Bolting from the conversation

The Washington Post’s decision to stop accepting blog comments indefinitely offers a lesson for all of us in how Media 1.0 thinking (top-down, one-way) has no place in a Media 2.0 (interactive, collaborative) world. The Post would have us believe this is all about profanity and personal attacks, which they’ve said they won’t allow, but the deeper issue here is command and control from the mountain top.

Media 2.0 is largely about the conversation. To paraphrase Umair Haque, the media scarcity is attention, and in an economy of attention scarcity, media companies must not be afraid to participate in the conversation, because that’s where the attention is increasingly found. But participating in a conversation is far different than publishing a hopefully perfect journal of the day’s events. It’s raw, unedited and very, very real. And, as Dan Gillmor wrote, you can’t participate in a conversation unless you’re willing to listen.

So the Post’s ombudsman wrote a column that many people felt was blatantly false. Comments on another Post blog pointed this out. The paper removed those comments, which brought about comments about the removal, so the deleted comments were restored. The ombudsman responded in another blog, and commenters went after her there. The paper cried “foul” and made a decision to stop accepting comments altogether.

In a spot-on analysis of this, Haque makes a comparison that’ll make you think:

Let me put this in context. Imagine a DJ who plays a really, really crap track. Everyone stops dancing. What does the DJ do?

The point is that the old information asymmetry that dominated media is gone. The connection between the internal and external is live, real-time, and direct. You can’t run away from it, or “manage” it. The DJ can’t say (insert beancounter voice here) “folks, let’s have a meeting, and figure out how to manage your dancing”.

You have to join the conversation – not kill it. You have to not be (how can I put this nicely) so beancounterly. You have to be willing to overturn the orthodox assumption that firms talk, and consumers…well, simply consume.

I sympathize with the managers at the Post, but the reality is that they chose to play in a Media 2.0 space by launching blogs in the first place. Just because you don’t like the outcome doesn’t justify juvenile behavior like taking your ball and going home.

Human nature being what it is will always produce a number of people who’ll take advantage of an open microphone to shock or insult. When this happens in a group of people — for example, at a party — the people will either shut the guy up or relocate to another room. The party host has the choice to remove the guy and never invite him back, which is much better than shutting down the party and announcing you’ll not have another one. Technology can assist with the former, but the Post chose the latter.

The lesson for any media company that chooses to get involved in the blogosphere is to make up your mind about how you wish to respond to these types of things BEFORE you launch blogs. (Here’s a hint: Don’t be so bloody defensive!) If you fear news as a conversation in any way, then stay with purely one-way strategies and tactics. That’s pretty stupid, I think, because you risk irrelevancy in the new world.

Comments

  1. Terry…

    A lot of folks who are bloggers worry about the amount of incivility in the blogosphere and how it effects their personal blogs. It was part of the discussions at BlogHer last July, and is being taken up again at SXSW Interactive. It’s a sad byproduct of the nastiness that still occurs on forums and newsgroups. People can develop thick skins, and also have the option of deleting particularly foul posts. When regular Joe and Jane Blogger has trouble dealing with civility, it’s not surprising that a big media outlet like the Washington Post would eventually have a problem, too.

    There are no easy answers to this–for individuals dealing with trolls nor for big media.

  2. Trish-
    I don’t agree. There are comments that are insightful and constructive, and there are comments that provide no purpose other than to provoke.

    As Terry points out, it’s important to think about how to respond before you’re put in a situation to respond to them, when your thinking is probably not as clear.

    We faced a similar challenge when launching FOXSports blogs, but took the opportunity to engage and listen (example from when we sent out a too-glib email to people who were eliminated from a competition, which inflamed the community–I personally Mea Culpa’ed, and it was the right thing to do: http://msn.blogs.foxsports.com/FOXBlog/2006/01/09/Mea_Culpa).

    It hurts to make these mistakes, but it’s important to show that you’re human, that you’re listening, and that you’re learning. Taking your ball and going home is simply the wrong way to approach this challenge.

    Kareem

  3. Trish-
    I don’t agree. There are comments that are insightful and constructive, and there are comments that provide no purpose other than to provoke.

    As Terry points out, it’s important to think about how to respond before you’re put in a situation to respond to them, when your thinking is probably not as clear.

    We faced a similar challenge when launching FOXSports blogs, but took the opportunity to engage and listen (example from when we sent out a too-glib email to people who were eliminated from a competition, which inflamed the community–I personally Mea Culpa’ed, and it was the right thing to do: http://msn.blogs.foxsports.com/FOXBlog/2006/01/09/Mea_Culpa).

    It hurts to make these mistakes, but it’s important to show that you’re human, that you’re listening, and that you’re learning. Taking your ball and going home is simply the wrong way to approach this challenge.

    Kareem

  4. anti semite!

  5. For the record, the original temporary disappearance of comments was not the Post’s fault. Their blog host (typepad) was releasing some new code and a bug caused all-but-50 comments to be hidden for a while, not just on the Post’s blog but on many others as well.

    That said, I think it’s worth mentioning that this was not just an authority/maintenance issue, but a credibility issue. "Many people felt it was blatantly false" is overly generous. One statement was demonstrably blatantly false, and another was technically true but worded so amazingly "inartfully" (as Kurtz put it) — and then defended so vociferously — that a lot of already-informed readers basically had no choice but to conclude that somebody was deliberately attempting to mislead them.

  6. radish, I’m a generous guy. 🙂

  7. AlanDownunder says:

    Wapo is schizo. Howell is the paper’s ombudsman but a separate company runs the website. Much of the frustration on the website arose from her non-correction of her initial patent falsehood within hours after it was conclusively nailed down. Meanwhile, her Media 1.0 expectation was that she’d respond in her next WEEKLY column!

    Then she got dragged in ‘early’ to hose the outrage down but she only exacerbated it by coming up with a baseless pro-GOP ‘correction’.

  8. Kareem…

    Entirely missed the point about what I said…to reiterate, there are no easy answers. You found an answer that works for a sports-oriented, hyper-masculine blog. Your solution might *not* have a positive outcome on a different type of blog. (it might be esp. damaging for a female blogger–but that’s a different topic)

    If you are talking about msm outlets devising a blogging strategy, and a game plan before they get into blogging–well, if word got out about that, then they might be excoriated for controlling the message before it leaves the box. Remember all the rhetoric that surrounded Vaughn Ververs and Public Eye?

    All the back and forth, though, that has been going on about WaPo across the blogosphere has probably been helpful to them. If they’re paying attention, they may have finally got it that blogging is *social,* not static, media

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