Posts about interactivity

After comments

Here’s my talk to Jeff Pulver’s 140Conf today on comments and interactivity, in which I argue that comments are an insult because they come only after media think they’re done creating a product, which they then allow the public to react to.

I defended comments on news sites for many years. But I think we have to move past them to true collaboration, which is more respectful and productive. There is no easy solution for civility, not identity or rating systems.

By coincidence, this appears at the same time that the New York Times publishes a story about the problems with comments, in which I suggest to the author — whose interview with me inspired my post — is often a matter of expectations: When we look at the internet as a medium, we expect it to look like media: packaged and clean. But when we realize that the internet is a place, like New York, then it’s less shocking to hear some bozo on a corner muttering “shit.”

The problem with comments isn’t them

I’m coming to think that the — or a — problem with the quality of conversation in comments online is a matter of timing:

Once we in media are finished with our work we allow the public to comment. We throw our product over the wall and let people react while we retreat into the castle and shut the gates so we cannot hear them. They know they are talking to bricks and so they shout and cover them with spray paint. Only we have the power to clean the mess but we’ve left the scene and so the castle walls are soon overrun with graffiti.

This timing — which is inherently insulting to the public — comes out of our old media worldview brought to the internet. We think the internet is a medium and that we make products for it that the public consumes.

When instead we open up to conversation earlier in our process then the conversation can become more collaborative and productive: We ask people what they know, which is a mark of respect and value. We listen to advice and requests. We end our separation from the public and join it. Waiting until we are done to listen is too late.

We must stop looking at the internet as a medium. I spent a long time this weekend talking with a reporter who’s writing about nasty comments — I’ll link to her piece when she publishes it — and I tried to convince her that the media-view we from media impose on the internet is much of the problem: When we see the internet as a medium, we expect it to be packaged and pretty, clean and controlled like newspapers and magazines and shows, and so when someone dumps a turd on that — a nasty comment — we think the whole thing is ruined, as if bad editing allowed “shit” to get into a letter printed in The New York Times.

But as Doc Searls taught me early on, the internet is not a medium — indeed, judging it as a medium brings all sorts of dangerous presumptions about control and ownership and regulation. No, Doc says, the internet is a place. It’s a park or a streetcorner where people pass and meet, talk and argue, where they are right and wrong, where they connect with each other and information and actions. It’s a public place. (And when I talk about publicness

Now judge the conversation in those terms: If you pass someone cursing on the streets of New York do you write off the place? Well, I don’t (especially because that person you pass might be me).

But all this is not to say that I accept, or we should accept the level of discourse on the internet as it is. No, I’m coming to believe that comments — which I defended when I ran sites — are an inferior form of conversation for the reasons I’ve just outlined. That’s easier to see because we’ve seen superior forms, like Twitter.

Twitter, like Facebook, is build mostly on real identities and control of relationships. I decide whom to follow and you decide whether to follow me. It’s an individual meritocracy in which each of us defines merit.

Back in the day — and still today — we hear that anonymity is the problem and that identity will solve that. That has never been the case. Identity alone isn’t enough. I may know the identity of that curser on the streets of New York but that doesn’t stop me from hearing him rant. Social controls are also needed so I can walk around him. That’s what Twitter and Facebook provide each of us. The result is better discourse. I don’t find Twitter or Facebook littered with fools and nastiness and when I do stumble upon them, I unfollow; when they occasionally spit on me, I block (if only I could instead give them their meds).

Somewhere in there is a secret to improving discourse online. Craig Newmark is talking about the need for distributed trust networks and in Twitter and Facebook I do, indeed, think we’re beginning to see the outlines of them. Clay Shirky wishes for algorithmic authority. Identity is a factor, of course. But we need to be careful about thinking that there is some system that will just clean up messy talk. That doesn’t work in life; it won’t work on the internet, which is life. What Craig and Clay are asking for is tools to help each of us have a more pleasant stroll in the streets of the internet.

But I also think we need to turn this question around and not look at the commenters but at ourselves as members of the conversation. What are we doing to improve the quality of discourse? So I return to that question of timing: When we open up and grant respect and talk with people eye-to-eye and collaborate, that creates value not just blather. In What Would Google Do? I told the story of MyStarbucksIdea.com as a platform for collaboration over conversation:

Some threads emerged from the suggestions and discussion. Many customers wanted express lines for brewed-coffee orders so they could avoid waiting behind alleged coffee aficionados with their half-this, half-that, skinny, three-pump, no-foam, Frappuwhatevers. Some customers asked to be allowed to send in their orders via iPhone. And some customers suggested—and thousands more agreed—that the chain should enable them to program their regular order into their Starbucks card so they could swipe it as they enter, placing the order and paying for it at the same time, letting them skip the cash-register line. One more proposed a pour-it-yourself corner and another asked for a delivery service. The theme—that is, the problem for Starbucks—was clear: long, slow, inefficient, irritating lines. But not one of these customers started with that complaint. Instead, they offered solutions to fix the problem. All Starbucks had to do was ask.

Should comments as a form of conversation be eliminated? No, of course not. The tool isn’t the problem (any more than blogging tools or printing presses are). If you eliminate comments that’s even more insulting than not listening to them and it risks giving up the incredible value the public can give if only they are enabled to (a value I saw so clearly in the comments under my posts here or here). The issue isn’t comments or identity or registration or tools. The issue is how you play host.

When CYA can BYA

It’s lawyer day at Buzzmachine….

In this week’s kerfuffling on Twitter and blogs about the Wall Street Journal’s anti-interactive interactivity rules regarding Twitter et al, a New York Times editor took a few of us to task for not recognizing that this was just a case of a CYA – cover your ass – memo from lawyers. I responded that CYA can now BYA – burn your ass – when such memos become public, as they will, and speak for you.

This memo was all about how Journal journalists may – or actually may not – communicate, interact, and collaborate with the public (read: us). So it was a memo about us. The Journal didn’t understand how inherently insulting it was to say that it’s dangerous for journalists to talk with us.

The memo ended up exposing a cultural problem at the Journal. I got a private direct message from an executive there saying, “Be careful where you go on this, Jeff. You’re assuming more than Robert said.” I’ll write off the vaguely threatening tone to the economy of language on Twitter. I’ll also choose to reply here rather than in a direct message because I prefer to have this conversation in public. And I’ll tell that executive that, no, the memo said more than they think it said. It said it’s better not to use these tools to collaborate with the public. It said it’s better to let the product speak for itself than to open up their process. It said that being closed is better than being open. Oh, it said plenty.

[Correction: The direct message turns out to be about a prior critical post I'd made regarding the Journal and micropayments. My mistake.]

Rather than scolding me and other tweeters and bloggers for scolding them, the Journal’s executives should have listened. They got great advice from no less than VC Fred Wilson (Twitter investor, btw) telling them what they’re missing about the value of these new tools for journalism. Rather than trying to protect the way things have always been done in this new world, wouldn’t it be better to look at the new ways these tools enable journalists to do their jobs better, to involve and collaborate with the public in the process of journalism to produce better reporting, to reset the relationship of journalist and reader on a more equal and human level, to promote the good work of the journalists at the paper, and so on?

But this is where the Times editor is probably right: I smell lawyers. Someone likely went to them and said, “Protect us. There’s something new and strange in operation here. How could it harm us? Stop it.” That’s what lawyers do, right? They protect.

But protection, haven’t we learned, is precisely the wrong response to change today. Newspapers protected their past and they’re dead. They should have bravely experimented. What they needed instead of protection was the license to try and fail. Now I have known good lawyers who will try to enable you to do what you want to do. But at the end of the day, if they do that too much, they’re screwed because it’s not their job, really, to empower you. It’s their job, still, to protect you. But in the counterintuitive internet age, protection is no protection.

I also got an email from a Journal staffer about what appears to be a Twitchhunt in the Journal. I won’t reveal details because I don’t want to reveal the identity of the employee – because, clearly, interacting with me about the inner workings and process of the Journal is now against Journal rules. That’s just what the lawyers want to protect them from, right? Wrong. What should happen instead is that the execs at the Journal should be asking staffers such as this one how to take advantage of these new tools. They should have asked the public what it means to use Twitter wisely – what is the new definition of the words a Journal editor threw at me in Twitter: “common sense.” They should instill a culture of asking the public what they know before the story is done.

Is this the lawyers’ fault? No, it’s the fault of the culture at the Journal, a culture that clearly doesn’t understand the benefits of using these tools to open up and do journalism in new ways. But lawyers aid and abet that kind of thinking. They enforce it. They codify it. They make it seem OK. And then they become the voice of the company with the public. And that’s not protection. That’s dangerous. It’ll burn your ass.

Missing the point

The Wall Street Journal’s rules for Twitter and the internet rob the paper and its reporters of a few key benefits. Among the rules:

* Let our coverage speak for itself, and don’t detail how an article was reported, written or edited.
* Don’t discuss articles that haven’t been published, meetings you’ve attended or plan to attend with staff or sources, or interviews that you’ve conducted. . . .
* Business and pleasure should not be mixed on services like Twitter. Common sense should prevail, but if you are in doubt about the appropriateness of a Tweet or posting, discuss it with your editor before sending.

This misses the chance to make their reporting collaborative. Of course, they should discuss how an article was made. Of course, they should talk about stories as they in progress. Net natives – as WSJ owner Rupert Murdoch calls them – understand this.

Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc. also provide the opportunity for reporters and editors to come out from behind the institutional voice of the paper – a voice that is less and less trusted – and to become human. Of course, they should mix business and pleasure.

Guardian column: Paulo Coelho, pirate

My Guardian column this week is an interview with the Googliest author I know, Paulo Coelho about the power of free and friendships online. The lede:

Paulo Coelho certainly has nothing against selling books. He has sold an astounding 100m copies of his novels. But he also believes in giving them away. He is a pirate. . . .

Dear Bob,

You caused a lot of discussion in your OtM piece about comments — and that discussion itself — in the comments on WNYC’s blog, in the comments on mine, and in blogs elsewhere — is an object lesson in the value of the conversation online.

Look at who is trying to help you understand that conversation while also trying to improve it:

Derek Powazek agrees with you — as we all do — that some comments are bad and so he shares considerable wisdom about how to give a community the care and feeding it needs and deserves.

Doc Searls, a coauthor of the seminal Cluetrain Manifesto and a teacher from whom I have learned more about the essence of the internet (hint: it’s not a medium) than most anyone, is delivering a history lesson with perspective on the growth of communities. “We need to remember that the Web is still new. It’s about three seconds after the Big Bang and all we have is a few light elements, no galaxies, and a lot of heat,” he said.

ComcastScott (a vice-president, I learn) — whom I suspect you inspired to join the conversation with your own not-very-temperately named ComcastMustDie.com — gives an eloquent defense of the value of listening.

Kevin Marks is a preeminent architect of community online; he was the technology genius behind Technorati — which enables the distributed conversation (and where you can follow the conversation around you here) — and is now writing Google’s gospel on the social. On his blog, he took the time to discuss what communities need and how they are structured, sharing the smarts of many other people who a great deal of experience in the field.

Tish Grier, who has been a leader in local communities I’ve been involved with, also tells hosts what they need to bring to assure civility.

Aaron Barnhart – who, like you, covers media — explains how he handles commenters who don’t like him.

The conversation on your blog is really quite incredible with some legitimate questions for Ira Glass.

I know you didn’t like my own observation of irony in your report. Fine, dismiss that as just another damned comment.

But note well, my friend, that all of these people are speaking to you with intelligence, experience, generosity, and civility. You know what’s missing? Two things: First, the sort of nasty comments your own piece decries. And second: You.

Bob, the best way to learn about the conversation online is to join in. That doesn’t mean just defending yourself against my wisecrack (though even in that, I shared links to my experience, perspective, and lessons with communities). It means engaging in the ideas there, bringing your journalism to the conversation: ask questions, ask for examples, challenge ideas, seek clarification. Learn. That’s what these conversations enable and the conversation around your piece is the best proof of it.

So when it’s time to report the reaction to your piece, I suggest that you not just read one comment — that’s so letter-to-the-editorish of you. Instead, leap into this conversation, draw on the generous sharing of knowledge and viewpoints of people in it, take lessons away, and share those.

Your friend,

Jeff

Comments on comments on comments

Ah, irony.

On the current On the Media, Bob Garfield launches into a screed on those who launch into screeds in online comments. He quotes Gawker — Gawker! — getting on his high-horse about comments. He talks with This American Life’s Ira Glass about why he got rid of comments on his site. But then he asks Glass something so leading — Garfield only tells about about his question but unfortunately does not reveal it to us — that Glass loses his constant cool for a moment in a rousing defense of vox pop. And then, for balance, Garfield has on a newspaper editor who — amen to this — says she thought we were way past this debate as she explains the value she gets from comments.

But here’s the kicker: Garfield finishes off telling us about comments to his Ad Age review of a commercial deemed to be offensive to gays because Mr. T makes fun of a race-walker for being the shame of the man race. Some commenters then ridiculed Garfield’s opinion and so he lashes out at them from his radio pulpit, calling them every bit as bad as race baiters in Der Sturmer.

Now we know that the law of online discussions is that they will inevitably descend until someone plays the Nazi card (Godwin’s law: “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”) So here’s Garfield decrying the civility of comments — in a discussion about them that has gone on way too long — himself bringing the discussion to its lowest ebb, resorting to reductio ad Hitlerum.

Can he see the irony?

* * *

While we’re at it, there’s considerable irony in Gawker getting sniffy about comments, considering that Gawker is regularly blamed for lowering standards of journalism, conversation, and civilization. Indeed, I was the one who argued with founder Nick Denton way back in Gawker’s diaper days telling him that he needed to add comments. He resisted because he didn’t want to hoi with the polloi. He’s snotty. He’s British. But he did finally add them because he wanted traffic. Unenlightened self-interest. Comments bring him lots of traffic and revenue and notoriety.

At least we know that Denton gets the irony. He’s British.

* * *

So are comments destroying civilization? The reason this argument is so damned tired is that we all know who the assholes are and where they hang out and we know how to step around them and their smelly shopping carts. I don’t need Garfield, Gawker, or newspaper editors to protect me from them. The nannies’ obsession comes, I think, from the media and news worldview that led them to believe that they were able to package the world neatly every day in a beautiful box with a bow on top. Now that we can suddenly hear more voices, it upsets them as schmutz does Felix Ungar. The world isn’t just out of their control now but it’s messy.

But I’ve argued that we’re looking at commenting the wrong way. We spend so much of our time playing wack-a-mole with the dirty little creatures who dig up the garden that we miss the fruits and flowers. It is far more productive to curate the good people and good comments — whether they occur under an article or, better yet, via links — than it is to obsessively try to clean up life, which can’t help but be messy.

The tsk-tskers treat the web as if it is a media property and they judge it by its worst: Look what that nasty web is doing to our civilization! But, of course, that’s as silly as judging publishing by the worst of what is published. It’s even more wrong because the internet is not media — no matter how much media people insist on seeing the web in their image. Instead it is, as Doc Searls points out, a place where we talk. Walk by any streetcorner on the way to the theater and there’s a good chance you will hear stupid, illiterate, nasty things before you hear smart, well-written things. Time for a neutron bomb? No, you keep walking.

So now feel free to comment on my comments on Garfield’s and Gawker’s comments on comments. Or keep walking. Your choice.

: LATER: In the comments, Garfield responds; Jay Rosen asks to hear the question Garfield asked Glass; Doc Searls talks about the evolution of conversational tools. And on his blog, Derek Powazek responds to Garfield on the differences in comment systems and communities.

Thinking big

A friend told me to go to the Washington Post home page immediately and when I did, here’s what I saw:

BigThink promo

Pleasant surprise for the morning. This is the fruit of BigThink’s partnership with the Post, adding quality video interviews with smart people (present company and excerpt excepted).

I’ve been impressed with BigThink and its founders. I see it as a video version of Comment Is Free or Huffington Post. They’ve managed to get an impressive list of interviewees and the format is compelling.

Here‘s the video on WaPo. For readers of this blog, there’s not much new from me. And if you can bear it, here’s more blather.

How they do it is kinda cool: You sit in a closet staring at a teleprompter but rather than text there, you see the face of your interviewer.