I was recently emailed by John Monroe, an editor at Federal Computer Week. He recently wrote about the problems faced by the White House when they attempted to invite public input on how to make government more transparent. Individuals and groups that want President Obama to release his birth certificate took over the Open Government Brainstorm to push their own agenda. This led to John wondering whether serious online dialogue can take place without it descending into mudslinging. I think it can.
Problems at the White House
The problem faced by the OGB was that it was too open. Prior to the hijacking of the site by the ‘birth certificate’ proponents, there were no clear submission guidelines. They have now rectified this situation somewhat, and link to them a little more prominently from the homepage.
As far as visitors were concerned, any comment they submitted would be published and consequent discussion would be permitted. When this didn’t happen, those who submitted content felt a little cheated – resulting in them continuing to resubmit their comments and encouraging others to do the same.
Over time, this situation would only ever get worse – as people felt unfairly treated, they continued to press their case and encouraged others to do the same. Eventually something had to give.
Online communities cannot moderate themselves
The reaction was to introduce a ‘Thumbs Up’ and ‘Thumbs Down’ system on OGB. This isn’t going to fix the problem, though – the groups looking to push their own agenda will simply ‘Thumb Up’ content related to their cause, and ‘Thumb Down’ everything else.
All online communities need some form of management and moderation. In this case, here is what I would recommend.
Serious discussion is possible in online communities
You can’t expect people to abide by community guidelines if they don’t know what they are. The OGB needs to make these clearer on the site. They should consider displaying them on the submission form to ensure all users are familiar with them.
Secondly, the site needs to be moderated more effectively. New ideas shouldn’t be displayed until they have been moderated – yes, this could be a huge task but the BBC manages to pre-moderate comments effectively, so it is possible.
Normally, I am not a proponent of pre-moderation – I prefer a reactive moderation policy. However, on a site with a serious agenda where the content is more sensitive than most, submissions really do need to be pre-approved before going live.
There need not be claims of censorship – as long as people know how submissions are being moderated and why. Again, this comes down to ensuring the guidelines are clear and prominently displayed.
Reputation and credibility – hard to achieve, easy to lose
Perhaps the biggest problem facing the OGB right now is that it has been completely distracted by the ‘birth certificate’ proponents pushing their own agenda. These people no longer trust the site as they feel their suggestions and comments are being censored and ignored. As the whole purpose of the OGB is to promote transparency, its credibility has been destroyed in the eyes of these people.
If the project is to move forward, it needs to address their grievances. It should engage in a private dialogue with these individuals and groups to see if a compromise can be met whereby they feel their comments and views are being recognised and respected and the administration is happy that the comments to be published are not inflammatory or against guidelines or existing legislation.
Of course, if the guidelines and moderation process were made clear from the start, this situation may have been avoided. However, the project can still move forward and get over this challenge through communication.
Five ways to encourage mature, serious discussion
Let me conclude by recommending the following for communities (or any site encouraging user generated content) looking to hold discussions of a serious or sensitive nature:
1. Have clear, prominent guidelines from day one.
2. Ensure all visitors know what the moderation process is.
3. Have a clear appeals process – how do users report their grievances? (Answer: privately).
4. If individuals or groups try to hijack the community, engage in a private dialogue and compromise.
5. Do not draw attention to individuals or special interest groups.
Openness encourages conflict
Some will always insist that open discussions (particularly those taking place online) will always degenerate into abuse or be hijacked by a minority. Without guidelines or a moderation process, this will almost certainly be the case.
Even in free societies there are rules and laws – these need to be in place in online communities, too. Just because you are promoting transparency, it doesn’t mean you can’t have rules and a moderation process. Indeed – because you are promoting transparency and honesty, clear rules and a strong moderation process are essential.