For the Week of July 4, 2005
I have now been in the online world for 20 years. Time flies when you're having fun.
I usually date my entry from the spring of 1985, when Wendy Woods asked me to join her at The Source and write a weekly Atlanta tech column for her Newsbytes News Service.
But perhaps my real start came some time later, when Sherwin Levinson asked me to join the ENA.
The Electronic Networking Association was a very early attempt to manage the online world. It was a very small world, but also a large one. It included people from many countries, although Americans predominated, and it even included Joi Ito. (He was a teenager then - a very precocious one.) I also got to know Dave Hughes (bleeding edge then, and still bleeding edge). Good times.
At the heart of the ENA's activities was a piece of software called PARTIcipate. This was a very early, threaded discussion forum. It ran on Unix. Users could start their own discussions, participate in those of others, even launch new discussion threads.
For a green-on-green world it was very exciting. We often wondered why the masses weren't joining us. (Well, green-on-green with a 1200 baud modem is sort of geeky.)
In retrospect the key person in this entire world was a woman named Lisa Carlson. I remember her as a woman of dark hair, lively eyes, hands constantly in motion, and speaking the language of a meeting facilitator. Hers was a precise, academic, liberal language, but her principles could be boiled down for anyone to follow.
- Moderate your language.
- Don't flame.
- Apologize first.
- Step back.
- Take a time out.
Does it sound Fulghum-esque? It was.
Over the next 10 years active moderation based on these principles grew dramatically. CompuServe built it into their business model. Moderators were compensated based on the user hours their forums generated. Since online hours at that time cost $8-12, and most people read-and-wrote while online, the 10-15% of revenue generated a tidy income for many moderators. There were rumors some were growing rich.
Then came AOL. When AOL went to "all you can eat" pricing, around the time the Web was spun, that was the end for the moderated business model. There was more money to be made overall, but it went to VCs, to executives, not to those who worked the online rooms. These became "support people" and their work was eventually outsourced.
Today sites moderate based on content. FreeRepublic and Dailykos don't seem to have moderated comment threads, but in fact they do. A liberal entering the former and a conservative coming onto the latter is going to be flamed the first time they open their keyboard. This "groupthink" is a business advantage when you can generate the message traffic you need to fund yourself from those of like-mind.
But as we move increasingly into local Webs, that's not going to work.
There are now a growing horde of sites offering to let individuals make their own news. They go by names like NowPublic, Phxnews, Bayosphere and Parmedia. They all have the welcome mat out. They all have some content online.
Here's where they fail:
- There's no business model. Real media has a business model.
- There's no model for compensating moderation. Newspaper folks have no Clue what I'm talking about here.
Let's go to Lawrence, Kansas and see what the competition is up to. The site looks spiffy, and sounds interactive. The Times is impressed - look, they even have something for the kids.
But I can get a competitive site up and running in two days. All I have to do is start attacking The Lawrence World-Journal, publisher Dolph Simons, and the World Company. Once I get a little traffic, I introduce moderation. Then I scale it.
What does it mean to have scaled moderation?
- Everyone who works for the site is a moderator as well as a writer, and spends time trolling comments spotting and dealing with trolls.
- You have a clear, concise set of "rules of the digital road," posted and enforced by those moderators.
- Everyone who reads knows who the moderators are, and is empowered to contact them with evidence of flame bait.
- Your business model is based on paying these moderators.
When the Lawrence paper hires a new reporter I'm sure the first thing they get them doing is spending time at the courthouse, the police station, and the school board headquarters. Get the lay of the land, meet the people, do some simple stories, show your stuff.
I think it's important to have that discipline, but it's also vital that everyone spend time every day with the people writing free. Encourage them, direct them, slap them down, love them, teach them, mentor them.
I think Lisa Carlson's rules are a good starting place for this moderation. The rules need to be baked-into everyone who works for you, everyone who writes or produces content for you. That means everyone - paid or not. In this way you create a "safe zone" within the community, where anyone can discuss anything and feel confident the result will be a positive experience.
How do you get the money? You do it by bringing merchants into the discussion. More on that next week.
I'm now helping to produce a special blog on Open Source for ZDNet.
I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am on the development team for EgoScout, a new kind of mediator for mobile phone users.
My last non-fiction book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards. Write me for a PDF copy of my latest novel, "Baptists are for Dunking."
On my Mooreslore blog I've written a new novel, "The Chinese Century." It's a story told in real-time, with real characters, but entirely fictional, dealing with the consequences of the falling dollar. I'm beginning a sequal, "American Diaspora," exploring the themes of the first book but with more fictional characters. It's a true alternate history, but set in the present day.
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