Constructive Media

What should people be doing on the Internet– particularly on all those community websites? What do you want them to do? We have an idea. We call it constructive media.

Internet discussion lists, left to the whims of an ad hoc community, will simply fail. They will drive away the best people– the most civilized contributors who provide instructive comments. When this critical mass of good posters has left, and new posters fail to reach anybody engaging, and the utility of the forum spirals downwards. Others just go in "hunker down" mode, where the posts will dwindle to a polite trickle (which may well be fine for certain niche groups).

The way to address this is to recognize a common pattern among the best posters– the constructive media. This article will briefly explain how this pattern is, in fact, common in all types of media. It will also describe how both technical and behavior solutions can be applied to Internet forums. Once you begin emphasize the utility of your forum, your users will also see it and be able to reward you with goodwill– whether more productive users, or money for your service.

I call this "constructive media" for the simple reason that all participants agree that the point of the whole exchange is to build upon the opening point of the discussion. (even disagreement is a positive motion). The opposite may well be "destructive" media, where the original point is lost, and often civility as well. (the terms "constructive/deconstructive texts", from literary theory, generally address how a text is perceived; here we are focusing on the mechanics of the discussion).

Constructive media begins with a document, a story, an article, or anything sufficiently recognizable to comment upon:

  1. You respond– with a short comment, a question, addition.
  2. Interested parties, such as the author, or other subscribers, are notified.
  3. These comments are published alongside the story so others may view it at a later time.
  4. Anybody may respond in similar fashion.
  5. After enough comments, the publisher or author may compose an answer, an addendum, or a new, revised story/text.
  6. In the process, you should either be content that the publisher or author has addressed your concerns, or otherwise, you can get to meet other people who agree with you.
The degree to which a communications medium can be said to succeed is in how many people see it as useful, and as legitimate. The more people, the Now you see it, you recognize that this is how proceedings of conferences and governments work. Why shouldn’t all forms of popular communications– the "media"– use this? They mostly do, but for logistical reasons, don’t manage the whole cycle.
  • Periodicals follow the CM, though the process takes place over several production periods. You don’t expect any periodical to actually revise a published, though they will admit factual errors. Still, it’s sometimes disappointing that some letters to a newspaper merit even a brief response, but don’t get them. (Jack Shafer of Slate recently noted that while monthly periodicals such as the Atlantic Monthly will often publish an author’s response, a daily such as the Washington Post won’t even bother sticking up when for a reporter when a subject charged him with lying)
  • Call-in shows on radio & television provide for a much quicker engagement. With a good moderator, and topical questions, the guest will answer callers with constructive comments. They may even sweat a little. Nonetheless, there is always a limited time for questions, and a limited opportunity for all interested parties to make it to each live event.
The Internet has largely skipped the live model through rapid-response email discussion lists and bulletin boards (the live "chat" dialogues, akin to call-in radio, has suffered because of the utter banality of the format). These groups have only succeeded in a tight-knit community with respected moderators. Larger discussion forums, including many on the original USENET as well as expensive software run by mass media companies, have failed by the whim of just a few anti-social posters. Posters stop being constructive to a given topic, and may even launch their own tirades, and hijack the original post. The positive construction is forgot, and the better posters leave.

There are some straightforward behavioral solutions. Publishers should post it in a prominent place on their websites, and authorize moderators to remind people about the rules (many volunteer moderators are derisively challenged with "who made you chief?" type comments). Also, posters should recognize other good posters who stick to the topic, and give each other small tips about following the constructive pattern. Most importantly is for the original author, or if not, the moderator, should always post a summary when they’ve gotten suffficient feedback.

Of course there is only so much that self-policing can do. Most web-based software offers a way to "lock" forums. Just as well, Slashdot pioneered a simple rating system to reward good posters. But there is one last trap that even the best posters can fall into– going off topic. Even if sophisticated rating systems attempts to control this, there’s a common urge for everybody to slide off topic. But this may change. Here’s why.

The true revolution in web publishing brought to you by weblogs. Blogs have not merely enabled many more people to publish online, it provides a structure for each text. So therefore, our CM adherent at step 2 can greatly trim his responses to somebody else’s article. They can either point to something they’ve already written, or more importantly, stop writing and just make the effort to write their own original piece later. After all, there may be more value in constructing an original piece than in leaving it around.

Unfortunately, blogs never claimed to have any great comment management system. Have you ever tried to scroll through the hundreds of comments attached to a story in a particular blog? This seems like 2 steps forward and one back for blogs.

Now there’s software like Drupal to bring it all together. You can publish on your own (which technically can be a blog or a book or a story). Comments to other people’s stories are tidy and accessible, and additional filtering techniques are on the way.

I hope that you find the CM pattern valid and useful. If there are further references which may be of help, I will be glad to list them and update this document. In additional pieces I will analyze some communication patterns of major media companies, as well as political candidates, to see how well they are accomodating CM.