Friday, September 05, 2008

Compelling Civility in a Caustic 'Community'

When the Daily Sentinel rolled out its' Community site earlier this year, I heralded its' arrival as a potentially diverse and vital resource for the exchange of local ideas and information not otherwise available in one location. I log in periodically, and review the letters to the editor regularly. I have posted a comment or two, but otherwise have not been particularly active on the site.

The reasons, aside from trying to better manage my time online, include the manner in which discussions within the Forums section of the site, or the comments attached to letters to the editor, quickly degraded into name-calling and hateful ramblings that seemed intentional, as though the end goal was to chase away anyone who was interested in learning something through meaningful discussion. The users involved in this are referred to around the web as Trolls.

Despite attempts from Sentinel staff to impose a code of conduct, which was supplanted by a voluntary agreement among most of the more vocal users to behave responsibly, the attacks and diatribes continued.

Yesterday, Sentinel Editorial Page Editor Bob Silbernagel posted a short message announcing that the most egregious of the Community trolls would be blocked from the site, and comments would be monitored much more closely than in the past.

The Sentinel is correct in taking action, and is entirely within its' rights to do this. Regardless of the right of free expression (real or perceived), they own the site. They've been more than tolerant of some real hatefulness, as well as comment threads that wander completely off of the original topic.

As you can imagine, this stirred up plenty of commentary in itself, the majority of which was civil, regardless of which side of the debate you were on. From a cursory examination of the comments left, most of those who left comments welcomed the announcement. Some users decried this action as censorship, and have also brought up the questionable past removal of legitimate posts and comments by the Sentinel staff. Some of the trolls appear to be trying to get back onto the site with different user names.

This is serious business; in the world of the Internet and e-commerce, reputation is as much a tangible commodity as anything else. Several anonymous trolls from a college admissions website message board are learning this the hard way, and the lawsuit that their targets brought against them may change the manner in which Internet commentary is generated and moderated.

There is an excellent book available free online that explores the concept of reputation, and how it will impact a society and economy in which one's virtual persona or image is increasingly valued as much as any tangible service or presence.

The Sentinel and its' parent company (whomever that may be in the future) are keenly aware of how the manner in which the Community site is used is a direct reflection on the reputation of the Sentinel and the domain GJSentinel.com. I applaud their level of tolerance and restraint up to this point in time, but I also feel that their recent action was necessary. The challenge now is to put some consistency and accountability behind the rhetoric.

I've got some observations and advice for all of the parties involved:

Community Users: Start a blog of your own, and moderate the comments before they hit the web. It's really easy to do, especially with Blogger or Wordpress. You control the content, you manage the dialogue.

Trolls: Do the same if you feel that strongly about things. However, I question the ability of many of you to generate an original thought, let alone a flame or diatribe, without reacting to an idea from someone else.

If you don't think this will work out, the extraordinary diversity of the Internet even has a place just for you. Go and wallow.

Sentinel: I don't have time for message boards. There is too much noise coming from trolls and others who muddy the discussion to make any sense or learn anything, and I don't think that things are going to improve sufficiently in the wake of your enforcement action to change my mind about it. I do like reading the printed letters 2 or 3 days in advance, though.

I realize that not too much is going to change at the paper until after the sale is completed, but I would strongly encourage you to evaluate the YourHub concept, as executed in Metro Denver and numerous other metro and rural areas around the country.

Even if the concept was conceived and is managed by a perceived competitor, YourHub succeeds in the manner in which content can be submitted, the information becomes personalized to a specific town or region, and moderation occurs within those local 'hubs'.

The result, while not without its' problems, is a web locale that a community can call its' own. An extra added value is a weekly print edition specific to that community, with selected stories and other features.

This concept is even more viable now that the Sentinel is producing and distributing a weekly tab that contains highlights of the previous week's stories. Since I follow the paper pretty closely during the week, this feels redundant to me. I for one would be excited about a weekly insert that detailed stories and events in my particular area of Mesa County.

Free Press: This is your chance to carve a niche. Give it some thought.

I wish the best of luck to Todd Powell and the remainder of the Sentinel staff that built and supports the Community site. I'm really trying to be optimistic, but it's tough. I believe that the site as it exists now will need to be replaced by something that leverages more of the content delivery systems that are prevalent in places like YourHub.

Until then, I'll peruse the letters. I've found that the Internet, especially the blogosphere, is like a giant flea market; you can look through junk for hours before you find anything of genuine value. I've got too much living to do for that.

Have a great weekend.

1 comment:

Shreveport Nicky said...

Don't you wish every troll on the Web would flock to theybannedme.com? What a wonderful virtual world it would be. Thanks for pointing out that link!