The costs and benefits of interaction

There's a temptation to look at the Washington Post blog blowup and perform a cost-benefit analysis on interactivity. Clearly you can't just toss interactivity technology -- comment systems, forums, chat rooms, whatever -- onto a website and get nothing but happy flowers and joy blossoms. User comments alone aren't interaction. Staff needs to be involved -- responding, leading, and occasionally mopping up spills. Human resources aren't free.

But interaction isn't optional. Maybe it never was -- an institution that behaves arrogantly eventually reaps the whirlwind. A lot of the anger directed against "mainstream media" comes from people who resent the historic imbalance of power between media and so-called consumers. At any rate, the individual empowerment made possible by the Internet has rendered the notion of a one-way media lecture obsolete. We have to deal with it.

Jeff Jarvis has some thoughts today about being interactive:

"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."

Hear hear from here.

But I think it would be a mistake to dwell on the occasionally ugly side and miss the benefits.

Our newsrooms have, at best, a tenuous connection with reality. I don't mean that as an insult; I mean it because it's true of all of us, regardless of whether we have press cards. What we see and hear is just a scratch on the surface of a very large planet. The intensely difficult job of a professional journalist is to reach out beyond that scratch, using every tool available, to discover and then present a larger picture to help others expand their worldviews.

Participating in a community conversation is one powerful tool for doing that. It isn't cheap, it isn't easy, and on occasion it isn't very pleasant. But it's what we signed up for, whether we knew it or not.


Refuse to visit New York for that reason? The character of New Yorkers is one of its major draws for many of us.

Journalists need to learn that participating in a conversation does not mean barging in and dictating its terms, helping "others expand their worldview." As journalists attempt this, more and more people are saying "butt out, a-hole." How hard is it for journalists to grasp the simple fact that they can't dictate the terms of a conversation, especially one in which they're often the least-informed participant?

Very interesting post. I was just researching info for an article I'm writing on the importance of online communities. It's context is different than this but I appreciate what you've written. :)