By Jim McCarthy Jul 21, 2010 0 comments

Plan Your Garden; Don’t Just Complain about Weeds

In the future (or if somehow people from the past traveled to the present), “paywall” is one of those words that would probably puzzle them.  Just like when we sing the “Star Spangled Banner,” most people probably don’t have a perfectly clear idea of what a “rampart” is*, in the future “paywall” is one of those words that’s going to seem oddly dated.

A paywall is a virtual barrier to online content that you have to pay to get through, whether it’s in the form of a monthly subscription to a magazine online or to an individual article or other piece of content.  Years ago, when the Web was shiny and new, all periodicals and newspapers assumed that they would be able to charge people for access to their content because, after all, they pay for it offline.  But it turned out that the friction of paying to read an article about the doings of the stars of Melrose Place or the latest controversies of the Clinton administration (which, upon reflection, were often not all that different) was just enough to keep people away from your magazine or newspaper’s website and browsing somewhere else.

In other words, a paywall kept people out.

With rare exceptions (e.g., the Wall Street Journal), the paywalls came down, and traffic and ad banners multiplied.  And alongside all that was the rise in volume of online commenting.  An activity that used to be limited to the geeks of the usenet and newsgroup world became something that a wide, wide range of people participated in.  This produced a lot of great stuff.  Not only is user participation responsible for things like Amazon reviews or the entire content of the Yelp site, but it has also brought us more dubious achievements, like 4chan.

Anyway, it’s brought us a lot.  I would venture to say that most people now EXPECT to be able to talk back to the information they get because that’s the kind of world that has been built by the Internet/Web, collectively by all of us.

But it’s not all four star reviews of the new sushi restaurant, thoughtful discussions of public policy, and “All Your Base Are Belong to Us” hilarity.  Oh, no.  Sometimes, it’s bad.  I even talked about it a couple weeks ago, saying that “Online Comments are As Bad as Hitler.” Here’s a snippet:

“Discussions have to be shaped.  People need to be given a purpose, and, yes, there should be ground rules for any given conversation.  Of course, if all you want is “conversation,” you can skip this step.  Some people really enjoy the jabber and think the hatefulness in support of different ideas is productive.  I don’t buy it.  You could get a lot farther a lot faster if you didn’t have people focused on winning unwinnable arguments.  After all, the other guy can always find a way to accommodate his own feeling of being better and more important than you.  And vice versa, naturally.”

And then funnily enough, somebody passed this article my way.  Here’s the key snippet:  “Enter the comments section of almost any newspaper, and you begin to believe Hobbes’ assertion that absent government, human lives would be “nasty, brutish, and short.” Small-mindedness, nastiness, racism, sexism, and a host of other -nesses and -isms run rampant…A small paper based in Attleboro, Massachusetts near the state’s border with Rhode Island, has an idea. Henceforth, to comment at The Sun Chronicle you’ll need to pay 99 cents… with a credit card. And the name on your comments will be the name on your card. ”

The idea is straightforward:  if you pay something, you’ll take it seriously, and by using a credit card, we can attribute a name to you.  Therefore, you’ll have to live with the consequences of what you say and will be less likely to resort to argument reductio ad Hitlerum.

While on some level, I appreciate what’s being attempted here, it’s off base for a few reasons, but one is sufficient.  No one is going to comment.  So in a sense, they will have achieved their goal if it is to reduce the uncivil tone of conversation.  Instead, it will be the peace of the grave.  99 cents is an absurd amount to charge, and that’s just the first problem with this.

I do like breaking the anonymity thing, although some communities have done very well not by making you say your legal name, but by placing a value in your identify on that community.  In other words, my handle may be SuperDude85 instead of Jim McCarthy (and I’m not saying that is my handle…) but if I care about what the community thinks of me, I care what they think of SuperDude85 just as much as though it were my real name.

And ultimately, if the civility and constructiveness of your online discussions are something you value, it all comes down to this:  can you provide and maintain guidelines for people that walk a fine line between erring on the side of free expression while appealing to user’s sense of actually building the community they’re participating in.

If you don’t give the discussion shape, it will find its own (if you’re lucky enough to have a discussion develop).  If you don’t provide any ground rules and you aren’t cultivating a particular kind of audience that’s going to be well behaved naturally, you’re going to get people calling each other Hitler.

In other words, the Attleboro, Massachusetts paper doesn’t have to charge people to comment.  They probably just need to invest some time and energy in some conversation and community  management.  They know what they don’t want in their comments section, but the right approach may be to envision what they DO want and then invest the time in seeing that to fruition.

And that’s the key.  Start by defining what you want from online discussions and build a plan to create that.  Most organizations, in my experience, go the other way.  They launch with no direction and then eventually find things they don’t want.  It’s like buying an empty field.  If you plan a garden, landscape and plant it, and then spend the right time maintaining it, you won’t know exactly what you’ll get, but that’s part of the fun.  By contrast, just letting nature take over means you’ll probably have a field full of what you consider weeds.

If that happened, would you be surprised?

*By the way, a rampart is a defensive wall, or a  fortification consisting of an embankment, often with a parapet built on top.

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