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May 18 2011

13:43

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?

May 12 2011

17:34

Comments Are Dead. We Need You to Help Reinvent Them

Let’s face it — technically speaking, comments are broken. With few exceptions, they don’t deliver on their potential to be a force for good.

Web-based discussion threads have been part of the Internet experience since the late 1990s. However, the form of user commentary has stayed fairly static, and — more importantly — few solutions have been presented that address the complaints of publishers, commenters, or those of us who actually read comments.

beyond comment threads.jpg

Publishers, for the most part, want software that will stamp out trolls and outsource the policing to the community itself (or, failing that, to Winnipeg). Commenters, on the other hand, want a functional mini-soapbox from which to have their say — preferably something that is easy to log into and has as few limitations as possible (including moderation). The rest of us are left to deal with the overly complicated switches, flashing lights, and rotary knobs that we’re expected to know how to use to dial in to the conversation so it’s just right for our individual liking, not too hot and not too cold.

Thankfully, there is an opportunity today to really innovate. New capabilities in the browser, and emerging standards provide an opportunity to completely rethink the relationship between news users and producers — between those who comment and those who are commented upon — and to demonstrate new forms of user interaction that are atomic, aggregated, augmented, or just plain awesome.

That’s why our next Knight-Mozilla Challenge is for you to come up with a more dynamic space for online discussions. You can submit your idea here, and you could win a trip to Berlin to compete with other innovators — or even win a year-long fellowship in a newsroom.

PUBLISHERS’ DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

The truth is, many news publishers don’t actually think comments are a good thing. Or if publishers won’t go so far as to admit that, they’ll usually agree that the so-called return on investment when enabling comments, discussion and debate on their site is not entirely clear.

Therein lies the biggest tension in the “beyond comment threads” challenge: At the end of the day, those who comment on stories, and those who have their articles commented upon, often have very different views on the topic.

Ask publishers about the purpose of comments and they’ll often speak to the very aspirations of independent journalism and a free press: democratic debate, informed citizens, and free speech. Ask them about the reality of comment threads on their site, and a very different picture is likely to emerge.

On the other end of the spectrum are the people who comment. No doubt, for some, it’s their very comment — or comments, in the case of those who actively comment — that creates the value on a given page, not the editorial. For others, the value is in the conversation that coalesces or unfolds in the context of a given story — but, to ease the minds of publishers, always at a safe distance from the “real content,” usually at the end of a story, or well below the fold.

In between are the rest of us, the people who benefit from the tension between publishers and commenters. We rely on the individuals who choose to comment to add context and clarifications, do extra fact-checking (a skill that’s often a casualty of newsroom cutbacks), and, ultimately, to hold the publisher accountable — publicly — and using the publishers’ own soapbox to do so. At the same time, we rely on publishers and reporters to start the conversation and keep it civil.

No wonder publishers are still asking questions about the value of comments: It takes a lot of work to build a successful online community, and the outcome is not guaranteed to work in their favor.

The Slashdot Era

Sometime in late 1997 or 1998, a bunch of hackers who agreed that commenting was broken (or — at that time — just simply missing) on most news sites decided to take matters into their own hands. Enter the era of Slashdot, an early example of the kind of sites that would begin to separate church from state by disconnecting the discussion from the content being discussed. These sites — with lots of comment and little content in the editorial sense — threw some powerful ideas into the mix: community, identity and karma (or incentives).

Thumbnail image for slashdot.jpg

Fast-forward to today, more than 10 years later, and not much has changed.

Newer sites, like Hacker News and Reddit, continue in the Slashdot tradition, but don’t break much new ground, nor attempt to innovate on how online discussion is done. At the same time, publishers — realizing the conversation was increasingly happening elsewhere — have improved or re-tooled their commenting systems in the hope of keeping the discussion on their sites. But instead of innovating, they’ve simply imitated, and little real progress has been made.

In an era where Huffington Post is the “state-of-the-art” for online discussion, I ask myself: What went wrong?

Enter the innovators’ dilemma

Meanwhile, as the events above unfolded, the rest of the web went on innovating. As publishers and comment-driven communities lamented their situation and pondered how to improve it, the conversation left those sites entirely. The people formerly known as the audience were suddenly empowered to have their say almost anywhere, via micro-blogs, status updates, and social networks.

It was the classic innovators’ dilemma at work. While focusing on how to make commenting systems better, many people didn’t see the real innovation happening: Everyone on the Internet was given their own, personal commenting system. Services like Twitter and Identi.ca solved the most pressing issue for commenters: autonomy. Services such as Facebook and LinkedIn addressed another problem: identity.

Unfortunately, not all innovation is good. Local improvements do not always equal systemwide benefits. That is the situation we are left with today: Comments, discussion and identity are scattered all over the web. Even worse, the majority of what we as individuals have to say online is locked in competing, often commercial, prisons — or “corporate blogging silos” — and is completely disconnected from our online identity.

The Sixth Estate

The opportunity in the beyond comment threads challenge is to radically re-imagine how we, the users, relate to the people producing news, and to each other. It’s time to get out of a 10-year-old box and completely rethink the current social and technical aspects of online discussion and debate. It’s time to stop thinking about faster horses, and start thinking about cars (or jetpacks!).

To get specific, let’s start with a list of great experiences that are made possible with comments:

  • Providing value to the publisher: Think about the times that comments have revealed new facts, uncovered sources, or pointed out easily correctable errors. This exemplifies the opportunity for a community to provide value back to a publisher, and helps answer the return-on-investment question. Recently, during the uprising in the Middle East and the earthquake in Japan — when several news organizations introduced real-time streams that mixed editorial content with user-submitted comments — we witnessed a glimmer of something new. What does it look like to push those ideas to their extremes?

  • Publishers and users working together: Sites like Stack Overflow (and the other sites in that network) introduced a new standard for directed conversations. More than just question-and-answer forums, these sites attempted to leverage the sense of community on sites like Slashdot and Hacker News, but also direct that energy toward a socially useful outcome, such as collective wisdom. If the Press is a “key social institution that helps us understand what’s going on in the world around us,” then we are all responsible for making it better — reporters, publishers and news readers. So what does that collaboration and the goal of collectively assembled wisdom (other than Wikipedia, of course) look like?

  • Holding publishers, or authors, accountable: If the publishers’ aim is to stamp out trolls, the commenters’ equivalent goal is to squelch bad reporting. Many readers expect news stories to be factually accurate, fair and balanced, and free of hidden agendas or unstated personal opinions. Comments were the first opportunity to quickly point out shortcomings in a story (versus a letter to the editor that may or may not be printed some days or weeks later). Think of that span — an immediate retort versus an edited response published well after the fact — and project it into the future, and then ask yourself, “How far could an idea like MediaBugz go?”

The last example on my list has to do with providing value to the community and learning together. How do we address the myriad concerns on both sides of the fence and come out the other end with something that isn’t broken? How can the historical tension between the need for anonymity and the perceived advantages of a real identity be overcome using our knowledge and the tools of the open web? In what way can the visual language of online discussion be taken beyond “thumbs up” or “thumbs down?” And what does it look like to enable commenting on the HTML5 web, which is increasingly driven by video, audio, animations and interactivity?

In those rare inspirational moments — when two sides of a conversation come together and actually listen — there is the nucleus of the idea that inspired the world to embrace comments in the first place. How do we weave that idea into the web of tomorrow? How do we turn up the volume on everything we love about comments, discussion and debate online, without losing what we love in the process?

That, if you accept it, is your mission.

July 04 2010

13:58

Web 2.0 Summit 09: “Discussion: Whither Journalism?”

John Battelle (Federated Media Publishing), Martin Nisenholtz (The New York Times Company), Marissa Mayer (Google), Eric Hippeau (The Huffington Post), Robert Thomson (The Wall Street Journal), “Discussion: Whither Journalism?”
Video Rating: 4 / 5

June 17 2010

18:00

Knight News Challenge: Winner wants to create tools that are “beautiful, interesting, accessible”

The biggest winner in the 2010 Knight News Challenge, City Tracking, wants to give cities an open framework to tell their stories and for users to easily share and discuss them.

Eric Rodenbeck, of the San Francisco design firm Stamen, wants to build data visualizations that are as compelling and user-friendly as photos or videos. “We want visualizations to be as easy to share and move around as a photo on Flickr,” Rodenbeck said. He hopes cities, journalists and locals will all use the end product.

Rodenbeck thinks there is both a great need for communities to better tell data-driven stories and a need for an open platform tool to tell them. He wants his tools to be “beautiful, interesting, and useful.” Google Maps is great, but it’s not in the public domain. “We’re finding that a lot of the tools that were out there are either really techy, or somebody else owns your data,” Rodenbeck told me. “We wanted to find that middle ground.”

To get an idea of the type of work that could come out of this new platform, take a look at Crimespotting. It’s a project Stamen started in Oakland that pulled public crime data into an interactive map. The city of San Francisco decided to create it’s own version. The tool lets users sign up for RSS feed updates and email alerts about their local communities. It also tells a bigger story about crime by plotting incidences on the map. It’s also nice looking and user friendly. “Tackling the kind of design aesthetic that a project like Crimespotting has, and extending it, is a huge part of it,” Rodenbeck told me in describing City Tracking.

Rodenbeck gave a more hypothetical example as well. An acquaintance of his wants to measure a local river’s temperature at various points, using input from other locals. Right now, there is no simple tool to power that project. It’s the kind of thing Rodenbeck would hope City Tracker would allow non-techies to do easily.

Like other Knight News Challenge winners this year, City Tracking is about presenting public information in a compelling, interactive format, rather than creating new news per se. At it’s core, the project is about engaging a community and getting residents thinking, talking and sharing. “I think we also want to encourage other kinds of conversations. Conversations about trees. Conversations about cabs. Conversations about pollution,” Rodenbeck said.

By that same token, Rodenbeck is eager for discussion while building the project. “What we don’t want to do is develop this in isolation. We want to announce it in small pieces. We’re really hoping to encourage the participation of other developers in the project. We don’t want to just be working away alone in our room, nerding away on our map projects.”

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