Journalism and community: Creating your own little corner of the internet

Alan Mutter categorised the shift from traditional advertising to digital advertising as ‘each versus reach’, and I think that speaks to changes in content as well as advertising in the digital era. Some of the problems with current digital strategies is that they rely on mass media thinking, and no where do I think this more evident than in social media or community strategies. Most still are mass media strategies, with the goal of creating undifferentiated large audiences instead of aggregating smaller, more focused audiences. 

Create a focused conversation worth taking part in, and you’ll develop a loyal, focused audience too. It will make not only make a better community, but a focused audience is easier to sell to advertisers too. 

If you want to see a master in the art of host of an online conversation and creating a focused audience, it’s worth checking out Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor at the Atlantic. He has a great interview with NPR’s On the Media, How to create an engaging comments section. The first thing to notice is that it takes a lot of work, which I think is why most media just opt for punching the biggest, baddest trolls in the pit. It’s easy, and it is like a shot of meth for page views. 

Coates on the other hand has decided that rather than a troll pit, he wants to play host to a dinner party, and as he says:

I try to keep the conversation interesting, in terms of what is the bane of all comments sections, and that is, you know, rude commentary, people going over the line, trolling, that sort of thing. I generally follow the same rules, so I always tell people, if you were in my house and you insulted one of my guests, I would ask you to leave. I don’t understand why it would be any different in a comments section.

Amen, and I think most journalists would agree with that. He moderates his comments pretty aggressively, possibly a bit more aggressively than I would. However, I long ago stopped buying the argument that moderating comments is tantamount to censorship. Freedom of expression should not be used as an excuse for freedom from civility.

However, Coates isn’t arbitrary in deleting comments. His rules? 

You can’t call people names. I mean, you can’t say, listen, you idiot. You can’t change the topic because you don’t like the discussion. It’s like, y- you’re more curating comments. So what you’re trying to do is present a conversation that’s interesting, not for everyone but for a certain small group of people.

There is a somewhat absolutist argument about freedom of expression on the internet that one should be free to say whatever one wants and act in any way one wants. However, we have norms of behaviour and conversation in real life, and I personally have always applied to them my online behaviour. I have one standard of behaviour online, in print and in real life. Do I want to impose those standards on everyone? No, but as the host of a conversation, I do retain the right to say those are the ground rules for the conversation that I’m trying to have. 

I also like how Coates interprets freedom on the web. He says:

But the beauty of the Web is that whatever my comments section is, it’s not the Internet. So if that’s not what you want, you can go somewhere else. 

This is key, and a key shift in thinking in terms of digital. You don’t have to be all things to all people. Actually, being something very important to a smaller, defined group of people offers more chance of success. The Atlantic is succeeding because it is building a team of people like Coates who have distinctive voices and are able to create their own definition of community online.

James Fallows, one of the smartest writers in Washington, is another example of a personal take on engagement at The Atlantic. He doesn’t have comments on his pieces, and he has explained why, twice in fact. In his biography on The Atlantic site, it says, “If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a “Comments” field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.” That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t engage with people. He does accept comments but via email., and he’s actually held a few AMA discussions on Reddit. 

I think this is one of the secrets of The Atlantic’s success, both editorially and commercially. It has hired smart engaging writers who want to engage. The fact that they engage in their own ways show they value engagement but have found a way that works for them. Engagement is the goal, but as Coates and Fallows show, there are a number of ways to get there.