Faithful readers of WaccoBB’s daily newsletter got a shock on Monday when Barry Chertov, founder and moderator of the venerable online bulletin board, announced that “The time has come to close the WaccoBB.net website.”
Chertov wrote that he’ll be closing the site to new posts as of Jan. 22 and will leave the site up in read-only mode for the next six months.
What spelled the end? Chertov said that a combination of the site’s antiquated technology, snazzy new competitors like Nextdoor and Facebook, combined with the emotional wear and tear of moderating an online bulletin board site for 15 years took its toll.
In addition, Chertov said WaccoBB was another victim of the COVID epidemic.
As businesses closed because of the pandemic, WaccoBB’s advertising revenue evaporated. The site made most of its money from event and services advertising, and both of these industries have been hard hit by the shutdown. But another, more insidious side effect of the pandemic was the amount of time Chertov spent dealing with COVID-19 conspiracy posts. Ultimately, it wore him down.
“The conspiracy theories have gone off the hook,” he said. “And trying to figure out what’s valid information here, what’s conspiracy theory, and how to separate it out, means paying attention to all this stuff. That was fine for a while, but it’s like, ‘Give me a break.’”
WaccoBB still has a large audience. The site has about 14,400 registered users and gets more than 10,000 unique visitors a month.
In the beginning
Chertov was working as a computer programmer in the early 2000s, when a friend, Sebastopolian Denise Meier, asked him to take over a Yahoo group for west county dance enthusiasts she’d been moderating. He did, and through astute moderation and the creation of a couple of additional interest categories, he grew the group to 3,000 members.
At the same time, he began working on an independent website that would become WaccoBB, which stands for West County Community Online Bulletin Board. When Yahoo shut down the original Yahoo group for violating its rule against advertising (members often advertised local services), many of its members migrated to Chertov’s new site.
Why was Chertov so successful at building an audience? He thinks his success was due in part to his method of categorization.
“That was all about how to give the readers a choice of tuning in or tuning out —tuning out what they didn’t want to see so they could get the bits they did want to see.”
Combined with his even-handed and generous philosophy of moderation, it was a method he used successfully over the next 15 years.
The highs and lows of running a local bulletin board
Looking back over the years moderating discussions in west county, Chertov said he struggled with the same kind of issues that large social media companies are struggling with today.
“The hot button is always moderation, deciding what’s OK and what’s not OK,” he said.
When he was considering banning an early troll from the site, he wrote a post that led to a discussion of “Was it ‘freedom of speech,’ or was it ‘censored’? There were valid points in all directions, but I finally came down on the side of, ‘It’s got to feel safe.’”
Because if it didn’t, he knew, many people would go elsewhere.
Although the site was designed with progressive sensibilities in mind, he tried to make room for alternative voices as well. “I’ve generally taken the approach of allowing people if they’re thoughtful and respectful.”
Using that as a measure, he said, “I’ve removed all sorts of people over the years, and that often comes with a fuss.”
One of the people he removed was someone with legal training and a history of suing her landlords. She was looking for a place to rent, and he gave readers a heads-up about her background. She sued him for libel. To this day, he calls her “the renter from hell.”
Chertov is proud of the years he spent giving west county a place to debate important local issues, especially local political issues — it’s one of the things he’s going to miss most. He’s also proud of what he calls “the unsexy parts” of the site, like classifieds and housing, for the ways they’ve brought people together over the years. He says he will particularly miss WaccoBB’s annual picnic (which didn’t happen this year because of the pandemic).
He remembers fondly the year WaccoBB won the Gravenstein Apple Parade prize for “Most Creative Float” for its “Free the Wifi” float, featuring a bird in a cage. (Chertov was advocating that the city provide free Wi-Fi throughout the downtown.)
There were also some great, only-in-west-county moments he recalled, like the time WaccoBB decided to have a west county singles section. At their first live event — to which everyone was invited single or not — Chertov devised a system of dots for people’s nametags: green for single, red for attached, yellow for “It’s complicated.”
“And sure enough, nearly everybody was yellow,” he said with a laugh. “I had no idea.”
Where to now?
Chertov isn’t sure what he’s going to do next. In the short term, he’s looking forward to taking a break — and stepping away from the computer.
“I’m looking forward to not having any day-to-day responsibilities for the site,” he said. “When you run a site like that, things need to be fixed all the time and shit happens at inconvenient times. It was basically 24-7, much to the dismay of my wife.”
One thing that he’s not going to do, he says, is pass WaccoBB along to someone else.
“I’m so identified with it,” he said. “I would feel connected and would be connected to whatever it did. I don’t think I could just walk away and not look back because if it became something else, people would assume that was me.”
Big thanks from the community
Paeans to the service Chertov and the site provided piled up in the comments section below his announcement on WaccoBB. Everyone thanked him for his efforts, and wondered what they’d do without a site that over the years had become like an old friend. At least one person challenged his decision not to keep the site alive by passing it on, but mostly it was hearts and roses.
“Barry, you and Wacco will be missed!” wrote Barbara Pollack. “I have found Wacco to be informative and entertaining. I’m really going to miss your cartoons and Larry’s poems, among other things.”
“I took an audible inhale as I read your post title,” wrote Patricia London. “Oh no! But then a felt a peaceful exhale as I read how well you were taking care of yourself and your decision. You truly created a wonderful community, which I have enjoyed and benefitted from for many years. Thank you so much, Barry! Your consistency, kindness, organization and technical skills, willingness and heart have driven and guided this site and this community very successfully!”
Maria McLeish wrote a lovely appreciation for the role WaccoBB played in the lives of so many — and the complexities it presented
“When I moved to Sebastopol in the early 2000s my friend Gary Abreim turned me on to WaccoBB and I found home shares and rentals, sparred on line with differing points of views, and discussed the local doings and happenings in a community forum like no other,” McLeish wrote.
“As time went on, not everything on WACCO clicked for me, and this was no more apparent than when COVID19 came to town and the conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccine folks and alt-cure promoters came together in a kind if harmonic convergence. And Barry, you provided a forum for viewpoints I profoundly disagree with,” she continued. “But you know what? When I look back now, I am grateful that you gave everyone a place at the community table. This is how we learn, grow, and come together. Especially now. I’ll miss the daily updates of Goat Rock Ukulele, the opportunity to respond with my own opinions and see responses from real people, and the sense that, no matter what, we Waccos were in this together.”
Chertov particularly liked this comment:
“Your site allowed so many to speak their minds, fears, choices, confusions, concerns,” wrote a reader named Otto. “You are always attentive and considerate. Unconditional encouragement to think for ourselves and be open minded about so many areas of life, our communities, our consequences to either act or not act on our passionate beliefs … You deserve a huge standing ovation. Hopefully all the hard work will let everyone remember to always make human life and looking out for one another the priority.”
Read Chertov’s announcement and the comments here at WaccoBB.