The ethic of interactivity

Let’s pull up from the fur-flying fray over pulling down blog comments that attacked rookie ombudser Deborah Howell thanks to her misguided attempt at balancing a scandal (see full coverage and great links on Jay Rosen’s Press Think; see also Umair Haque’s attempt to give big, old media an attitudectomy).
The bigger question is: What is the ethic of interactivity?

Q: Are media required to play host to the opinions and criticism of others?

A: No. But they will be judged by their interactivity.

That’s the real issue here: One-way media are trying to figure out the two-way world and it’s hard, but necessary. If you’re not part of the conversation, you won’t be heard.

Q: Is it better to host comments or link to them?

A: You should do both.

I believe that linking to comments made on blogs (and in other media) will, in the long run, yield more compelling — albeit distributed — conversation. The people who use their own space to comment care enough about the topic to say something and stand by what they say under their own names (or brands). As Glenn Reynolds (not a comment host himself) says: “Given the Post’s addition of Technorati links to many of their stories, they’re in a better position than most to say ‘the blogosphere is our comment section.’ And, you know, it is.” That’s true to a point. But there are also times when I don’t want to use my space to react to a conversation on a blog or around a news story. But I do have something to add. So I want to comment. When I am not given that opportunity on blogs (or other outlets), I suffer media constipation.

Q: Should there be an expectation of civility in interactivity?

A: As much as there is in life.

We see two mistakes in the discussion surrounding the Post blog:

First, too many people judge interactivity by the worst of it, which is rather like refusing to visit New York because you hear there are a few assholes there. This, I think, comes mostly from people who wish they could dismiss interactivity, and the internet and blogs with it. Sorry, but interactivity — and New York — are here to stay.

The second mistake some people make is assuming that the rest of us can’t figure out who the assholes are. With that comes the presumption that we need to be protected from the bozos, that that is media’s (and, in other contexts, government’s) job. People sometimes ask me why I don’t kill stupid comments from various bozos. I reply that I figure most people know they’re bozos and judge them accordingly.

Q: Should you moderate interactivity?

A: If you want to.

But don’t think that you can tidy up comments any better than you can tidy up the world. People are messy and so’s life. Get used to it.

Nonetheless, I do believe that this is my space and I have the right — and sometimes responsibility — to maintain a proper atmosphere for conversation. I rarely kill comments but I choose to sometimes when someone goes overboard.

Q: Shouldn’t technology help with moderation?

A: You wish.

But I wouldn’t count on machines outsmarting people who need their meds. They will outsmart filters and parole officers everytime.

Q: Is interactivity worth the price?

A: Yes.

It may not bring in much ad revenue (yet) and it may take effort (but less than creating content), but if you treat interactivity — and the people who do it — with respect, good things will come of it: content, improvement, promotion, respect.

You cannot afford not to interact.

Q: By the way, do we really need ombudsmen?

A: No.

Everyone in a newspaper should have a direct relationship with the public. They should all be their own ombudsmen.

: I’ve worked with interactivity since the early ’90s and continue to learn lessons.

At Advance, our community expert taught me that moderators should not be the people who kill bad comments any more than mayors should be the guys who pick up trash. I learned that we didn’t need moderators; that’s a one-way-media way to think: that the people need hosts to tell them what to talk about. What we needed instead were police to clean up problems. Our expert showed me that the public would send us alerts to those problems, but only if we responded to their snitching quickly and reliably. It worked. The quality of discourse improved; complaints from newspaper editors declined (though none of them truly appreciated the value of interactivity); traffic and audience skyrocketed.

I also sat on the board of the company that started, which tried to bring Slashdot code to a broader audience. It didn’t really work. Slashdot works for a geeky public. Others may disagree, but I think it proved to be too complex — too not worth the effort — for the rest of us. Still, the idea that people can collaboratively dismiss the bozos and promote the geniuses makes sense. Someday, someone will figure out how to make it worth our while.

So what would I advise the Post — what will I advise them in a planned Wednesday roundtable chat?

I’d tell them to let the comments roll and to let all their constituencies — newsroom, ombudsman, and public — know that there will be attacks and there will be bozos, but there will also be signal worth that noise.

I’d tell them what I told CBS Public Eye when they, too, complained about the quality of public discorse: The best way to ensure a real discussion is to join in that discussion. Rather than just just making a post on a blog — and then a column on the topic — ombud Deborah Howell should have joined in the discussion in the comments. Of course, she should have followed my father’s advice about office politics and not be drawn into the lowest attacks. But she should have entered into a real dialogue with the readers who had legitimate criticism and questions and advice. What is an ombudsman for, after all, if not to interact with that?

I’d tell them to kill only the worst of the bozos’ spiteful, personal, and off-topic attacks — but to kill them quickly and consistently.

I’d tell them to give greater promotion to the external blogs that used their own space and names to enter into a discussion about the issues. The conversation is distributed.

I’d tell them to stop thinking that all interactivity should be about the newspaper and what it says. Make it about what the public is saying and what the newspaper is not saying.

I’d tell them that rather than trying to find more ways to control interactivy, I’d find more ways to interact: Solicit help from the public on stories, do the wikitorial the right way (not the way the LA Times did it but by, instead, encouraging two sides of an issue to each, separately showcase their best cases), let people remix stories…

I’d tell them to sit back and enjoy the ride. Democracy and discussion are messy, like life.