Kudos to the Online Journalism Review and Robin Miller for observing "the poor quality of online forums run by newspapers and other local media outlets" and offering "Five rules for building a successful online community."
Rob's been doing this for along time, and has some great points to make. I've been running online communities for a long time as well (since 1986). Not surprisingly, I disagree with a few of his assertions and agree with others. Here are my reactions.
I think we need to be careful about what we import from Slashdot. It's a remarkably successful website in many dimensions, but let's not get carried away. Slashdot is not a healthy online community. It's not a community at all.
A community is where people get to know one another and develop interpersonal relationships. Cities aren't communities, but they can contain communities -- at the neighborhood, church and social organization level. Communities are small and strong.
Slashdot, by contrast, is a turbulent mob. The Slashdot software model and Rusty Foster's more sophisticated Kuro5hin model implement some very good tools for enhancing the value of that mob experience, but it's not exactly a good setting for creating social capital.
Let's look at Rob's rules one by one.
Rule One: Your discussions must be threaded or nested, not just "flat." Nonsense. There's nothing wrong, and much that's right, about flat discussions, especially for hyperlocal sites.
Threading helps sites like Slashdot deal with overloading. But local news sites need to learn to drill down to the hyperlocal. We're allowing threading on SavannahNow.com, but I've gone to great lengths to enforce a flat model for BlufftonToday.com (which operates in a much smaller community). Simple is good.
Rule Two: You have readers who know more than you do about any given topic -- and plenty of readers who don't know nearly as much as they think they do. Of course. We're in violent agreement on that one. We also have plenty of journalists who don't know nearly as much as they think they do, and the conversations can help fix that.
Rule Three: Let your readers judge each other so you don't have to judge them yourself. Here I'm concerned about Rob's description of moderation software, because the mere mention of it feeds a destructive tendancy that I've seen in far too many newspaper managers. They tend to believe the Internet is all about technology, and if we just get the right technology in place, everything will turn out fine.
That's baloney. If your forums suck, stop blaming your software and start examining your own actions (or inactions).
Users will judge one another regardless of whether you implement software and ask them to take overt self-moderation actions, and peer pressure is a remarkable thing. Recognize and manage that process.
A well-led online discussion will have social goals and process targets that are carefully thought through by its managers and appropriately communicated. I would never, never counsel a news site to abandon that process to software. Visible human leadership is the single most powerful predictor of success in operating online communities. Focus there.
Rule Four: All good things must come to an end. This one never would have made my list of five things to worry about -- if it's a problem, it's pretty minor. Back in the days of 360-kilobyte floppy disks, we simply vaporized the oldest messages. Nowadays we bury the past in the user interface, like Google Mail, where you never really throw anything away.
Rule Five: Why buy a cow when the software is free? I agree: Anything that can become a commodity, will become a commodity. And any software that's a commodity eventually will become dominated by open-source solutions.
Interestingly, some of the proprietary platforms are now positioning themselves as services rather than technologies -- reviewing and moderating posts. You can outsource all your forum processes, not just the tech part.
I think that's a terrible idea. Because for a local news organization, the greatest value of the online community isn't the pageviews. It's the opportunity to listen.
I've often quoted Kyle Poplin on this point. Kyle is the editor of Bluffton Today, the free daily newspaper that in about 18 months has built a phenomonally positive relationship with its community, scoring readership numbers we haven't seen since the 1970s.
Kyle says "the best thing about BlufftonToday.com – and the most comforting thing for editors – is that we rarely miss a story. The bloggers let us know what people are talking about and what’s important to them."
This is the real reason we need great online discussions: To help our newsrooms connect with the community. It's not about technology. It's about people.