Panel: Can the media help facilitate debate online?

Another week, and another panel discussion. The Innovation Forum hosted a discussion about how the media can facilitate debate online. This is just a pretty straight, albeit probably a bit rough, write up with what was said, as best as I could. The panelists were:

Nico MacDonald: chair

Andrew Calcott: Principal Lecturer in Creative Industries and Cultural Studies and Programme Leader, MA Journalism and Society, School of Social Sciences, Media and Cultural Studies, University of East London

Meg Pickard: head of communities and user experience Guardian Unlimited

Daniel Mermelstein: BBC project manager, who helped set up the online Have Your Say technology (former colleague)

Lee Bryant: co-founder of Head Shift

Olivier Crieche: EMEA head of Six Apart

Nico: The panel is about how to innovate products. The last talk was talking about how newspapers innovate. Tonight’s discussion is about best practices and how to develop products to support debate online.

Today as Tony Blair announced his departure as Prime Minister, every news site had stories, video and also comments on the story. There is an interesting disconnect between activity online and engagement offline.

What is the business model? Differences between BBC, the Guardian and Six Apart and how they generate revenue online.

Nico asked who had posted comments on a media site. About two-thirds of the audience raised their hand.

Where is this being done well?

A: The Archers discussion board. (Question as to whether this is politics, which Nico is keen to keep the focus on.)

A: BBC Football World Cup. I was travelling around Germany. The comments across England, Germany was wonderful. The amount of comments better than anything that local council would want in terms of a discussion.

I suggested that the site World without Oil, a site that aggregates pictures, audio, video and blog posts about energy conservation, peak oil and the impacts. It is a type of online game exploring the possible impacts of a declining oil supplies. As Treehugger says:

If all this sounds interesting, but slightly confusing, then don’t worry – that’s the idea. A post-oil world will be confusing.

A: The Times education message boards someone suggests. Thousands of teachers there. The person thought it was good because the discussion wasn’t that guided but let the community frame and drive the discussion.

Andrew: (Writing a book called Citizen Blog.) I think for all the frantic, dare I say, frenetic activity of promoting ‘me’ as a brand, there are quite a bit of lazy assumptions around. Disconnect is the problem of our age. The disaggregation of the political realm is the problem. Reconnect cannot be technical. Participation is not a good end in itself. I don’t think Many boosters of the global conversation tend to underestimate the changes in our times. They think we can do politics by other means. Disband the party. Do something else.

One thing that is striking about modern politics, not just constestation. We have moved into a realm of media representation. That is different than political debate in a modern sense. That difference underrated.

Most evident in insipid narcissim in MySpace and YouTube. The corporate invitation: Come on i, the participation is lovely. We’ll sell your clicks. That is what is going on. It is a long way from modern politics.

Over estimation as to how empowered a user is. People never were just readers, viewers or listeners. They expected a response. They expected a push and pull relationship. User rather than expanded personality, is a diminished personality.

There is an assumption that comment is unilaterally good, in and of its own terms. In relative terms, it is good. Comment is relatively cheap, but inquiry and reporting is relatively cheap. Many editors looking at user generated content as getting lock on readers and users. A lot of editors look at the balance sheet. Get rid of inquiry and let commentators reign free. Not just editorial managers, when in the enthusiasm that we are all users now, professional journalists say always someone know a bit more than I do. They are losing it. Since when has been finding extra bit of information been good? The point is to reorder events as they occurred to get definitive view of events. Stand outside, retell and reorder outside of immediate action and reaction.

Journalists are unravelling if they lose that sense of purpose, if we are too ready to get into bed with being embedded. Not only journalists who are losing out in trying to be objective and consider public interest. But this is about developing a coherent political position and considering the public interest. It is the stuff of democratic debate. Some would like to say that access to media is the same as democratisation.

We have the technology. We have gifted people who can develop it and design it. There are people who are journalists and academic are better tooled up today than ever before.

Meg: I am not a journalist or an academic. I’m not talking about the Guardian because I’m not qualified to talk about the Guardian. (Me: She has been at the Guardian since 19 April.) My main interest is how organisations create happier and more productive communities. I am not talking about business models, but talking about technical constraints. I am talking about some of the issues dealing with content, debate and online discussions.

A big part of this is commenting activity. Washington Post had to shut down their comments for a while. (Me: CBS just had to shut down their comments on articles about 2008 US presidential candidate Barack Obama.) People want to engage in lively debates. It is a good thing, but we at the Guardian and every where else have suffered from racist, sexist or abusive comments directed at other readers, writers and in all kinds of crazy directions. People descending into direction. This is the same problem dogged Wikipedia, LA Wikitorial, blogs and all kinds of sites.

People see that we’re offering a platform as a place to lash out and not a place to construct a community. People who interact online don’t always feel like they are part of a community. We construct the community. Negative posts written by only a small number of people, but it doesn’t feel that way. How often do threads descend into treatise on Middle East or debate on race?

It is not necessarily as bad as it seems. Even though it feels bad or uncomfortable. We did some internal research, of vast number of comments, very small percentage had to be deleted. Conversation is a lot more positive. Broken as a user experrience and community experience.

Three types of appraoches:

1) Human solutions. Moderation resources. Processes. Policies. We treat everyone the same way. It will get you quite far, but it will not heal a broken community experience. Whack a mole, or rather a whack a troll approach. It is much more than moderation. I call this the ‘naughty step’, but all ‘naughty step’ but no ice cream is not a good position. What kind of a message does that give on how you get attention on the site? We should be encouraging and rewarding good behaviour.

2) Technical solutions. But what really helps moderators do their job is that they must have a comprehensive moderation platform. They must be able to look at things in granular way. and get users involved in moderating their own comments. Media organisations need to realise they need to move on from ‘tell us, tell us, have your say’ to ‘help us moderate this community and move the conversation forward’. It needs to be more of a converstion. Allow users to have responsibility to take over health of their community. Digg is a good example. (Meg explains. People can promote what they like and push what they don’t like off of the home page. But she adds it can be gamed.)

There is big value in aggregating distributed activity either on site or off site. A person’s reputation can be constructed across the site. Comments from Sport blog or Comment is Free all aggregated. People may feel like their comments are disappearing into a black hole. No, it makes me a creator instead of a reactor, and aggregated identity becomes valuable. Like eBay, earn reputation points.

3) Editorial solutions: Propositions, tone of voice and reward. Response by organisation and interaction by people in the organisation themselves.

(Meg responds to Andrew.) We shouldn’t be throwing comments at the bottom of every article. You can’t just put comments there and expect everything to go swimmingly. Blogs and articles should be treated differently. (She quotes me.) News stories are supposed to tie up threads, but blog posts should leave some threads open to be discussed.

Is it top down, or bottom up? Top down creates a power imbalance. It is obvious to journalists (sometime they like it that way, she says) and the users (who don’t like it, she adds).

How you set up the debate? (She quotes me) Blog posts get the comments they deserve.

Authors need to think about engaging in the debate they have created.

Some authors need to learn a new way of reading. They need to learn how to respond to comments they receive. Have your say, or what is your view? Is the person commenting back at the author? Is it digital graffiti? Are they responding to debate?

Social is not the same as community. Could be one plus one solution instead of one on one solution.

Mainstream media are experiencing this cultural shift from objective reporting and commentary to learn different kinds of journalism. It is not blog post or conversation instead of an inquiry piece.

Olivier: I am supposed to be tool making guy, but I’m pretty much the least technical person in this room. We make 75% of our revenues from businesses. Half of those businesses are in the media industry. We encounter projects working with press and radio.

Over the last five years, we created tools to meet the needs of our users. We started building weblog tools for individuals. Media was initially not interested. But then journalists got interested. In the UK, not many newspapers providing blogging tools for their users. In Italy, Spain or France, that is widespread. Discussion is now moving on and optimising what they have, moving from pure blogging to CMS and more refined ways of using tools for readers, not only journalists.

In press, it is used to talk about a lot of issues. Politics one of hot topics. In 2006 and early 2007 with presidential election (in France), it was really time for blogging as a tool. It was the first time political parties were actively using them. Every important political party used blogging tools. Look at Sarkozy, he used one of our tools to give weblogs to fan. Giving you weapons to occupy the territory. Six hundred activists took tools. (Loic Le Meur has a good run down of his role in the Sarkozy campaign, and the role of the internet in Sarkozy’s campaign.)

Segolene Royal was more in a centralised, discussion mode. She was asking people to tell her what they think. A lot of people used these tools to enter into dialogue. This was first time. Newspapers and media talk about this, possibly more than the real size (of what was going on). But it made an impact.

During campaign, we saw how one single person publishing one single item could have impact. Segolene Royal was in meeting, only about 40 people. She was talking about the 35 hour work week, said all teachers should work at least 35 hours. Implied that they weren’t working that hard. Phone camera video of that. (Guardian News blog post about the incident and the anger it provoked.) Teachers biggest voting bloc for socialists. It had a big impact.

From now on politicians look out more for what they are saying. Maybe not a good thing. Politicians become even more cautious. About 32% of French internet users have looked at candidates blogs, and 13% participated in online discussions. And 10% sending e-mails supporting candidate. People want to get involved in, and these tools help.

If you look at audience in the end, the publishers did well. Audience grew with 63% looking at main websites where only 8% look at blogs of journalists. War of blogs versus media is over. A few personal observations from talking to media organisations and what they hope to do. Most people are lazy and have no particular talent for writing. We should not expect our readers to be great debaters. Just because you have 1m readers, not 1m talented writers.

It may not be great idea to give audience sophisticed tool when all they want to do is grunt. We’re seeing a shift where newspapers give readers bloggers to give readers ability some time create content but not whole blog. It takes time. Most people want to interact. Comments. Profiles. Voting. Ranking. It is not so demanding for user.

Used to see newspaper site on one end and blogging site on other end. CMS tools are getting closer, and newspaper want to experiment with their content. Agree, not every item should be commentable, but newspapers are experimenting with this.

Throughout Europe, we’re seeing smaller media companies, online companies. They are journalistic but they make a big marketing drive and say that they are new media because they are all about participation. They are finding business models. The advertisers like them. New experiment with former journalists at Libération. They thought Libération were not moving forward fast enough.

Last one want to stress, it doesn’t happen by itself. We see many organisations purchase technology and think that they will have second YouTube. The technology helps, but it is not the main thing. What may work for sports newspaper may not work for political newspaper. To manage a community, it does not take the same skills as it takes to be a journalist. Think about objective and whether the management has the right objective.

One client that we used to have in France, Le Monde. Not about making it big but making it good. They have created weblogs for some of their journalists, but on a voluntary basis and did training. They offer weblogs to users but on a subscription basis. They have hired moderators. They are recognised as being very effective.

Lee: I’ve worked in online community development and social networks for 10 years. It’s an extremely hard and delicate thing to create space for meaningful, or at least polite, debate to occur. I’m very optimistic, but I’m also something of an old sceptic. I think some of what we’re doing is overblown. Contribution is largely an individual motivation. In the real world, community means something very different. Guardian, BBC online not communities in any real sense.

There was no spam in Samzidat. What they were doing filled a very important need. These were very real communities with real constraints. They created a wealth of writing and interaction amongst people not represented.

Comment is Free is a good example of the problems with these online media sites (a paraphrase of what Lee said). Almost nothing meaningful is happening on Comment is Free. Someone pointed me to article on Comment is Free, said something very controversial about Kosovo. There was a discussion for 120 comments based on no real knowledge. Another article by a Russian activist (didn’t catch the name). It was a well constructed article but only three abusive comments from Serb nationalists. I think limits for open sites like Comment is Free.

Constraints, barriers and intimacy are best for political debate. I have been involved with RIAA debates closed on Chatham house rules. We have got to get beyond idea of mass, open spaces. They bring out the lowest common denominator of abusive, often male spaces. I’m writing about an online Bosnian community that was almost totally wiped physically. Very heated debates, but there is enough social capital. No drive by commenting. “You suck. What? Are you deaf, I said you suck.”

We need to create communities, just big enough to create a space for debates. Grow them. You don’t start with big open spaces. People are too scared. You can’t have a political debate in these large, open spaces.

Key words. Intimacy. Scale. Common behaviour. Look at ways of self regulation. I don’t think we’re there yet. Think of social architecture. How can you map behaviours onto this system? The reason I am keen, self-protection is very important. To touch back on politics, we have to touch on the participation. We are getting to the end of a regime built off of comments by the Sun and the Daily Mail. It helped create the media obsession of New Labour. Health Minister spends one million pounds for very staged media event. They have overdone consultation. They think participation is being allowed into the doors of our institutions for 10 minutes but then pushed out for machinery of government to work.

He thinks there has to be a mutual space for politics and the people (badly paraphrasing here). Otherwise, we’ll be left with YouTube comments or Comment is Free.

I’m a big user of Flickr. Very successful at creating online culture. Very polite culture. Where was the critical mass? These questions are in mind about turning around failing online communities. Apologies for sounding so old fashioned.

Daniel: I will keep this short. I’m with Lee on a lot of this. I was reading the introduction by Nico. Have Your Say only one of vast community offerings by the BBC. News website produce 300 stories a day. Our users do provide value. They can correct mistakes. We have a fantastic user base. The challenge was to harness all of this and build something usable and scalable but also not break the bank with moderation costs.

We kept it very simple because we didn’t want this vociferous minority taking over. Most of our users only read comments not post them. We don’t let users create debates. We thought hard about distributed moderated function. We allowed users to tell us which comments were good. This was not a complex recommendation system. If you like this comment, recommend. If you don’t, ignore it. We thought the more you create these things, the more you encourage users to game these things.

Users don’t have to register to comment. We introduced a flexible moderation system. Some could be pre-moderated, and some could be reactively moderated. We had quite a bit of internal debate. This is the only place on the whole BBC website where user can put something on the site without any editorial oversight. Pre-moderated debate about Israeli-Palestinian debate or an unmoderated debate about your favourite Abba song. But how long before unmoderated debate about Abba becomes nasty debate about Israeli-Palestine? How long? Not very. We limited the number of comments people could post on unmoderated debates. They accuse you of censorship, and they are right. It’s a no win situation.

This isn’t about technical fixes or design. There is a fundamental problem. My hunch is that people don’t understand netiquette, anonymity and scale. In the BBC, we think we do have a role to promote debate, not just a role but a duty. With things like Have Your Say, you can provide tools, but they will always be a bit of a compromise.

There are other places. We can link out to these places rather than be this uncomfortable host for these debates that never feels quite right.

Question and answer, which actually was more of a comment and statement period. I didn’t catch the name of most of the commenters. I only provide identification for those people who commented and who I know.

Comment: The more I listen I wonder why we favour these pub discussion forums. A lot of speakers express uneasiness about holding these discussions back. Lee, I agree with you. Guardian or BBC, trying to promote populist debate, but you are unsatisfied. What is the Guardian or the BBC get out of this exercise?

Political will is needed to increase participation.

Comment: Richard Sambrook, BBC head of global news division: I agree with what Meg and others saying, there is a difference between online discussion and community. Community is very different thing. Big media approach was get people to site and try to lock people in. You can’t force community. You have to find where people want to gather and go there. One of most successful community sites the BBC has is 606, (a football discussion site). Also, it may not always go on in your house.

I wanted to throw out there. Maybe the political debate is informed by our consumerism. We only vote once every five years. We can’t influence global issues. But in the consumer world, we have so much choice. Maybe this is out of frustration.

Comment: By me: I didn’t want to respond directly to Lee’s criticism of Comment is Free because I’m not the editor of Comment is Free, Georgina Henry is. And I wouldn’t want to talk out of place. An upsum of what I said is that we as media organisations realise that we have to care for these spaces that we have created. I also think that the challenge is, as Tim O’Reilly says, to stay small as we grow big.

The Guardian’s Games blog is a great place where the commenters feel a real sense of ownership. Last week, we had someone posting large chunks of text, and people got very upset. But I explained to them in a post that we didn’t want to just ban someone, and they were very happy that someone was listening.

Comment: I want to stick up for Comment is Free. I think Comment is Free is one of the few places where you get that array of opinion. Some of it, I fervently disagree with and some fervently agree. Nothing about technology, it is what that debate means in the offline world. You do see that on Comment is Free, you see that. You come across the germ of a comment that shows that commenter really thought about this. If you have ideas that really matter, you have to put this out there.

Comment: On the internet, isn’t it just more distributed? I follow debate but it’s more distributed. Community is not about people congregating anywhere to much more process of aggregation, people making contact with each other because of shared ideas. You only have to see how young people have online presence. It is a much more distributed idea.

Comment: Chris Vallance of the BBC: I am concerned about audience and participation. Often mass participation is a turn off for audiences. Sometimes the very best ideas and quality comes from very corners that you don’t expect. You spread net wide enough to get best content. Casting the net wide, you get that. Open it wide enough, you get Israel-Palestine debate and that turns people off.

At this point, my iBook ran out of battery, and Suw and I had to get something to eat or pass out.

Comments are closed.