Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Reader, I banned him...

Sam Shepherd recently wrote a thought-provoking blog post on how the issue of readers' robust (but accurate and valid) views on online article.
After all, the age of engagement and interactivity means a reporter can get fairly instant feedback, good and bad, on an article once it appears online, either via comments or forums.

But sometimes the feedback is neither constructive, useful or even fair, and we don't necessarily like to acknowledge the fact that an invitation to interact can - for some people - be interpreted as giving them carte blanche to have a go.
Interaction is not invitation to post trollish, petty or vindictive behaviour and allowing it to go unchallenged means we are not considering the impact it might have on other members of our online community.

Sometimes forum members are rude or offensive, and then get offended when this is pointed out to them. I don't think there's much hope when you're dealing with someone like that; when a forumite starts calling you a Nazi for editing swearing out of their comment, you're probably beyond the realms of a rational argument.

I recently sent a message to a forum member whose post was basically constructed around the argument: "I'm not racist but..." (and I'm sure you can fill in the rest of the sentence). I sent him a private message saying it was racist, it was not acceptable on our forum and if he persisted an interim ban would be winging its way to him. I never heard back and he hasn't posted since. You know what? That suits me just fine.

At one point during the Sean Mercer trial, the Coveritlive software had a bit of a hiccup and the liveblog couldn't be updated for a couple of hours - and as a result we also couldn't post a message to say we were having problems. We had a couple of followers posting comments asking what was happening, and then one that said: "This is useless; if you can't do it properly, don't bother doing it at all".

Now, I tried to put myself in that poster's position: s/he was engrossed in the real-time reporting of an important trial when, suddenly and without explanation, the river of content dried up.
So I suppose I can see why their comment was full of annoyance, frustration and disappointment but I still think they were rude and thoughtless.
We were three weeks into a trial that had been constantly and consistently liveblogged; it must have been patently obvious that there was a technical problem. After that problem was fixed we posted an explanation and apology on the blog. Did we hear back from the poster? Did we hell.

There's a balance to be struck between interaction - robust conversation, lively debate, responsibility and ownership - and allowing mischief-makers to dominate a conversation. Newspapers want people to engage and interact with us but shouldn't become so wrapped up in it that insults, hostility or rudeness go unchallenged - whether it's directed at a staff member, the newspaper or another forum user.
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