Introduction to TBD

A few years ago, I joined a small but rapidly-growing social web site called facebook. You might have heard of it; it was very popular in its day.

As soon as I filled in my profile information, facebook showed me an advertisement for another social web site, named “TBD”, which, according to the advertisement, was intended for the 40-plus crowd, or, as I remember, “for the rest of us.”

Like many other such free sites, facebook’s business model was focused on selling advertising, in much the same manner as other entertainment media. Unlike broadcast media, however, the advertisements shown to each facebook user were chosen specifically for that user using criteria based on information provided directly by the user or by observation of their browsing patterns while they were logged in – information from their profile (age, location, educational background, workplace, favorite pithy sayings, etc), keywords in their posts, the general demographics of the friends with which they interacted most often, and so forth. The goal was to show users advertisements to which the viewers would be most likely to respond (and for which facebook would be paid the most money). For example, if you’ve told facebook that you are male, 40-something and married and then later post as your facebook status that you are looking for a florist where you can buy roses at 10:00pm on a weeknight, facebook might choose to show you advertisements for divorce lawyers and discrete dating sites. If no such advertisers were currently retaining the services of facebook, then perhaps you might also see ads for florists.

I couldn’t tell if it was simply hubris for facebook to show me advertisements for one of its competitors, or whether facebook was politely hinting that perhaps we’d both be happier apart.

To make a long story short, I clicked on the ad and I didn’t come back to facebook for a long time.

TBD wasn’t the first such site that I’d joined, nor would it be the last, but it has been the only site that significantly changed the way that I think about such sites and the way that I spend my free time.

Most social sites are tailored to a specific combination of demographics and topics. On some sites, the expectation is that the people with whom you associate on the site are people with whom you associate in real life – family, neighbors, classmates, colleagues, and the like. These sites provide a convenient way to share information and keep in touch with people you already know. On other sites, the expectation is that you don’t know anyone, and are there to find new friends, business leads, or perhaps romantic partners.

TBD did not focus on a specific purpose or type of relationship that it expected its members to have, but instead focused on attracting a specific type of member and then letting the interactions that developed take their course. TBD’s target demographic was the over-40 adult who was looking for dialog and companionship. People who had never met, and would be unlikely to ever cross paths in the real world, joined TBD and became acquainted. It drew people from every part of the US and several other English-speaking areas of the world.

An organization that reaches out to the lonely and makes them feel welcome might sound superficially like a cult, but TBD was the opposite of a cult in every important aspect. In a cult, there is a leader who makes the rules, and dissent is forbidden; in TBD, the rules were minimal and dissent was mandatory. People without strong, independent personalities and the ability to articulate and defend their opinions while tolerating and respecting the opinions of others did not enjoy TBD and tended to depart quickly for other sites.

Although some of the TBD members knew each other in other contexts, and some of the members used their real names, my impression is that the majority of the active users of the site used pseudonyms and fictitious avatars. The advantage – if not necessity – of anonymity is obvious on such web sites; until you get a sense of who else is reading your postings and what their motivations and intents are, it is foolish to provide too much information about yourself – there are strange, unpleasant, and even dangerous people who wander the web. I started with an anonymous name, Danny O’Bigbelly (or DannyO), and stuck with it because it was easy to remember and I didn’t want to go to the hassle of changing avatar names, which was an awkward procedure on TBD. Ironically, although I never revealed my true name, appearance, home town, employer, or type of work I do, I believe that the people who know me as DannyO on TBD know me as well as almost anyone outside of my family.

Although I quickly felt that I’d established a connection with several of the people I’d met on TBD, I also knew that purely online friendships can be difficult to gauge; just as some people can behave very badly when given anonymity and a large audience, other people (or sometimes the same people) find it easy to be friendly, well-mannered or simply hide their true opinions behind a veneer of politeness as long as there is nothing real at stake. I was curious to meet the people I’d met on TBD in a real-world setting and see whether these relationships could survive a face-to-face conversation, so I organized several dinners and invited any TBD members living near Boston to attend. To my surprise and delight, people came from hundreds of miles away to meet each other, and everyone had a great time. Instead of being disappointed to discover that we weren’t all as charming and witty in real life as we were online, we were only disappointed that we hadn’t planned a get-together sooner.

Within TBD, there were a number of different groups formed by self-organizing and self-regulating clusters of users and topics, each with its own style of interaction and topics of discussion. Users were free to wander from one group to another, but most tended stay within a relatively small number of groups. In my case, I would have spent more time exploring new groups if I had had the free time, but since my free time was limited I tended to spend most of it in a few groups where I had become familiar with the local inhabitants and customs. My favorite area was the front page, where the discussions were seen by the most viewers and tended to be the most fast-paced, and fostered interaction (not all of it amiable) with the greatest number of people.

Several of the popular areas had a question-oriented format. Anyone could post a question, and anyone could answer – including the asker. Some of the questions were practical requests for factual answers, while others were more open-ended, thought-provoking and intended to spur discussion. Some were intended to be humorous, and others raised deep philosophical questions that sparked debates that lasted for months and whose transcripts grew to over a hundred pages of dense text.

I found that writing short essays to answer the questions, or to build on the answers of others, was habit-forming. It was a style of writing that appealed to me because of the range of possible approaches to the questions: a quick, off-the-cuff answer written in the morning while I should have been helping my wife get our children ready for school, or a thoughtful, structured essay written in the evening after mulling over a question during the quiet moments of the day. Some of the more interesting questions became the topics of blog entries, which then evolved into chapters of this book.

TBD only lasted a few years before the company that ran the site went out of business and closed the site. Although I don’t know the details of the business aspects of the site, I am certain that the failure wasn’t due to any lack of enthusiasm from its members. The popularity and vitality of the site continued, unabated, until the bitter end, including many discussions, started by members, about how the member community might somehow save the site. Today there are still several active sites where refugees from the TBD diaspora gather, reminisce about the old times, and attempt to recapture the chemistry of the original TBD.

A few months before I learned that TBD was going to close, I visited San Francisco on business. Realizing that my hotel was was only a few blocks from the offices of TBD, I sent TBD’s CEO (who I knew only from our interaction on the site) an email saying that I’d be in town and I hoped to meet her and some of her colleagues face-to-face. She invited me to visit for lunch. We ate take-out Schezhuan food off paper-plates, tech start-up style, with most of the rest of the TBD staff, in an open office space TBD shared with another fledgling company, and had a far-ranging conversation that I would have gladly continued for the rest of the afternoon, but we all had to get back to work. When I left, I thanked them for lunch, and I thanked them for creating TBD.

But I couldn’t possibly have thanked them enough.

One Response to “Introduction to TBD”

  1. akabukowski says:

    Having been at that Szechuan ‘banquet’ that day, I can assure you: we felt your gratitude and returned it tenfold. Thank you for this beautifully written if rather bittersweet remembrance.