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FlakeHQ Interviews:

Rob Traister

 PsorChat Founder and Administrator

 Interviewed by Ed Dewke
in February 2008

You may have noticed that the selection labeled "PsorChat" in the FlakeHQ top navigation bar is the only link in the navigation bar that takes you outside FlakeHQWhy?  As early as 1999 it became obvious to me that an email section (even updated monthly, as it was back then) was insufficient to carry the desire for dialogue between FlakeHQ readers.  For a few years before 2003, the PsorChat spot in the dialogue box was occupied by another online group titled PsorHeads, which was a created by Ed Reiss but suffered a server meltdown in 2002 and was never resurrected.  (Reiss encouraged the National Psoriasis Foundation to launch their message boards and hoped PsorHead patrons would go there after his server crash.)  While all this was going on, Rob Traister had become a FlakeHQ reader and correspondent (see correspondence list at bottom) and, in 2001, he launched PsorChat.  I visited PsorChat (and most other psoriasis boards) irregularly back then, but was always impressed with the message traffic there  Very little bickering; lots of tough, smart questions being asked; a sincerely helpful exchange of information was occurring.  So, in mid 2003, not long after PsorHead's demise, I asked Rob if he'd mind my pointing FlakeHQ readers to PsorChat for their on-demand message exchanges.  Rob said okay.  From July 2003 until the Fall of 2006, Rob would occasionally post a column at FlakeHQ about goings on at PsorChat.  It was called PsorChat Review and you can still read those postings here.

Spending a little time schmoozing electronically with Rob Traister has been an enjoyment of mine for a long time now; especially because of Rob's keen sense of humor.  I've admired his spunk and courage from afar.  (Anyone who doesn't think moderating an online discussion forum requires "courage" hasn't tried it.) My patronage of PsorChat has been rewarded many times over.  For example, a number of the folks I've interviewed at this site emerged from the voices at PsorChat.

The period between 2000, when Rob sent his first email to FlakeHQ (see chronology at the end of this interview) and today has been full of changes for Rob.  When I first made his acquaintance he was something of a nomad, sending missives from along his paths, keeping a group of us amused and enlightened.  Then he went through the career obstacle course learning as I did before him that being a writer-for-hire is not living life like Ernest Hemingway.  Not that long ago Mr. Traister changed from being a bachelor to a married man and, aside from a slightly detectable preoccupation, this change of circumstance hasn't much perturbed his leadership function at PsorChat.  (Thank you, Mrs. Traister.)

As is suggested in the photo Rob sent along for this interview, he's not inclined to hide the fact that he has psoriasis.  But all of those who read his posts and email knew that about him without seeing any photos.  The picture just lets us add to our mental image of Rob these facts: his sneakers are really clean, his sunglasses are sporty, his fashion color coordination is so-so, and he appears to be very short.  -Ed 

*****

Ed:  PsorChat was founded in July, 2001 and has grown to include over 1,500 members.  Why did you start the group?

Rob:  When I first decided to start the group I had been using a site called egroups.com (I think) for networking with other DC-area publishing professionals. I was struck by the idea that a similar format would be a good way for flakers to interact with one another and share ideas, stories, etc.. I was a regular visitor to FlakeHQ at that point and had exchanged e-mails with you a few times about different treatment ideas, so I thought you would be a good person to feel out about the idea of starting this interactive online community. Your encouragement was probably the thing that set me in motion toward creating the group. Ironically, shortly after we got started egroups.com was absorbed by Yahoo!, and as I write this there is considerable discussion about Yahoo! being purchased by Microsoft or forming a strategic alliance with Google, so I'm not sure what that will mean for our online community. I've registered PsorChat.com and have aspirations of creating a different online community using that domain that may one day take the place of what we have now, but that will likely not occur until my hand is forced by whatever happens at Yahoo!.

 

Ed:  Tell us about your psoriasis.  What kind(s) ... how long ... how treated?

Rob:  I feel like I've had psoriasis all my life, but in reality I've had it less than half my life. I'll be 40 this year and it came on when I was 21 and a senior in college. I started feeling run down and losing weight and then this rash appeared, followed by an intense sore throat. After weeks of tests and doctor visits I was diagnosed with mono and strep, and the rash was diagnosed as guttate psoriasis. The mono and strep cleared in a week or two once I was started on antibiotics and put on bed rest, but the P got worse and the spots grew from the size of a pin-head to the size of a softball in places. At times since then I've had it cover my calves and forearms in giant scaly patches, and then at other times it stays relatively in check. At present I have a few dozen spots ranging in size from a pencil eraser to a half-dollar, and my scalp is terribly dry and flaking. I moisturize as often as possible and have lotions and creams scattered liberally around the house so that wherever I am I can slather it on and keep things moist.  I also have a 4 foot tall Panosol II UVB light panel from National Biological Corp. that I got on eBay for 99. I had to drive 60 miles to pick it up and had to order new bulbs, but it was 100% worth it. I use it about three times a week and the difference in my P is noticeable.

 

Ed:  Have you done anything 'overt' to grow membership at PsorChat over the years or has that growth been entirely 'organic'? 

Rob:  PsorChat has grown through word of mouth, web searches, and references on FlakeHQ. I've never promoted the group in any way, and each time we hit a major milestone I think back to the first year when we had fewer than 100 members and am amazed. I think Yahoo! may have folded another group into us at some point because our membership grew dramatically in a very short period of time, but I was never officially notified. Over the years we've changed the way we do some things, but largely it's been a self-moderating and self-perpetuating group.

 

Ed:  Over the past 6.5 years I can barely remember a few testy message exchanges in the group.  Hearing about feuds and disputes erupting in other online groups makes me wonder why PsorChat has been so peaceful?  Are you a harsh administrator, screening membership and messages, silencing arguments before they get out of hand?  If not, to what do you attribute PsorChat's civility?

Rob:  We only screen posts from new members, and that's only come about over the past couple of years. Ideally I wouldn't be moderating at all but we've had a number of “snake oil salesmen” who've tried to use the group to sell their various potions and remedies. The few “blow-ups” we've had over the years have largely been instigated by such postings, and it was also creating an atmosphere of distrust. Someone would post about some new product and then be accused of trying to sell it. It wasn't helpful or productive.  New members are now moderated for an unspecified period until I'm convinced they are legitimate and aren't going to try to cause trouble. We occasionally get those, too, but the group has been very good about self-policing.

 

Ed:  How big of a problem are sales-oriented interlopers?  I know you have kept us protected from them.  How do you accomplish that?

Rob:  Unfortunately moderating is the only way I can stop these folks. I get the occasional e-mail from members saying they were contacted individually by someone, but obviously that's beyond my control. I encourage members not to post personal information about themselves and to set up a new free email account through Yahoo! that's just for things like PsorChat. That way no one gets any personal info that can be used for nefarious purposes. I've had a couple of members get huffy when I ask them not to include links to personal websites and the like, but it's for their protection.

 

Ed:  If you were writing the Yahoo! Groups Handbook for Users, what would be your top recommendations? 

Rob: There are days I'd like to write that handbook. Generally I'd advise posters to view all the messages online at PsorChat, or at least to sign up for the digest version. I get several requests each week from people who complain about the number of e-mails they are getting from the group. All the info on how to do this is provided when people sign up, but how many of us really read all that stuff? I know I rarely do.

I think it's a good common sense practice to use a free Yahoo! or Gmail email account on a public forum where you can't know every other person who is reading. You need to protect your privacy on the internet. Including links, your phone number and other personal information can be dangerous.

As far as posting and replying, people need to understand that a lot (60%) of the people in the group only read messages online. If the subject line says “Re: itching” and someone has written a message about Enbrel, it may get overlooked entirely. I don't think people need to be as strict as they are in other groups where the subject lines say things like “Tar baths (was lotions and potions).”

I also don't think people should feel a need to reply to every message. When someone replies to the entire group with something like "lol" it's not the best use of the medium, but that's coming from someone who's been using the internet for about 14 years. People who are new to online forums still need to learn all the ‘netiquette’ do's and don'ts, like not using ALL CAPS and that sort of thing.

 

Ed:  I learned the ALL CAPS netiquette rule the hard way.  During the Viet Nam war I was a Coast Guard radioman and proficient "teletypist." ('69-'73). Teletype (TTY) machines generated uppercase text only at that time.  The manual typewriters (a.k.a. "mills") we used to keep minute-by-minute radio logs and record incoming Morris Code (CW) were also all uppercase.  I quite naturally came to associate uppercase text with electronic messaging, or radio-text-and-telegraphy. Now fast-forward: I acquired my first personal computer in 1983 (an Epson QX-10) and simultaneously purchased a 300 baud (.3 kB) modem (modems weren't a normal built-in item back then).  It took me many months to figure out how to use — and what to do with — the modem, but shortly after my “breakthrough” I became a bulletin-board (BBS) user.  It was my all caps text on the BBS's that finally caught up with me.  One perturbed fellow asked why I was always “so angry.”  Eventually I learned that using ALL CAPS TEXT was the visual equivalent of SHOUTING in this new order of things. But on to a question: 

Casual users of PsorChat or any other message board or newsgroup sometimes don't appreciate how important the SUBJECT line of their postings can become.  Most large message group systems (like Yahoo! Groups) do offer keyword searching through post archives, which helps limit total dependence on subject lines, but if you are browsing through any digest or list of recent posts the subject lines are invariably what draw you into messages.  How can users make a habit of checking their subject lines — and updating them as the subject changes — so they really reflect the content of their messages?  How do YOU remember to do it?  (I think the REPLY button makes forgetting to update the Subject line all too easy.)

Rob:  For experienced users of various forms of online communication, there's a “Netiquette” that people learn to follow. On PsorChat we have a number of people who strike me as being new or infrequent users of the internet, and they tend not to know the “rules” that are generally followed for such things. Over the years we've had some of the member-moderators who are members or moderators of their own groups who have tried to establish a way to make sure subject lines match the content of messages, but it hasn't caught on. I think the only way we could enforce it would be to moderate every message, and from a time and resources standpoint that's not feasible.

I periodically post messages about “housekeeping” issues such as not including personal information in posts and following various other rules, but I find they are generally ignored. An example — I recently posted to the group asking members to participate in a poll regarding reacting to poison oak or poison ivy after several of us noticed a trend in a thread that many flakers didn’t seem to react to those irritants. Of our 1,500+ members, fewer than 50 actually took the poll, so we didn't get a statistically significant sampling.

Because of PsorChat's self-policing nature the best way to get people to use subject lines that are relevant to the posts would be for the members to begin reminding one another to do so. I hesitate to suggest it, though, because I can see the potential for something like that to degenerate into petty bickering back and forth. We've been lucky enough to avoid that for the most part, so I'd hate to see that change.

 

Ed:  I get a number of emails every year from flakers who have started a BLOG or are considering starting a BLOG.  Give us the straight skinny on the differences between  BLOGs and message groups like PsorChat. 

Rob:  I don't BLOG myself. BLOGs started out as online diaries and seem to have evolved into a newsletter-like forum. The limitation of a BLOG is that it's generally the perspective of one person, or a few people if it's the online newsletter type of BLOG. Message Groups like PsorChat are valuable because they contain the collective experiences of, in our case, 1,500 people with a common interest. Everyone who joins PsorChat does so because of an interest in treating and/or living with psoriasis. That collective experience is invaluable to someone looking for information on a treatment option. For example, I had been considering using a new treatment a few years ago when my skin was flaring, but after reading about the experiences of several members who had tried this treatment I decided not to go that route.

 

Ed:  This is a two part question:  First, there are different ways to receive PsorChat posts (strictly by visiting PsorChat using your web browser, or receiving posts as emails one-at-a-time, or as email "digests" of activity that incorporate posts made over some period of time).  For those of us who forgot all this, or didn't read all the information we received when we joined the group, can you provide a web page we can go to for a review of those options, maybe change how we participate in PsorChat?  Second; what is the advised rule-of-thumb for including the text of a message (or messages) to which you are replying?  Lots of people simply hit the REPLY button, type what they have to say, and then hit SEND and this can end up being a long-g-g-g message containing the text of several previous messages in the thread.  Is that OK?  NOT ok? SOMETIMES ok?

Rob:  To edit membership and delivery options, members can go to the PsorChat home page and right above the PsorChat banner there's a link that says “edit membership.” Clicking that link takes you to a page where you can set your mail preferences, etc..

As far as long e-mails generated by a lot of replying back and forth, I don't have an answer for that. By reading posts online you don't have to deal with these long e-mails flying back and forth, which is one more reason to go that route. I'm not opposed to leaving the previous replies in the message if they are relevant to the discussion. If there is a lot of extraneous information that detracts from the thread, then I'd recommend cutting out all but the most recent thread to which you are responding. It follows the same logic as the subject lines — try to stay on topic.

 

Ed:  What do you think PsorChat will be like in five years?  I have two teenage granddaughters who are avid cell phone text messagers.  I have been shown an occasional message they've sent or received and find the short forms of words and abbreviations they use virtually scramble their message as far as I'm concerned.  My grandfatherly consternation at not being able to decode what they're showing me delights them — and may even be why I'm shown the messages in the first place. The thought that these practices might migrate to Internet-based messaging sends shivers up and down my spine.  Is it going to happen?  (Please don't reply with "LOL"!)

Rob:  LMAO.

I am a relative newcomer to the whole texting phenomenon myself. I started using the text feature out of necessity — a way to communicate with clients during meetings, etc., when it wasn't convenient or appropriate to be on my cell. I've learned some of the shorthand out of necessity because my fingers just aren't adept at working that little keyboard on my phone, but then I see my friends' kids texting and it looks like a different language to me [too].

Regarding the five-year question; it's hard to say what PsorChat will look like in five years. My original vision had been for it to be an interactive chat room, hence the name. Oddly, when people joined they didn't really utilize the chat feature of the online group and eventually Yahoo! removed that feature as a group option. Occasionally someone asks about it, but for the most part people are content with the current format of posting messages.

The question reminds me a little of a job interview question I used to hear quite a bit “where do you see yourself five years from now?” I used to get around it by saying that technology changes so rapidly it's impossible to predict, and I used the growth of the internet as an example. In 1996 very few companies had web sites. Five years later ecommerce was really starting to take off, and in 2006 ecommerce had surpassed mail order and was reshaping the way companies do business.

In five years things could change dramatically in our world of online groups and in the field of psoriasis research. My hope is that in five years PsorChat won't be needed anymore, but that day is probably a bit farther out than five years, unfortunately.

It's hard to say where we'll be in the future. If Yahoo! sells out we may have to find a new home, and if that happens we may make changes to how PsorChat works or is run. I try not to fret about the future while there's so much to do in the present, so I guess I'd answer by saying “we'll burn that bridge when we come to it.”

 

Ed:  Rob, are you sure you didn't mean to write "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it"? Anyway, thanks for the interview and 6.5 years of providing a great opportunity for flakers to commune, entertain each other and, most importantly, help each other.  Since we finished our interview, I understand Yahoo! turned down “a” buy-out offer from Microsoft (the way I hear it, that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the negotiation). Whether or not PsorChat must relocate, rest assured you WILL have followers. 

*****

Rob Traister's Postings at FlakeHQ

Using a One-Step Occlusive
(January 2000)

We Need a Celebrity Advocate
(March 2000)

Methotrexate and Anti-inflammatories
(April 2000)

Clothing and P — Followup
(October 2000)

Light Box for Sale
(February 2002)

Hawaii is Good Medicine
(June 2002)

Sulfodene (for dogs) Ingredients Uncovered
(May 2004)

PsorChat Review
July 2003 - October 2006

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