Xoxohth 1.1: The Past and Present

[This is Part I, Section 1, of the project I announced here. The goal of today’s installment is to set out the history of the XO board, and briefly describe its present statistics.]

goldencalf.jpgHugs and Kisses, Hope this Helps

The genesis of XO was less gripping, bloody, tortured, significant and miraculous than the Exodus, a tale which it otherwise resembles in important respects.

The community started as a group of posters at the Princeton Review Discussion Board [PR]. Some individuals began at PR in 1997-1998, as they were applying to college, and continued posting in that forum after matriculation. The reason that people spent time – sometimes 20 hours a week or more – at PR will become familiar:

Before I started law school, I posted on the former incarnation of xoxo (which was then run by the Princeton Review) because it was a wide-open and mostly unmanaged discussion. In one sitting I could have the most sober and serious conversations as well as the most silly and immature b******* sessions, all with the same group of people. The other, more “mature” boards were by comparison intellectual wastelands, partly because they were so “sober” and “mature.” All the really smart people shunned those boring boards in favor of pr (now xoxo).

But not all individuals were looking for information: some were actually, weirdly, (slumming) older alumni.

The standard foundation story holds that in March, 2004, PR switched to a new software format that users found irritating because it (1) enabled IP tracking; (2) discouraged use of multiple aliases; (3) discouraged abusive language through moderation and banning; and (4) eliminated the “‘tree’ format and switching to a vBulletin-type format that was heavily despised by most users.” See here and here and here for some posts from the period. One emailer explains:

The only moderators were Jeff Adams, a Princeton Review employee, and TPR Droid, who was a long-time poster that Jeff hired to moderate the board when he wasn’t around. Anger at TPR Droid’s moderation style was one of the main reasons for the initial rift — while Jeff was even-handed with deletions and bannings, many people felt Droid had an agenda since he would ban people for criticizing his favored posters, or delete racist threads directed at Jews and Christians while refusing to delete equally hateful threads about Muslims.

A group of users decided to leave PR as a group. However,

The law boarders didn’t know about the existence of xoxohth. [A user with the handle Rowan] organized an AIM chat and people were brainstorming ideas of how to re-create the board. I think rk even drafted a letter looking for corporate sponsorship . . . In the very beginning, the law and college boards were one. During those heady first days, all personal wars were called off – Edgar Martinez, Julia, RWA, LawyerBird got along – but soon order was restored and things returned to normal.

Obviously, the domain name had been purchased before problems on the PR board became exigent. According to a WHOIS search, the purchase of the xoxohth domain occurred on January 29, 2004. The buyer was Jarret Cohen, now in business in Pennsylvania. As you can see from this screenshot of the early board, it was intended to be a replacement for the PR community. Contrary to Eugene’s speculations, xoxohth is not a dungeons and dragons reference. It seems to stand for xoxo (hugs and kisses) plus hth (hope this helps).

It is also worth noting that there was an early worry that the former PR community would split into a college (XO) faction and a law faction, located at the JD2B board. A source comments:

[W]hen Marshall [Camp, JD2B’s owner] found out the xo board existed, he not only deleted the JD2B message board, but prominently linked to the board on his site and actively sent traffic our way; basically we were treated as JD2B’s unofficial messageboard.

That site probably accounted for 50-75% of our referring URL traffic in the early days

Organizational Control

Cohen’s – alias Rachmiel – and another user known as Boondocks (from the comics strip?) coded the initial software for the board, which (of course) was unmoderated. Boondocks, I am given to understand, is an African-American man who, though one of XO’s founders, forewent an administrative role after the first two months of the board’s existence.

Instead, in about May, 2004, Anthony Ciolli, a Penn Law student, became partners with Cohen. My sense is that Ciolli – alias “Great Teacher Onizuka” (manga comic reference?) – and Cohen split the board’s revenues 50/50, and share operational control over the permissions on the site.

Some Statistics

Most users joined the board around March 18, 2004. By June 13, according to a Boston Globe article, the site received “upward of 10,000 posts a day.” In the early days, XO lacked an off topic filter, nor did it segregate into law and college groups. It has since diversified into multiple communities, with some self-filtering for topical discussion.

In my original post, I relayed estimated unique monthly hits for all of the relevant boards under the Autoadmit/Xoxohth domains to be ” 350,000 to 500,000.” Emailers from all sides expressed considerable skepticism about these data. But I have received reliable evidence supporting the traffic numbers – indeed, it looks like there were about 700,000 unique visitors to the board this past month. Granted, this is application season, so (like the political boards) a 12-month-average is a better way to think about traffic. On that long term horizon, the site has a ratio of first-time to returning visitors of about 2:1. There are, I’d estimate, a group of around 100,000 readers who visit the site on a regular basis. In terms of posts, as I explained earlier, there are something like 6,000 posts a day on the law board, with an additional 5,000-6,000 on the other boards on the site.

Again, this makes the XO board a significantly more popular source of information about law schools and the legal profession than any other law blog, excepting Volokh, whose hit profile it roughly matches.

Next Up: Why do people spend so much time on XO?

Notes and Sources:

1. Some of the information in this post came directly from Anthony Ciolli. I am grateful for his, and Jarret Cohen’s, cooperation to date. I am also grateful to have received many emails from users (and critics) of the XO board. I’m not 100% confident of all of the story I’ve laid out above, but I’m sure that you will continue to draw attention to my errors.

2. If you have any special insights about XO, you are free to send them to me via email. Unless you tell me otherwise, I will assume that I can quote and attribute any emails.

3. There have been several discussions of this project on the web. For example, check out this XO thread, complete with a fake me, correcting an impression that I am as prestigious as Solove. Way to go, fake me! Also, don’t miss this great comment:

“Why do I get the feeling like I’m soon going to feel that I’ve spent the past few years living in the Bio-Dome?”

Also check out this thread, in which a poster writes:”even for law profs, writing about vulgarity on student message boards is embarassing.” Ah, a blog-skeptic. Who can’t spell. Join the crowd! Finally, don’t miss William McGeveran’s post on the project at Info/Law. Bill’s comments are open. Mine are not, on the theory that they are likely to be immoderate.

Dave Hoffman

Dave Hoffman is the Murray Shusterman Professor of Transactional and Business Law at Temple Law School. He specializes in law and psychology, contracts, and quantitative analysis of civil procedure. He currently teaches contracts, civil procedure, corporations, and law and economics.

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