February 9, 2006

What do you do with your online community when things get hot?

by skrenta at 7:05 AM

The Washington Post recently closed down a message forum after getting 700 heated posts in response to a story about the Abramoff scandal. Last June, the LA Times' short-lived Wikitorial experiment shut after quickly succumbing to vandalism.

Two months ago we launched a community participation system on Topix. In the past week we've received over 14,000 comments posted to our Denmark forums. There is a lot of heat in these forums. Lots of strong language, and many offensive posts. However there are also many genuine conversations occurring.

Should the response to fighting breaking out be to shut down a media system where it is being discussed?

We don't shut down the newspapers, TV stations and radio every time public scandal or social unrest break out. If mass media is shifting to being in the hands of the masses, should we shut down mass discussion systems when public issues boil over? Isn't that when we need open discussion and media the most?

A few days ago my CFO asked "where do you think all of these people are really posting from?" I said, gosh, I don't know, but I know how to find out. So we started cutting and pasting posting IP addresses into a geoip locator. Holy smokes.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Hørsholm, Denmark.
San Antonio, Texas.
Québec, Canada.
Dubai, UAE.
Los Angeles, CA.
Brisbane, Australia.
Beirut, Lebanon.
Amman, Jordan.
Kuwait. Cairo. Turkey. The UK
Posters from Tehran and Riyadh were responding to comments from the UK, Los Angeles, Denmark. We were stunned at the geographical breadth of participation.

We immediately subscribed to a commercial geolocator service and, in a fit of weekend coding, made this information visible to our forum participants. Topix doesn't show poster IP addresses, but now displays our best guess at your city/state/country.

The social architecture of a discussion system can play a huge role in the quality of the discourse. Since adding the user's location to each post, we've noticed a marked lift in the overall tone of the conversations. To be sure, there is still a lot of heat, but it seems like naming the town that someone is posting from has helped humanize some threads. It's not just a flamewar with faceless forum handles, there's a real person on the other end of the keyboard, they actually live somewhere.

Interestingly, posters on the whole seem to be less sensitive to trolls and other "bad" posts than we at Topix are by temperament. It's natural for us, as moderators of the system, to think oh no, a profane or hate-filled post could be on our site for a while -- maybe even hours -- before we can get to it and moderate it. The alternative, to moderate everything before it goes live, just isn't an option. It introduces too much latency and kills the conversation. The volume of discussion we're hosting is already beyond what could be properly covered 24/7, and is growing.

I'm also not sure it's healthy or appropriate to have a censor in Sunnyvale approving everything that participants in Tehran and The Hague want to say to each other.

Update:

Steve Outing: When Discussions Go Wild (Poynter)

Mark Glaser: Topix.net Forums Give Window on Cartoon Flap (PBS)