Posts about interactivity

Guardian column: How to interact

My Media Guardian column today is a distillation of what I’ve been saying about the means and needs of interactivity. The beginning and end (who needs a middle?):

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 … ” …

Rather than restricting interactivity, I would find ways to expand it. The [Washington] 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.

Alternate link here.

Interaction vs. reaction: But enough about you…

The problem with media’s definition of interactivity is that’s all about controlled reaction to media’s agenda: Come talk about our stuff. It is designed like a children’s museum, with buttons you can push to keep you busy and happy. That may not be the intent, but it is the result and message of forums and chats and blogs that are about what the newspaper publishes. And it misses the point.

Interactivity is about more than reaction. It is about creation. It is not about controlled authority. It is about sharing authority.

That is a lesson newspapers and media companies need to learn. And that need is evident in the kerfuffle over interactivity and invective at WashingtonPost.com. In my earlier post, I addressed two fundamental misunderstandings of interactivity that this incident exposes: that people are concentrating on the negatives (the misuse of interactivity by a few blinds them to the value of the whole) and that they think we need someone to tell us who the bozos are (aka, enforcing civility).

But it struck me after writing that that I was missing the forest for the kudzu. The real value of interactivity is that it empowers. The real potential of interactivity is that it extends news and journalism and news organizations and communities to create. It’s fine to have forums to argue over ombudspeople, if that floats your boat.

Among the ways that interactivity can be used to empower the public and create value:

* Hyperlocal reporting: You know the drill — NashvilleIsTalking, Baristanet, NorthwestVoice, and my wish that somebody will podcast my local school board meetings so I can listen since I can’t attend. Newspapers can’t be everywhere, but readers are.

* Collaborative reporting: The community can join together to throw their information into the crockpot. Maybe everybody shares their horror stories with dealing with town hall and building inspectors to throw the bums out or they create a data base of health care hassles to build a case for change.

* Problem solving: The crowd is wise and our crowd is wiser, every media brand should believe. So why not throw problems out to the people when the experts we go to all the time fail: What should we do to fix that health care mess? Define a school that works.

* Aggregated smarts: Why not have our audiences Digg our stories — and others — to create the front page of the people? Doesn’t mean the editors can’t have one, too. But why can’t and why shouldn’t the people? See also Flickr interestingness for the aggregated taste of the crowd. The crowd is smart if you know how to count them.

* What’s missing: Rather than making interactivity about what we’ve already written about, wouldn’t it be better to find out what we’re not covering? Ask and listen.

* Shared knowledge: See an earlier post about turning the newsroom into a classroom. Why not create the means for people who know what they’re talking about to teach what they know?

* Social moments: Any friend of mine is a friend of yours, eh? So shouldn’t news and media be hosting Meetups so folks can meet each other? In the old days, we didn’t want to meet our readers. Now, we want our readers to meet each other. And who knows what wonders will ensue?

I know that’s amorphous, but I’m trying to assign buckets. What have I missed? What examples can you throw in? What should interactivity really mean?

: SHAME ON ME: In my standard lists of interaction locally I should always include Phillyfuture, which Karl Martino start and which is even endeavoring to help save a paper.

Interacting on interactivity

I’ll be on a WashingtonPost.com chat at 1pm about the blog-comment kerfuffle. Auditorium chat is such an odd form: Why should anyone be on the stage (he asked with egalitarianism)? Their software doesn’t let you see names (you talk to towns). Deborah Howell, the one who should be there, isn’t. But anway, I hope it will be fun. And because I’m interacting there, that’s why I haven’t been interacting here. Later….

The ethic of interactivity

Let’s pull up from the fur-flying fray over WashingtonPost.com 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 Plastic.com, 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.