Sky News got the argument it wanted

Last week, Sky News announced the closure of its discussion forums.

Simon Bucks, Sky News Online’s associate editor, wrote:

We did this after a lot of thought and consideration. Although the boards were very popular, a small number of people had hijacked them and reduced the level of debate to meaningless abuse.

He continued:

At Sky News we welcome robust debate about the news, but we want it to be of a high standard. I am afraid that too often on the discussion boards threads which started intelligently would degenerate into mindless name calling.

The closure comes a couple of months after Sky Sports quietly closed their forums, saying:.

The forums have been a popular part of the site for several years but we are no longer able to provide the sort of service users expect from Sky Sports.

Some of the commenters on the Sky News announcement aren’t very happy about this turn of events. User TryAgain1234 said:

400+ replies and hardly a response from Simon, goes to show exactly how interested Sky really are in the comments of their customers. He can’t even be bothered to respond to his own blog.

Any news community manager worth his/her salt will tell you that the involvement of the journalists in the comment threads on their blogs is essential to the debate. The same is true of forums: If you are running a news forum, having your news journalists engage with the discussion can help keep the tone of the forum polite. Of course, this is predicated on the journalists in question keeping a civil tongue in their heads – and not all do.

Another important influence on how a community develops is how the people running it react to the different behaviours that their commenters exhibit. News communities often struggle because comment threads on contentious issues are highlighted, rewarding bad behaviour. That’s because of an editorial miscalculation: Because contentious threads get lots of comments, they are mistaken for successful threads, and are so promoted in order to get even more comments. The metrics are purely quantitative. By any qualitative measure, most discussions around hot issues are utter failures, devolving into slanging matches and providing no value to readers, participants, the news organisation or its advertisers. Indeed, vitriolic comments can put advertisers right off a site.

When news communities go bad, it’s often because they’ve been mismanaged or not managed at all. Commenter Sphinx said on the Sky News blog:

meanwhile over at a differentsky posters are getting used to a forum where the admin does respond to things and does care.

If Sky News have not been paying full attention to their community, then they only have themselves to blame when things go south. You can’t just leave people to it. As human beings we are used to living within constraints, and the idea that the web is a place where they are not needed is a myth. Communities need limits, and those limits need to be communicated, discussed and thoughtfully enforced.

Ultimately, you get the community that your marketing deserves. If you market your forums as News Fight Club Online, you’re going to get exactly that. Asking people if they are ‘looking for an argument’ sets up an expectation in the user of extreme hostility, so they will react intemperately to the slightest thing.

I am entirely unsurprised by the closure of Sky News forums. I could have predicted its demise in 2007, when Sky started running these idents.

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