It’s a nice start, opening with a joke and a clear prompt to participate, and a potential reward for excellence in the form of inclusion in the daily newsletter – a promise internet bragging rights that act as an incentive to be awesome, rather than merely guidelines that tell you how not to be bad. Worth noting that Rob’s participating there too.
IGN, one of the largest gaming sites in the world, has recently announced changes to its commenting policy explicitly aimed at tackling the culture of abuse in its threads. In a blog post announcing the change, editor-in-chief Steve Butts says:
Will that mean we won’t tolerate disagreement or fiery debates? Not at all. We’re an audience of advocates who come to IGN because we feel passionately about certain platforms, products, and philosophies. Being able to express and defend those tastes is part of why we’re here. Articulate disagreements about those tastes are a healthy and necessary part of those interactions. The comment guidelines aren’t meant to stop that.
The problem comes when a disagreement stops being about the merits of the argument and starts being about the people making it. It’s okay for us to disagree with each other, but we won’t tolerate abuse and threats disguised as disagreement. We also won’t tolerate ad hominem attacks, where you insult a person’s character or identity merely because you don’t like that they’re not the same person as you. None of us are perfect, and we all have bad days, of course, but we can’t let a difference of opinion devolve into being nasty to each other.
The context to this change, on top of years of growing hostility in the comment threads at IGN and elsewhere, is an open letter posted on Reaction last month by Samantha Allen, calling games media generally and IGN among others specifically to account over the toxic discussions they host below articles. It is worth reading in full, repeatedly; it’s a measured, articulate, passionate piece that firmly places responsibility for debates in comment threads with the sites that host those debates, and gives three clear calls to action for those in a position to change those debates. Addressing site editors by name, it says:
We have a problem and you can do something about it.
Our medium and the culture surrounding it is still in its adolescence and we’ve been experiencing a lot of growing pains lately. Those of us in the games community who are a part of marginalized groups have been going through hell lately. You can help us. You can do more than just express sympathy.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” You have a chance, right now, to shorten that arc. You are in positions of power and privilege. You have the luxury of being able to effect change at a level that we can only dream about.
Framing commenting and community policy and moderation as a moral issue is not new, but locating responsibility squarely with sites and publishers, rather than the commenters who frequent them, is a quietly revolutionary attitude. And a right one: much as people who run social spaces in the real world take on responsibility for enforcing behaviour norms within those spaces, people who open up social spaces online have to enforce the behaviour they want to see within them too. Simply opening a door then washing your hands of the damage caused is not enough.
IGN’s new policy is interesting not least because of its relative mildness. It bans personal attacks and discrimination, while encouraging debate and disagreement; it bans trolling, flaming and spam while permitting sensible pseudonymity. There’s also a section on questionable content, to act as a sort of catch-all:
Since we can’t have a rule to cover everything, this is the rule to, well, cover everything. These are public discussions, so act like you would if you were in a public place (a nice place). These issues are left to the discretion of individual moderators and staff, but may include any material that is knowingly false and/or defamatory, misleading, spammy, inaccurate, abusive, vulgar, hateful, harassing, sexist, obscene, racist, profane, sexually oriented, threatening, invasive of a person’s privacy, that otherwise violates any law, or that encourages conduct constituting a criminal offense. Asking for or offering any of the material listed above is also not permitted.
It’s a sensible policy and it’s excellent to see IGN taking responsibility for the comments on their site and committing to improving the discussion. They’re being careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, keeping what’s good about their community and reinforcing the positive behaviours they want to see – rather than turfing over the comment section, closing it or outsourcing it. I hope it comes with increased mod resource and support, and the buy-in of their writers too. It’s a strong commitment, and I hope their actions speak as loudly as their words on this – and that more sites follow their lead.
Advance warning: long post is long, and opinionated. Please, if you disagree, help me improve my thinking on this subject. And if you have more good examples or resources to share, please do.
News websites have a problem.
Well, OK, they have a lot of problems. The one I want to talk about is the comments. Generally, the standard of discourse on news websites is pretty low. It’s become almost an industry standard to have all manner of unpleasantness below the line on news stories.
Really, this isn’t limited to news comments. All over the web, people are discovering a new ability to speak without constraints, with far fewer consequences than speech acts offline, and to explore and colonise new spaces in which to converse.
Nieman Lab has a post up on “the newsonomics of gamification and civilisation“. It talks about using points and badges, earned by reading, sharing and commenting on stories, to mark people out as “being a valued member of our local news community”, and then discusses some other activities that could be “incentivised” (there’s a word that should be hunted down and destroyed by the @guardianstyle team) with the application of points and badges.
Honestly, articles like this make me tremendously sad. Points and badges are not the same thing as long-term engagement or monetisation, as Foursquare has already amply demonstrated. Gamified activities are not the same thing as play. And if all we have to offer our readers in return for their actions are empty, meaningless “rewards” instead of genuine value, they will – long term – leave. I’ve talked before about the overjustification effect – it applies particularly to news organisations, where we want people to value the activities they do on our websites because they are genuinely enjoyable, useful, interesting, engaging, in their own rights. Blogging, commenting, discussing, sharing, reading, viewing – these things should not be chores. (And “paying contributors with points” is not paying contributors at all, and is intellectually dishonest as well as potentially exploitative.) As Kathy Sierra says in the comments:
I say “may” because the potential demotivating side effects of extrinsic rewards do not apply to areas that have no intrinsically rewarding aspect. In other words, using extrinsic rewards to help me get through something tedious, rote, mundane, painful, etc. — things I would never ordinarily find pleasurable *without* the rewards — is an excellent use of gamification with mostly all upside. But to use gamification in areas like education, civic engagement, or even just participating on a website or forum, we should proceed with extreme caution and thought. Because after the short-term spike in engagement, we may create a permanent motivation deficit. We may end up worse than we were before.
I always feel like articles like this miss the point somewhat. By focussing on gamification and assuming that’s all there is to game dynamics, news organisations are genuinely missing out on real opportunities to innovatively use games for journalism. Indie games companies are already doing this sort of thing. Things like Sweatshop, the manyWikileaksgames, the Osama bin Laden Counter Strike map, and innovative data journalism experiments in Minecraft (this year’s Young Rewired State best in show winners) – they all have problems, but they all exist, and this field will get larger as game design tools are simplified and as more people have greater access to the tools for digital game creation. News organisations risk missing the boat.
But the most depressing thing is that by taking to automated systems to assign value, news organisations miss out on opportunities to actually talk to people, to build genuine community. Some gamification systems can work, especially for getting people to do things they don’t already want to do, but automating away reader interaction seems a little like an admission that a news organisation sees little intrinsic value in its readers comments, and expects its readers to comment out of duty or out of competitiveness rather than desire.
If people appreciate the community, feel they belong and want to contribute, why do you need to give them points? If people like your content and want to share it, why would points make a difference? Conversely, if they don’t, aren’t you just incentivising spam? If people feel their news tips are valued and appreciated, why would points make a difference to that? If you want your users to do something, why is gamification the answer? Surely, changing the activity into something they actually want to do would be a better, more effective option?
Vadim Lavrusik over at Mashable has a post up detailing 12 things newspapers should be doing in order to survive. I’m going to try and start this blog on a positive note – I get enough “print journalism is doomed / ad revenue will never recover / there’s no way out of the decline / we’re all doomed” at work – and talking about how to survive the digital revolution seems like a good start.