Soapboxes in cyberspace

On 15 May the third session of the Innovation Forum, organised by Nico MacDonald, was hosted in th Guardian Newsroom in London. The topic for the evening was ‘Soapboxes in cyberspace’. The main¬†question was: “What have we learned from new forms of online debate, and what is the¬†role of the mainstream media in facilitating good quality debate in the¬†future?”

One of the main references was, of course, the recently introduced Bloogers’ Code of Conduct. The panelists invited to initiate and engage in the debate were all professionally involved in web 2.0. They were: Daniel Mermelstein (BBC News – Have Your Say), Meg Pickard (Guardian Unlimited – Comment Is free),¬† Lee Bryant (Headshift – research in social networking), Oliver Creiche (Six Apart – producer of blog software) and Andrew Calcutt (University of East London – writer of White Noise).¬†The lively debate with the audience, following on the introduction by the panelists, was very interesting.

The main points I have noted for myself are:

  1. Moderating public debate and community spirit needs more than just imposing rules on what not to do. It also asks for a more positive nurturing of what kind of involvement is welcome. People need to feel comfortable and experience a certain level of intimacy. Public debate asks for a social architecture as well as a technological facility. Just offering a vast open space may not be the ideal environment to invite public debate.
  2. Moderation does take a lot of effort, time and money. More experiments with distributed moderation would be helpful. Let the community decide which comments are worth to be displayed on top, and which should sink to the bottom.
  3. The fact that several individuals are posting comments, does not necessarily mean we can speak of ‘a community’. Many commentators are not interested in conversation with others, they just want to have their say, which is fine. We should be more careful in when to use the word community.
  4. Still 90% of the audience just reads comments and does not contribute. Designers and editors need to pay attention to this silent majority, and not only focus on catering for the 10% of active commentators. Having an audience is not the same as having a community or participation.
  5. Many large media site suffer from ‘drive-by commenting’. This is a phenomenon we (both providers and audience) have to learn how to deal with over time. More experiments with profiling could be helpful (to safe guard the privacy of people this could be done by making use of ‘pseudonimity’).
  6. As individuals we constantly switch between citizenship and consumerism. The first tends to appeal to our feelings of responsibility, while the latter often allows us to have high expectations without many responsibilities. It is not always easy to go back and forth between these two identities. We often get them confused.

    On the web page about this Innovation Forum you can find links to a proto-transcript of the introductions and the audience discussion. (Sorry for this rather lengthy post, but it was a really interesting event.)