value this site. What I'd add is that this is a community where we can discuss the Caps and hockey as though we aren't on the internet. For the most part we abide by rules of behavior that govern normal human interactions, not internet interactions. At this point the anonymity has been broken among many of us. We've watched the Caps together, drank together, and skated together. This leads to a level of civility and respect that you don't find many places, and the quality of the hockey discussion is enhanced as a result.
What enhances or detracts from your experience on the site?
Gouldie: Just take a look at what gets rec'd, turns green, gets pushed to the top of the FanPosts column: Creativity and cleverness, like F&B's video analysis or Chris meet Alex's Rejected Hockey Cards series, or the songs by Pepper and BradleyFightingVehicle, or YNC's field guide to Backstroms.
First-person accounts, like ChrisAm at development camp, or gotsparkly driving up to Hershey to check on Brian Pothier, or Bald Pollack in Montreal. I always appreciate MikeL's take on the games in the game recap threads. Scott in Shaw's analysis of the wine at Capital Grille was brilliant.
What seems to be happening (as I'm sure Ted Leonsis could have predicted) is that Japers' Rink is becoming the outlet for any Caps fan who wants to create or report or analyze anything related to the team. There are so many folks stopping by, with so many talents and so many different perspectives, that the result almost has to be great. And it is.
BP: Whether it's an author or a reader, the greatest things I've enjoyed are both additional knowledge I didn't have before and/or resources I could go back to several times to help illustrate a prudent discussion point. The things that Gouldie illustrates here not only are unique first-person stories or entertaining anecdotes, they are also done for the longer-term benefit and enjoyment for our Rink friends. Maybe Hershey or Montreal trips will be more prevalent to Rink Rats/Rabbits in the future, or maybe I'll drink more wine as opposed to vodka (that's gotta be healthy, right?). Either way, the more personally enjoyable content is both beneficial and/or designed to stimulate discussion or contribution, and speaking for myself, that's how I approach writing a FanPost or FanShot. For example, having another "trade Semin" or "who to sign and for how much?" thread is nice in intent and I respect the emotion behind it, but if it's been discussed before several times, is it worth discussing again?
Knee High: I would say that things are worth discussing again when new pertinent information emerges that could alter the debate significantly, but seeing three separate, breathless, ‘should we trade Semin?!?!’ fanshots appear two days after the topic was discussed, at great length, in a front-page article is annoying.
Coming back to the point about expanding my hockey knowledge, that’s my single favorite thing about reading The Rink. There’s a wealth of highly accessible (sometimes only so because the authors are so exceptional at making complex subjects clear and understandable) content that should be useful to everyone short of an NHL scout or coaching staff looking to better understand the Caps. Stuff that came on the front page, like the remarkable post about the difference in Semin’s stats when he kills penalties or the truly amazing work done on positional +/-: which zone play starts in and where it ends for particular players. But there’s great content to be had in the sidebars as well – F&B’s breakdown’s, Gouldie’s piece on salary cap escrow and its implications and the work of Natty Bumppo and his twenty frames of fame, establishing that yes, Carlson really did that without looking at the net until the puck was already launched. Further, there’s a huge amount of knowledge to glean from the focused discussions in the comments – think back on the goalie thread; we had seven or eight massive knowledge drops from several different goalies regarding technique and top drawer analysis of what NHL players, including Varlamov were doing.
Stuff like that is my very favorite part of the rink and the density of information here is quite high. The thing that sticks out most as detracting from my experience is getting completely off-topic replying to a post where the focus is supposed to be analysis. It happens a lot and it’s very frustrating to have to wade through two-hundred-plus unrelated (or related to a different hockey topic) posts on a topic just to get to the thoughtful discussion going on somewhere in the comment section. I can’t imagine it’s any fun for the author of said analysis either – I know when I write a fanpost or a long comment, I hope for expansion or dissection of what I put forward, not a riff on peanut butter. Riffing on sandwich filler has its place, but that place isn’t in the comments of a well-researched post detailing Eric Fehr’s abnormally high Corsi rating.
F&B: My experience here is enhanced whenever someone brings new information that I have not previously seen, or when people bring another point of view to something we are discussing. I like having my points challenged, and challenging other peoples' points, because that's how we develop and deepen our understanding of what is going on. Everyone has a unique perspective, and when they are combined we all get to take them under consideration and make a more complete and informed opinion of the issue of the day. I come here to talk hockey, to inform myself, to learn, and to develop my understanding of the Caps and the game. I'm continuously pleased in how well The Rink is able to do that.
What detracts from my experience is when we don't live up to our standard; when we do things that I spent my time battling against on other sites. We don't want people to slander our entire fan base, our team, or make hack arguments about why AO sucks. I don't like seeing the same stuff here. When I'm on another SBN site, two things are basic guarantees to start a battle. First, any trash talk about Japers' Rink. Second, haterific arguments about a Cap that is just devoid of any factual foundation. Telling me that AO isn't the kind of guy you can build an NHL team around, that he belongs in the WWE, will draw a response; or telling me that Nick Backstrom gets fat off second assists. We need to be above that if we want the credibility to challenge other sites when they say crap like that. Don't tell me Crosby sucks, because he doesn't. Don't settle for lazy critiques that are merely a means to vindicate your jealous fanboy emotions. Finally, I know it's obvious and been stated many times, but don't get personal. Address the arguments in front of you; if the argument is that crazy then it should be easy to rebut. You don't need to attack the person because they have a different take on something. We are elites. Act like it.
What would you like the Rink to be?
Gouldie: The problem with this question is that I'm internally conflicted. On one hand, I want Japers' Rink to be the center of the Caps' online community. I want the Rink to get the recognition it deserves for the excellent scholarship and creativity we're seeing. And I want the Rink to stay as open and welcoming and respectful as it has been.
But with that kind of success and openness comes a very heavy burden: more people. Already, many comment threads are getting unmanageable. And the bigger problem is that with more people, you inevitably get folks who don't understand or care about basic online etiquette. The truth is, good online communities don't naturally scale well.
BP: I think the Rink can become even more influential in shaping opinion and impact on team coverage. At this point, the analysis and coverage is the best in town, and it's done without a wide-open tap of information and access to the team. It's not because the team is unwilling; like 99% of online work, those who the contributing are doing it as a hobby or passion. Crossing the bridge into low-paying interweb writer will likely never get crossed, But if we did manage to cross that threshold with regularity at some point, it will be because of the visibility and popularity of the readership as much as it is with the outstanding content. It will be because of the respect we have earned.
Knee high: The Rink is already in a very good place – certainly the preeminent Caps blog in terms of quality content, if not traffic (I don’t know what the numbers look like along those lines). I guess my answer is that I would like fewer comments, but perhaps more words. The Rink is already great for deep work and deep thought – I’d just like it to be even better. A lot of really great stuff gets left on the cutting room floor, so to speak, because we’re too busy responding to the eight new comments that popped up when we were writing the first paragraph – implications missed, lines of reasoning going unexplored. Like I said earlier, the Rink is quality already, but what I want to see most is a doubling down on that commitment from all of us, the commenters, to quality instead of quantity. If we all do that, adding as many new people as can fit on the servers is a bonus, not a detriment.
F&B: I want the Rink to be the example of a sports blog. When people click your profile and see "Japers' Rink," I want them to think "ok, this person knows their stuff, and isn't going to waste my time or troll my site." From an internal perspective, I'd like to see our comments section get a little bit more focused and thoughtful. It's frustrating to see 500 new comments and then find that there are several conversations going on that literally have nothing to do with the Caps, hockey, or anything in the original post.
How do we get there from here?
Gouldie: How do we grow in size as a community while keeping what made this place great in the first place? For one thing, the responsibility is on everyone. Our hosts can't watch everything -- we need to police ourselves. It's about team toughness, instead of any individual.
The avatars thing is a great model. When someone new comes along, it's almost reflexive -- the first thing they see is a recommendation that they get an avatar. Well, we need to do that with some other basic rules. Like if a commenter threadjacks the discussion under an analysis that someone clearly put a lot of time into, then we all need to jump in and recommend that they take the thought to a more appropriate thread, or post a fanshot.
We're already pretty good about respect issues when someone is clearly over the line. But we could be better about more borderline situations, like "Philthy" or "Cindy Crosby." Whatever anyone may individually think of those kinds of insults, the truth is that our hosts have made it clear that they don't like them. And for that reason alone, it needs to stop.
Every one of us has to realize that every comment has a "cost" in time and effort. Don't hit "post" unless you're actually adding something. This is why "This" posts annoy so many of us. It is basically impossible to put less effort into a post than "This" or "rec'd." If you like something, rec' it with the actions button. If you must comment about your appreciation for what was said, then at least put in the effort to add something new. I'm not saying every post has to be a masterpiece. But do hit the preview button, edit a bit, give it some thought before you post.
One last thought: What we're all getting here is free. And any economist will tell you that when something valuable is given away for free, there will be overconsumption. In this context, overconsumption doesn't mean too many eyeballs reading the words. It means too many folks making too much administrative work for our hosts that pulls them away from what they want to be doing (and what we want them to be doing) -- writing great content. My wife still speaks longingly of two internet forums: "squishy" and "chicklit." They were both wonderful, open places that got unmanageable. In both cases, the folks who had been running them (without pay) decided they didn't have enough time and they didn't want to compromise their vision , so all they could do was close down. Each of our hosts has a "day job." They're doing this out of love. We all need to avoid putting too much burden on them, and we need to do some of the heavy lifting ourselves.
BP: There's no doubt that Japers Rink has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few months. Without doing a survey, I'd guess that many of us have come from other areas that were longing for desirable content or whose users were getting into petulant flamewars at the drop of a hat. And like Gouldie alludes to, we should be fine with this current lineup, where we all have each others' backs without bringing in a Carcillo-like banhammer. But banning is going to have to be a viable option if we lose our collective way.
That said, if as a fanbase we're going over to other SBN areas and acting in ways that either go against what our environment is or other users find objectionable, it does two things:
It's disrespecting a blog that many of us found to avoid this behavior. While some may want to throw F&B under this bus for perceived behavior on SBN, in his defense, there's a reason why he has as many (or more) posts on other team's blogs than some have here; he wants to talk about hockey, as we all do. That's one of the reasons why guys like Ben, Hooks and other SBN blog hosts and posters come by as often as they do, it's because of the discussions F&B is starting on "enemy turf."
The other reason why they come by is because, let's face it, the team is exciting and increasingly rising in popularity. And this is the place to come for analysis, humor, insight and community. But as this community increasingly grows, so does its responsibility. Take the time to read the community guidelines on the main page, or J.P.'s reader resolutions for 2009. These are designed to make things a more friendly and easygoing place and give you your own voice. But when your voice uses words that are juvenile and grating (or even go against the guidelines), that voice will likely expect to be called on it and refrain from it. Which leads me to:
Be better than what you see and practice it accordingly. While it may be seemingly utopian, the fact of the matter is that there's a whole host of information and wisdom that you can employ at a moment's notice that's designed to make your enjoyment of the team and those who play on it more pleasurable. And the information gleamed from the Rink should be used to improve your discussions with other hockey fans.
For instance, stick your thumb in the air and check public opinion about a guy like Jeff Schultz from a year ago and compare it to now. That's the type of subtle influence and perception changing that I'd like to think has occurred by gathering reasoned information and analysis and channeling it forward to the larger masses and media outlets in discussion. A small pebble makes a lot of waves in still water, that kind of thing. But the point being is that I strongly believe we can change opinion and perception, and if a 23 year old kid who "can't hit" can earn respect, we can do it within our fanbase as well.
Knee high: When I started around here, there was a saw; we the readers post, then think, then read. I really can’t stress the importance that we all take a little more time to read, then think, then post in that specific order. There’s a lot more of us now than there’ve ever been – it’d be easy to skate along, coasting and not specifically pulling our weight. It’s easy to think "someone else will answer that question" or "someone else will pursue that" or "someone else will do <anything that makes the blog as great as it is>". But the reality is that we all have to get out and push; it all starts with the only thing we can directly control: Our own contributions.
Baldie makes a great point about "being better than what we see and practicing accordingly". Question assumptions, actively participate in discussions and help us all figure out what we’re really seeing on the ice, instead of what one fleeting camera angle showed us. He brought up the prevailing opinion on Jeff Schultz. Next up in my mind is the meme that Mike Green can’t/won’t/doesn’t play defense at all. We, as a collective whole, have the power to change that perception for the better. It takes time and it takes persistence and we’re going to have to ask some really difficult questions that we may not like the answers to in order to hammer out the arguments we need. But that’s why we’re all here, right? To talk hockey in a way that goes beyond the surface and the easy, bare minimum.
All that stuff said, you know what? We got this. I have faith that this community can live up to the mighty standard we’ve set for ourselves so far. In all seriousness, we joke about being elitist, but this really is an elite commentariat. We just need to remember that and perform accordingly.
F&B: Spot on, boys. We, the Rink commentariat, know that the substantive posts are going to keep coming. We're going to get the best Caps analysis you can get, and on a daily basis. So the rest is up to us. Don't be a hypocrite. If you would be pissed if a guy wearing black and orange started telling you that the Crapitals suck, then don't act like that yourself. To be honest, none of those pet names are new or clever. They aren't funny. So what's the point? If we ever want to get to the point where the Rink's exceptional reputation expands to the commenters, then we have to live up to the example set above the line. This applies whether you're playing a home or an away game. Argue intelligently and thoughtfully. Keep your sticks and elbows down, and check that cheap shit at the door.
Thanks to Gouldie, BP, Knee high and F&B for providing honest and thoughtful answers to tough questions, and we'd love to hear from everyone in the comments. We want this blog to be the best it can be, and we try to do our part, as writers and moderators, every day. All we ask in return is that you do yours, and I think this discussion helps to define what that is and isn't. And chances are if you've taken the time and read this far... you're already a doing your part.