So way back in the Dark Ages of the Web, I used to post on a now-defunct message board for a site called Hissyfit, and one of the traits of every thread was that each discussion got capped at 50 posts. Talking about the discussion within the discussion was prohibited, as was writing like a meth-addled monkey or making personal attacks.
As a result, the discussions were bright and funny, and I'm still friends with some other regulars to this day. And I got my recapping gig at Television Without Pity thanks to my posting on Hissyfit, and then it was on me to moderate the discussion boards for the shows I covered, and that was when I learned three immutable truths of online "community"
- A community rises and falls on the accountability its members feel to it and to each other.
- That accountability is tied to the contributions everyone makes, and to the recognition of those contributions by members. That, in turn, causes members to feel invested in the social space.
- Accountability, recognition for contributions and investment in community are typically nurtured and reinforced by community moderators.
When I blogged for the San Francisco Chronicle, the comments for the blog were unmoderated. As I understood it, this was due to two things: First, moderators would have added overhead to a shoestring operation. Second, having commenters run wild was excellent for pageviews. I couldn't argue with either point, but I could react by refusing to engage in what was not so much a commenter community but the online analogue to a failed nation-state.
My point is: Good online communities require time and attention. As Matt Gemmell wrote on Nov 29, 11:
Comments create a burden of moderation on the blog owner. Various systems exist to ease the burden, but with the burgeoning spam problem on blogs, there’s always going to be a trade-off between getting people’s comments published as quickly as possible, and keeping the comments relevant and spam-free.
Moderation is not only emotionally consuming (people tend to forget there's a human being on the other end of the network), it's a time suck. Per Seth Godin, in 06:
I think comments are terrific, and they are the key attraction for some blogs and some bloggers. Not for me, though. First, I feel compelled to clarify or to answer every objection or to point out every flaw in reasoning. Second, it takes way too much of my time to even think about them, never mind curate them. And finally, and most important for you, it permanently changes the way I write. Instead of writing for everyone, I find myself writing in anticipation of the commenters.
Here's the thing: I was lucky to have mostly really great commenters on the Rage Diaries and then the Filthy Commerce experiment. About 95% of the credit goes to those folk. But the remaining 5%, where I tried to stay engaged and make sure we all played nice in the comments, etc.? I didn't love the time that took.
I love blogging. I am hoping to get back into the swing of a four-posts-a-week schedule. I want to spend my time researching and writing posts that add something of value to the Web. I don't want to spend my time playing defense in the comments.
Yet I believe -- like it says in "The Web Is a Customer Service Medium" -- that one of the most exciting things about this medium is that it can engage readers in a dialogue and improve the overall quality of information. The questions I am trying to answer: How do I open the lines of feedback without adding another obligation to my time? Is that even possible?
Some of you have responded to blog posts via Twitter. I'm also playing with the idea of starting discussions in Google+, as that reduces the odds of drive-by anonymous cowards. I don't know if there is a good solution. But I'm opening up the comments here to see what any of you can suggest.