In July of 2006, mx founded the Sputnikmusic Staff – a move which, frankly, was made much too early.
The summer of 2006 was an interesting time for the site. Its active userbase had been declining almost since the site was founded, but this was never more readily apparent than that summer, when Sputnik was plagued with downtime because of problems with the server. At one point, the site was down for two entire weeks, and many started to accept that it might not come back. And although it did come back, the damage had been done. For one long interminable summer, Sputnikmusic’s active userbase consisted of under fifty people who kept the site alive, posting and commenting and trying to make sure the site that meant so much to them didn’t die by the wayside, because even though there was still a decent (for the time) amount of outside readership that didn’t have accounts, would they visit the site if no one was posting any reviews?
Still, mx implemented a number of big changes to the site. Apart from fiddling with the design and layout of the site, he added a slew of new features, a few of which are still around today and a few that turned out to be not so great. Lists were a huge addition. If users weren’t content with simply talking about Metallica in a Master of Puppets thread, they could now post a list of their ten favorite Metallica songs. Also added were journals, which were “small, informal jottings about anything concerning music.” Naturally, both of these features were quickly abused. Users took up space on the front page with lists like “Top 5 Sputnik Users,” “Top 10 Bands,” alphabet lists (lists where bands were listed from A-Z), and “[Band] vs. [Band]” lists. People quickly realized that most people were unwittingly making the same lists containing the same bands over and over again, but that didn’t deter anyone. In 2010, people are still making lists like the alphabet list, somehow thinking that they’ve come up with an original idea. Many times, people clamored for the list feature to be removed from the site because of its quick devolution into mindless spam, but they were one of the site’s main traffic draws, so they stayed.
Journals, on the other hand, actually required a bit of thought (or at least they should have, if they were to meet the requirements set out by mx). While lists could be made in under five minutes, a good journal would take more time (again, in order to meet the requirements), which meant that they never met the requirements and were instead used for spam. (Additionally, consider the fact that users were able to post images in their journals.) But for a time, new journals were linked on Sputnik’s front page, just like lists. Over time though, they were relegated to the bottom of the page, and then they were taken off the front page, and eventually mx removed them from the site altogether (although you can still reach them if you know the link or had it bookmarked). So if journals were meant for short, informal jottings about music, then what were users to do if they had something a bit more lengthy in mind? For them, there were muses. Muses were an early version of the staff blog, except that everybody could post them. If you think that sounds great, consider this: absolutely nobody used the feature. Early on, a few of the staff posted some, and even a couple regular users got in on the action, but after a month or so, muses were deemed a failure.
Although the features that were added that year were very much trial and error (soundoffs were added around that time as well), one major change was there to stay: the staff. The earliest incarnation of Sputnikmusic’s staff was fairly small. It contained mx, the moderators, and a few regular users who had been around for awhile and amassed a good number of reviews. And while some of these first members couldn’t write worth a damn and others would go on to write barely any reviews as staff members, others are still around and very active to this day. Still, the inclusion policy was very light. Because of how young the site was, it pretty much had to be, which is why the staff was created too soon. The only reviewers who had written a decent number of reviews up to that point had written a lot of them when Sputnik was still just a subforum of MXtabs. They weren’t added necessarily because they were fantastic writers, they were added because they had written a lot of reviews and had been around for awhile. Anyone who views the Sputnik staff as a sort of “old boys’ club” today should consider what it was like in 2006, when a whiny, middle-aged man with creepy fetishes was added to the staff.
The formation of a Sputnik staff brought a whole new level of attention to the site’s professionalism, or lack thereof. Debates on how to separate staff reviews from user reviews on the front page abounded. Initially, staff reviews were denoted simply with a marker that said STAFF, and they were still included on the front page with the user reviews. Over time, staff reviews were given their own place at the top of Sputnik’s homepage, a placement that would be overruled only by the inclusion of featured reviews. Apart from all of Sputnik’s inner politics, the site was receiving acclaim as a source of music criticism. Wikipedia, which had long barred Sputnik from its reviews section because of regular users submitting their own writing, finally allowed the site access under the stipulation that only staff reviews were to be posted. It seems a small victory in the present day, when Sputnik is included on sites like Metacritic, but it was a huge step in the right direction.
Even so, the debate rages today: more community-based features or more professionalism?…