Case Study: the IBM/Electric Minds Kasparov v. Deep Blue Chess Match Community

By Sue Boettcher

(Nancy’s note: Sue has been a great collaborator in the past. We compiled a number of online community case stories in 1999-2000 and some of them still hold relevance for today. I’m starting to republish these on my blog and on the GuildSmiths site to resurface some of the buried treasures. Cliff Figallo – who led this project, is now a member of the GuildSmiths.)

In 1997, IBM asked Electric Minds to host the conferencing aspect of their website coverage of the two-week chess match between Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue, a computer built by IBM. Cliff Figallo, a man with a depth of experience managing virtual communities, was hired as the Project Manager. Extremely heavy traffic was anticipated, and staff and equipment all underwent intense preparation.

Between April 30 and May 11 Kasparov and Deep Blue were to play 6 chess games, during which the conferencing area was to be open 24 hours a day. Figallo hired hosts to be on duty and available at all hours in shifts.

Figallo developed a conferencing plan and topic list. He and his associates asked themselves, as chess neophytes, what they would like to see as topics, he says. They also consulted the chess experts they’d hired as commentators. Figallo says they limited themselves to about 20 topics to start, and planned to watch the traffic in them, adding topics through the course of the event as the original topics were “tapped out.”

Figallo created some continuing general topics which would be open during the entire period, as well as a dozen or so new ones for each game. When the next game began, a couple of days later, the old game-specific topics would be made read-only and the new game topics would open.

As the event grew nearer, they added real people to the mix. Figallo: “We ‘invented’ the community and seeded the initial discussion topics to make it look like it was already in full swing when the first participants arrived. We also spent a lot of time in our ‘backstage’ discussion space coordinating our hosting activities as the event progressed.”

And ultimately, there was quite a crowd: over 5 million hits over the course of the event, with up to 69 hits per second at times.

As Figallo describes it: “Even our industrial-strength technology took quite a hit when the first chess game was held, but through some tuning of resources, we handled the remaining 5 games easily. The conferencing interface served as its own regulator for traffic because asynchronous conversations can only deal with so much input. People who want to post have to read what has been posted already, and if they see someone else posting what they meant to post, they don’t bother. Even during the actual matches when the threads moved along as fast as a chat room, there was very little duplication of content between posts.”

The event was a great success, even taking up the slack when a much-touted Java chess board applet on the IBM site failed to keep up with the current moves under the load. Figallo and his ever-flexible team began posting little ASCII chessboards in conferencing showing the moves as they were made.

The short-term nature of this event made it different from anything Figallo had been involved in before. “We didn’t have to think in terms of setting precedents that would have to be justified over time,” he says. “We only had to think about pleasing an audience that would be present in the greatest numbers during the chess games and would be much smaller in between the games. There was no ‘core community’ to regulate and nurture. And if we had to eject someone from the community for misbehavior, we would not have to deal with the repercussions of our actions. Since the event had a beginning and an end, we weren’t looking toward establishing a lasting community.”

“It was also different in that it had a very narrow focus and we had money to spend to hire experts,” Figallo explains. “It was a compressed version of a long-term online community.”

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