January 19, 2006
When Vox Populi Attacks
An angel dies every time this happens. The folks in news organizations who are already against the idea of strengthening the relationship between the editors in the newsroom and the ones outside it just feel vindicated by setbacks like this. In the news world, the Wikipedia Wars are actually only battles in a wider conflict. Many journalists still believe our only role can be telling folks what we think they need to hear. I, of course, come down on the side of those who believe all these hassles are worth it if it means a true dialogue with the “people formerly known as the audience.”
As we get smarter about creating platforms for interactivity, incidents like those that burned the WaPo and the LA Times will happen less frequently. An intelligent approach to the Web doesn’t involve either totally free, unmitigated chaos or rigid hierarchical control.
I remember being all bummed out when Lifehacker introduced comments by invitation only. The other day, my itch to comment on an LH thread was so strong that I actually — gasp — used the e-mail feedback link and sent in my comment the old “letter to the editor” way. Moments later, I received an e-mail from LH associate editor Adam Pash inviting me to sign up as a Lifehacker commenter. So the threshold is seriously low to be a commenter on Lifehacker, but I imagine it’s the simplest possible thing for the editors to close the account of someone who’s become a problem contributor. Call this approach Domesticated Chaos.
Of course, news sites probably can’t vet every person who wants to contribute, and I don’t think they’d need to. If only one registered users of WashingtonPost.com could comment, and if their comment histories were linked from their profiles — as is the case on a blog like MetaFilter — that would make contributors much more accountable for their words. And it would make it much easier for site administrators to ban the small minority of troublemakers who tend to ruin forums like these for the majority.
If WaPo editors want even more filters than that, they could institute a Kuro5hin-esque system of comment ratings. (Scoop is free, after all.) Since WaPo.com’s editors are so concerned about the level of discourse in their forums, why are they using TypePad, of all things? Why not implement a system that’s 1) free and 2) much better suited for sorting wheat from chaff?
The folks behind these sites are smart cookies, though. I imagine they’ll hit on a solution soon, and open up comments again. I hope so.
Plus: More on trollery, by David Pogue.