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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Figuring out the building blocks of news communities

The prospect of (some) journalists becoming community managers over time continues to appeal to and intrigue me.

By that I mean journalists opening up the news gathering, reporting and analysis process to readers, allowing communities to develop around areas of interest - enabling people with expertise and views to contribute material for news stories on, say, how health is administered in the Waikato, or pest management in the Waitakere ranges. The journalist becomes a community manager as well as news gatherer and news writer.

Building communities, however, doesn't necessarily come easy. There are plenty of examples of companies that have started intranets which failed to inspire users; wikis introduced into classrooms that never got used. iYomu, a New Zealand based social network, failed to gain traction despite considerable resources. This StartUp article looks at iYomu's demise and at what makes another local example, Geekzone, successful.

So what of news communities? I like keeping an eye on the beat bloggers, a group of US journalists experimenting with using blogs and other social web2.0 tools to develop their beats, to see what they're learning along the way.

And I've just read a useful passage in Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody. In a chapter looking at wikis, and particularly at why Wikipedia works as well as it does, he says that people have to care about the content to want to edit it.

Wikis provide ways for groups to work together, and to defend the output of that work [against vandals], but these capabilities are available only when most of the participants are committed to those outcomes. When they are not, creating a wiki can be an exercise in futility, if not an outright disaster.

One notable example was the Los Angeles Times 'Wikitorial' effot, in which the content of the paper's editorial pages was made available to the public. The Times announced the experiment in a bid to drive users there, and drive them they did.

A group of passionate and committed users quickly arrived and set about destroying the experiment, vandalising the posted editorials with off-topic content and porn. The Wikitorial had been up for less than forty-eight hours when a Times staffer was told to simply pull the plug.

The problem the Times suffered from was simple: no one cared enough about the contents of the Wikitorial to defend it, much less improve it.

An editorial is meant to be a timely utterance of a single opinionated voice - the opposite of the characteristics that make for good wiki content.

A wiki augments community rather than replacing it; a wiki will suffer form the Tragedy of the Commons, as the Wikitorial did, as individuals use it as an attention-getting platform, and there is no community to defend it.
There's a community development workshop running at Webstock in Wellington next February which I've signed up for - not because I'm managing a community or am likely to in the immediate future, but because it's hard to see how I can go on being involved in news and journalism education without understanding more about how successful communities work. I'm looking forward to it.

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