UsVsTh3m turns comments on

UsVsTh3m has decided to give Th3m a direct voice on site, and turned its comments on.

That’s perhaps not a huge surprise, given Rob Manuel’s involvement – he’s talked in the past about the class issues involved in online commenting, as well as presiding over one of the most interesting hotbeds of user activity on the internet. But it runs counter to a long-term trend of sites shutting down comments, deliberately deciding that they’re too much work, too unruly, too problematic, or even counter to the entire purpose of what the site’s trying to do.

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.

It’ll be an interesting experiment to watch, and if a creative community of jokers is what UsVsTh3m is after, they seem to have started out pretty well.

Social places, not networks

In the light of recent events, this post from earlier this month seems timely:

Some years ago, the tech industry set out to redefine our perception of the web. Facebook (and other similar sites) grew at amazing rates and their reasonable focus on the “social network” and the “social graph”, made “social networks” the new kid on the block.

But even though the connections of each individual user are his social network, these sites are not social networks. They are social networking places.

This is an important distinction. They are places, not networks. Much like your office, school, university, the place where you usually spend your summer vacation, the pub where your buddies hang out or your hometown.

And, much like your office, school, university, etc, they all have their own behavioural expectations and norms. When those spaces get big and full of people jostling for room, if they aren’t broken up into their own smaller spaces – or if the partitions are porous – those differing expectations rub up against each other in all sorts of interesting and problematic ways.

The Twitter I have is not the Twitter you have, because we follow different folks and interact with them in our own ways. There are pretty regular examples of this disparity: when people write posts about how Twitter’s changed, it’s no fun any more, but the reality is that it’s just the folks they follow and talk to that have changed how they use it. My Twitter experience doesn’t reflect that – I’m in a different space with different people.

Part of the abuse problem all online spaces face is working out their own norms of behaviour and how to deal with incidents that contravene them. One of the particular problems faced by Twitter and a few others is how to deal with incidents that turn up because of many different, overlapping, interconnected spaces and the different expectations of each one.

And on practical ways to handle those problems, go read this excellent post by an experienced moderator. It’s too good to quote chunks here.

Twitter’s freedom of speech

Caroline Criado-Perez, the journalist who successfully campaigned for Jane Austen to appear on British banknotes, has been subjected to a horrendous barrage of threats and abuse on Twitter, and has called for Twitter to improve the way it deals with abuse. Her supporters kicked off a petition asking Twitter for a better system, and they’ve had some success. The whole saga as it unfolded has been Storified by @kegill.

Twitter’s now said it will step up work on a ‘report abuse’ button for individual tweets. That’s a good step, but a button without something connected to it is just a placebo, and in this situation it won’t work unless it links to an action. Xbox Live’s community is enough to prove that abuse reports without enforcement are pointless, and that placebo buttons aren’t enough to deter campaigns of abuse or unpleasant individuals. And Facebook’s trigger-happy abuse policies are enough to prove that automated responses based on volumes of reports aren’t nuanced enough to be appropriate here either.

The problem is a human one, and it may be impossible to automate. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried, nor that the work is unimportant. Watching an abuse queue might not be the best way to solve the problem, nor a sustainable or scalable one. But I would love to see Twitter innovate around this issue. Moderation tools that understand the patterns of abuse on Twitter don’t yet exist, as far as I’m aware – and if they do exist, they clearly don’t work. I wonder what would happen if the same effort went in to understanding and predicting organised campaigns of abuse as spam campaigns.

I do not believe a solution is impossible. I do doubt whether Twitter thinks it’s important enough to devote significant resources to, for now, and I suspect it will continue to use freedom of speech as a convenient baffle.

If freedom of speech on Twitter means freedom to abuse, freedom to harass and to threaten, then speech on Twitter is not free. Freedom of speech for abusers means curtailed speech for victims. What critics of moderation tend not to understand is that both options force people to be silent. What supporters tend to believe is that it is better for the community as a whole to silence abusers than to allow victims to be silenced.

If you don’t want to talk to people, turn your comments off

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.

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Online games as training tools

Second Life: Porcupine: Autism Memorial

Porcupine Autism Memorial in Second Life

Today via @jayrosen_nyu I came across a post by @brad_king arguing that journalism has a lot to learn from the history of online games when it comes to online community management.

He makes some great points about hands-off community modding, and I’m a particular fan of the idea that online news communities could benefit from something like Richard Bartle’s taxonomy of gamer types (which splits gamers into four rough categories and helps game designers cater for all types).*

But I do have to disagree with this paragraph:

MMORPGs don’t have much to offer in terms of developing the traditional journalism skills. These games can’t teach students how to vet sources, how to interview, how to copy edit, how to hit the streets and find stories.

Wait a minute. Why not?

These communities aren’t just there to be managed – they don’t just have histories that can be dissected as useful examples. They’re living and breathing today. They are audiences, readers, participants, and they could be a great training tool for new journalists.

I mentioned that Second Life – one of the biggest and most influential online environment ever created – has three online newspapers with hundreds of thousands of readers.

They cover topics ranging from issues in the real world which affect the game – server outages, technology changes, ToS issues – to in-game gossip and affairs. This sort of information is valuable, and you can get it by employing all those traditional journalism skills that King mentions.

Sure, the rules of these communities are different. They present unique and diverse challenges to reporters trying to hit the street cold and generate stories. But they’re no more unfamiliar or hard to learn than Afghanistan is to a Geordie, or a Norfolk seaside town is to a young woman from inner-city Birmingham. And surely part of the point of j-school is to train us in how to learn the community rules and structures, how to work it out for ourselves, and how to engage.

So why not include a bit of MMO training for budding reporters? Lessons in:

  • interview technique via in-game chat and email
  • fact checking and how to spot a scam or a rumour online
  • vetting sources for legitimacy
  • editing copy – perhaps by crowdsourcing folks to tell them what they did wrong
  • engaging with readers as equals
  • learning a patch – getting to know the movers and shakers and the big issues, who to talk to, where to get quotes

All that and community management too. Bargain.

* Incidentally, I’m 67% Explorer, 67% Achiever, 40% Socialiser and 27% Killer.