The conversation that we all need to have soon
Monday January 30, 2006
Interactivity isn’t easy. I must confess that when I wrote for large publications, I said that I loved my audience … but that didn’t mean I wanted to actually meet or talk with them. The people who reached out to me as often as not did so with crayons and crackpot conspiracies, and that helped set my view of interactivity. I think the same is true for much of mass media. The old forms of interactivity helped make us into – or rather, gave us an excuse to be – isolated snobs. The internet changed all that. Online, for the first time in my career, I developed eye-to-eye relationships with readers. And I learned to respect the knowledge, intelligence, goodwill and good taste of those I saw as a mass. I embraced interactivity with obnoxious fervour and would not stop repeating, “News is a conversation … ”
Today, I see more big-media people trying to interact online because they know they must. It isn’t easy, for they have been trained to think one-way in a two-way world. So they stumble. Last year, the Los Angeles Times had the bright idea of creating a “wikitorial”, an opinion piece from the paper that anyone could edit. Except they picked the wrong topic for an experiment in neighbourly interaction: Iraq. And they picked the wrong tool: Wikis are single web pages anyone can change, which works well for collaboration, when the goal is agreement, but not for debate. So wikiwar ensued and the Times retreated. This month, WashingtonPost.com received brickbats when liberals had proper – and a few improper – fits aimed at the paper’s ombudsman, who had tried to taint Democrats with the Republicans’ Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. They filled a Post blog with attacks. This paper, too, retreated and closed off comments.
There has been much hand-wringing since about interactivity and invective. Some defended the Post’s decision to maintain civility. Others said that it only exposed newspapers’ cluelessness about their role in the new, interactive world. “The value is in the conversation,” said blogger Umair Haque at Bubblegeneration.com. “If you can’t have a conversation, you can’t create much value in the attention economy.” Having interacted for a dozen years now, I took to my blog to offer some advice on the new ethic of interactivity:
Q: Must media play host to the opinions and criticism of others?
A: No, but they will be judged by their interactivity.
Q: Should there be an expectation of civility in interaction?
A: As much as there is in life. Too many people judge interactivity by the worst of it, which is like refusing to visit New York because you hear there are some asses there. This, I think, comes mostly from people who wish they could dismiss interactivity and the internet and blogs. Sorry, but interactivity, and New York, are here to stay. Too many also make the mistake of assuming that the rest of us can’t figure out who the asses are. With that comes the presumption that we need to be protected from trolls and that it is media’s (and sometimes, government’s) job to do so. I think most of us know stupid when we see it.
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. I would kill the worst, most spiteful and off-topic comments and let the rest speak for themselves.
Q: Shouldn’t technology help with moderation?
A: You wish. But people can still outsmart machines.
Q: Is interactivity worth the price?
A: Yes. It may not bring in much advertising (yet) and may take effort (though less than creating content). But if you treat interactivity, and the people who do it, with respect, good things will come of it: traffic, engagement, content, collaboration.
Rather than restricting interactivity, I would find ways to expand it. The Post already is a pioneer in linking to outside blogs that write about its stories. Such linking, I believe, can yield more productive conversation, since these people are writing their opinions on their own websites, under their own names, and not just lobbing anonymous snark grenades into comments. But papers should also stop thinking that the world revolves around them and what they write. Instead, they should listen to hear what the public is talking about that the paper is not writing about. And papers should make readers into collaborators – not just sending in photos from news events but suggesting and reporting on stories. Interactivity isn’t just a gimmick. It is a key to a new journalism.
Â· Jeff Jarvis is a media consultant who blogs at BuzzMachine.com