Phillip Smith

You must be the conversation you want to see in the world

“A great community isn’t something that you just set up and periodically patch. Running a great community is a full-time job, not a weekend hack project.” – Alex Payne

The last week was a valuable learning moment. The launch of the Beyond Comment Threads challenge stirred up a lot of conversation around the Web: on sites like Slashdot and Hacker News, and also on the MoJo community list.

Around the same time, I was busy kicking the hornets nest again with a post over on the PBS MediaShift Idealab (related Hacker News thread).

It was an incredible opportunity to see the potential of online discussion, comments, and debate applied to the very challenges that have been presented:

  • Re-think the relationship between news users and producers;
  • Demonstrate new forms of user interaction with news;
  • Push beyond the ways we currently think about comments and online debate.

Meanwhile, I’ve been speaking with a number of publishers about the tension between their aspirations for discussion in the context of news, and the realities that one must face when the comment switch is flipped to the on position.

I’ve tried to distill some key themes below, but I’m hoping that you can also weigh in with your own experiences.

  1. The “Eyes on the Street” theory still holds online: Most publishers now agree that it’s critical for them, their staff, and the authors of the content to play a role in the community that they are convening at the end of their articles. Without visibility and natural surveillance, comments threads can quickly become a no-mans land.

  2. There is no free content: CP Scott may have said that “Comment is free,” but convening the specific type of online discussion & debate that many publishers aspire to have on their sites comes with a cost. The cost of having moderators, community policing tools, and – in many cases – the liability insurance quickly starts to add up. For many sites with active comment threads, just reviewing the comments that are reported as ‘offensive’ can take up significant time, let alone reading through to look for comments that are insightful, informative, or contain new information.

  3. Publishers & authors are still ‘on top’: No matter how you slice it, the pristine words of the bourgeoisies & intellectuals still sit high above the comments of the unwashed masses, the rabble, the proletariat (how these filthy ‘wage slaves’ have time to comment all day continues to defy all explanation). In all seriousness, this visual presentation can work to re-create the classic divides in society, with both groups feeling inaccurately reflected or simply not respected.

  4. Comments become the culture of a site: If a publisher is lucky enough to become the flash point for lively conversations – especially conversations that happen between commenters, and not just ‘up’ toward the original article – it often becomes evident that a specific culture starts to emerge. It is that emergent culture that becomes the environment that other passers-by (and, um, potential advertisers) use to assess and evaluate the community. Is it a ghetto full of broken windows? Or is it a bohemian coffee house brimming with spirited debate? It is this culture that is both the risk and reward for publishers.

To keep up with expectations and aspirations, publishers appear to have two choices:

  1. Create better systems: This is the focus of the current Knight-Mozilla innovation challenge, and is often a controversial option. There rarely is a one-size-fits-all solution, and interventions that work incredibly well in one context can easily fail in others. What looks visually uncomplicated to one, may appear like an inaccessible mess to another. Most worryingly, I fear that publishers looking for silver bullet will turn to “real names” as the only answer and that the open web will lose the identity battle, while commenters lose the choice to be anonymous.

  2. Create better commenters: It is this idea that intrigues me the most today. What does it mean to create better commenters? Is it simply the badges and reward systems that sites like Huffington Post are experimenting with? Is it an extension of the kinds of ideas that the Sacremento Press is working on where contributors earn virtual accreditation by attending workshops? Or is it something else entirely, where those who comment have to pay or earn their spot on the virtual podium? Or perhaps a system where one can endorse another, similar to sites like LinkedIn?

What are your experiences?

About

Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.

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