Building communities online: a fine balance

Paul Benedetti

Paul BenedettiHere’s a little sample of the comments that poured into the Washington Post after ombudsman Deborah Howell wrote a column on the Jack Abramoff scandal.

“Fire that fucking bitch forthwith and all’s well that ends well, no? Otherwise, batten down the hatches, pal, ’cause there’s a storm a brewin’ and it’s gonna be nasty.”

Post executive editor Jim Brady decided to turn off the reader comments feature to prevent further personal attacks and profanity-filled postings. He explained why he took this dramatic step, saying, “We’re not giving up on the concept of having a healthy public dialogue with our readers, but this experience shows that we need to think more carefully about how we do it.” He later went online and discussed his decision with readers.

As the folks at the Post learned, it’s not easy building interactivity and community on your site. It’s even harder to make sure that community’s online conversation is intelligent, thoughtful, respectful and responsible.

Like Brady, other editors of online publications have wrestled with the dilemma: how do you balance openness, transparency and the benefits of feedback and dialogue with the need for safety, civility and thoughtful discourse? It’s not easy.

Gary Kamiya of Salon wrote an insightful piece about the problem in which he carefully outlined the many benefits of immediate and extensive reader feedback. It provides, said Kamiya, an instant snap shot of the views of your audience, acts as a giant fact checker, catching and correcting errors instantly and provides writers with ideas, arguments and leads for new stories. Of course, this feedback can also bring out the worst. Kamiya writes:

“First, and most obviously, is the reality that the newly vocal masses contain not only thoughtful and respectful readers but also large numbers of fools, knaves, blowhards and nuts. Moreover — and this is a crucial point — the percentage of letter writers who are fools, knaves, blowhards and nuts has exponentially increased.”

The posts from these folks can have profound effects on the writer, the editorial team and the whole publication. It can demoralize writers, create a “chilling effect” that makes them pull their punches in future work for fear of backlash and, finally, the rabid postings of the minority can so poison the environment that thoughtful, sane readers cease posting.

Kamiya particularly laments this phenomenon. He writes:

“Nasty and ignorant letters affect the reader, too. A few ugly or stupid comments in a discussion thread have a disproportionate impact. Like drops of iodine in a glass of water, they discolor the whole discussion and scare more thoughtful commentators away. They also degrade the image of a publication’s readership: Several Salon contributors and staffers have complained to me that our open letters policy leaves the impression that our readership is much stupider and coarser than it really is.”

So, how do you attract users, engage them in your content, encourage them to post comments and feedback, vote in polls, dialogue on message boards and just generally be part of the much-desired online community all sites try to engender?  Maybe more importantly, how do you ensure that the resulting conversation is sane, civil and legal?

The most successful online communities are built around, well, community. Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, and, of late, Twitter, don’t have to ask the question, because their very nature is community and connectivity. Not so for content-driven sites, particularly legacy journalism offerings like the The New York Times, The Globe and Mail or CBC where content is the driver, but community the new, much-sought after goal.  Traditional content providers are not, in the main, opposed to interaction, commentary and community (newspapers and radio have embraced letters to the editor and phone-in shows for decades), but issues of control and quality seem to trip up even the most enlightened Web. 2.0 enthusiasts.  Let’s take J-Source’s most recent online poll – a call to select Canada’s Newsperson of the Year. The poll, which was intended not to find the person who made news in 2008, but rather the journalist who did “exemplary journalism” that year.

Names began to trickle in, Graeme Smith of the Globe, David Beers of The Tyee, and at the urging of a few popular blogs, Mark Steyn of Maclean’s and Ezra Levant, formerly of Western Standard magazine. The editors of J-Source selected their nominee list (that did not include Steyn or Levant) and posted it for final voting. The calls went out and the votes piled in, first for Smith and then for Beers, who’d posted a call for votes on the Tyee homepage. But all hell broke loose when a host of bloggers and web sites called on their readers to support Ken Whyte, who ultimately won by a huge margin.

It would be easy to disparage this by calling it “freeping“, but that would assume it’s wrong for the web to work the way it does, virally in a kind of linked matrix in which one can become many and many can become thousands and millions. Just ask Barack Obama.

But you could ask, what does any of this mean? In our case, our Newsperson of the Year was the very deserving Ken Whyte, who not only re-invigorated Maclean’s magazine, but also wrote a book about media legend, William Randolph Hearst.  

The CBC was not so lucky. Its ill-fated foray into online polls in 2007 saw it and the group Student Vote setting up a Facebook group called the Great Canadian Wish List, where they invited Canadians (especially young Canadians) to express their top wish. Then CBC news chief Tony Burman called it “a ground-breaking experiment in civic engagement and journalistic partnership.” It turned out to be anything but.

When the digital dust cleared, the top wish was to “abolish abortion in Canada” and at least four wishes focused on abortion. Another four were about same-sex marriage, two involved religion and faith (or lack thereof) and one called for an end to child pornography.  The environment, immigration, Darfur, taxes and health care also made the list, but they almost seemed like afterthoughts. Who knew young Canadians were so spiritual, so concerned about matters of faith, ethics and social values? Of course, it seemed odd that the poll results were dramatically at odds with the results of scientific polling on the abortion question which almost always find Canadians near equally divided on the matter.

Similarly, Greenpeace was surprised when it opened an online poll to name a humpback whale that was later “poll jacked.” The whale was named Mr. Splashy Pants and Greenpeace openly admitted the poll turned into an online turf war:

“Mister Splashy Pants got a huge 119,367 votes (over 78 percent of the vote) with his nearest rival being Humphrey at 4,329 (less than 3 percent). The rest of the top ten were Aiko, Libertad, Mira, Kaimana, Aurora, Shanti, Amal and Manami.  Many websites also took credit for the rise and rise of the Splashy-Panted One. Some websites encouraged their readers to cheat and vote more than once, while others like Treehugger seemed to imply that Mister Splashy Pants wasn’t a proper name for a whale  We’re sure Treehugger didn’t mean it that way but it resulted in a final wave of votes from their readers that took Splashy to an unreachable position at the top of the pod.” 

So, it’s not unusual for polls to be “jacked.” Interestingly, our Newsperson of the Year poll generated many comments, most of which were not about the journalists or journalism, but about the issue of polljacking and the infighting surrounding it. That kind of infighting can get out of hand.

The Globe, which has made huge strides on their interactive side, recently closed off the Comments section on a Jan. 15 story about the crisis in the Middle East by Barry Rubin. Note the link to “report abusive comments.

All of this raises many interesting questions and offers few answers. How does J-Source ensure the audience we are trying to attract – working journalists, journalism students, educators, interested citizens – is not alienated by the more organized netizens who can descend upon a poll or message boards and virtually take over?

David Beers wrote a thoughtful piece about his online news site, the Tyee, which noted that out of 100 Tyee readers, about 90 will read posts, nine will comment occasionally and only one will comment regularly. Fearing that many potential commenters were being put off by the tone and content of some of the messages, the magazine introduced some new policies. Beers explained the simple guidelines:

Racist, sexist or homophobic remarks are not allowed in Tyee threads. Nor is libel. This isn’t the place for personal spats that play out the length of a thread or keep resurfacing. Personal insults of either Tyee writers or commenters are not allowed. We will be moderating threads more closely than in the past to enforce these expectations.”

Now, he explained, readers can choose to read “All Comments” and read everything (minus the libel, personal attacks and profanity which editors remove) or they can click on  “Best Comments,” a selected list of the most articulate and intelligent letters. Control and choice, in an interesting balance.

So, the problem remains. How do we handle comments from readers without heavy-handed control or outright censorship? How do we manage polls that reflect the views of our core audience and not the expression of short-lived, organized, targeted attention? How do we engage readers openly and fully, while preserving some semblance of civility?

The short answer is we can’t, at least not completely. The price, it seems, of the openness of the Web is that anyone can walk through your door and, when there’s something of interest to them, they will. It’s a wide-open, largely uncontrollable domain – not unlike the world itself. But for a business used to controlling the flow of information and for journalists schooled in gatekeeping, it’s sometimes an uncomfortable, vexing place.

The longer answer is that some compromise is needed, perhaps even welcome. Many media outlets, both traditional and new, have decided on some measure of moderating, editorial selection and yes, control. Libel, profanity, egregious personal attack, off-topic side squabbles and just plain craziness are not being tolerated. Does this curtail the fully-open nature of the web? Yes. Is there a price to be paid for that? Yes. But Jay Rosen of Pressthink, a staunch defender of open, many-to-many communication, says some basic rules are necessary:

“Hate speech has to be beyond the pale. Personal attacks with no substance should be. But rules without an enforcement system aren’t rules; they’re guidelines. I don’t think “civility” is an especially good guideline. Jim shouldn’t ask people to be civil, but to be real, to say what they think, to obey some minimal rules. Sometimes there’s a lot to discern in an angry, uncivil response, but if you’re worried about civility you’re not going to be very discerning.”

Similarly Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine highlights the new challenges that come with a new reality for journalists and their organizations:

“The age of controlled conversation is over. The age of open conversation is here. But that is damned hard for the controllers to get used to. And I don’t say that with the pejorative edge it seems to indicate. The journalists thought it was their job — emphasis on job, responsibility, value — to control by verifying and judging and so on. If the job, instead, is to enable, then you have to start exercising new muscles. And it is important to keep in mind that a democracy is better served by the airing of more viewpoints and perspectives. And journalism is better served by the exposing of more news.”

Rosen says the new world and all that comes with it “is going to be one long, tough, brutal, noisy, wrenching thing,” but that the benefits will be more openness, more information and finally, more knowledge for the people we serve.  

The new world is an exciting, invigorating environment full of surprises. Just ask the people at Greenpeace who now have to spend time and resources to save Mr. Splashy Pants.

Paul Benedetti is a lecturer at the University of Western Ontario. He was a bureau reporter, general assignment reporter, music writer, arts writer, columnist, feature writer and investigative reporter at the Hamilton Spectator. He also has extensive experience in the online world, including a position as executive producer for C-Health and Canoe Travel at Canoe where he focused on developing original online news content.