Thursday, February 4, 2010

From Online Anarchy to Online Censorship - On Engadget's Comment Firestorm

You've heard the mantra beaten to death by almost all social media experts, scholars and practitioners: transparency, transparency, and even more transparency. After all, the holy grail of social media in the business world is to let your customers and partners voice their real concerns and opinions, right? We've been told by all the social media revolutionaries that censorship is old school stupidity, and opening the floodgate for the digital comment assault is what an "enlightened" business professional would do.

A few days ago, a coworker IMed me this url and snickered "so much for transparency!". Looks like Engadget finally couldn't take any more of this wonderful transparency preached by every social media visionary. Is Engadget finally caving into the dark side? Are they now just steps away from communism and complete social media fail? After all, if you take all of the "transparency" advise very literally, you may think it's a netizen's God given right to speak their mind freely, no matter how abusive the language. A quick look at some of the media outlet comment threads and Fortune 500 companies' social media properties reveals that this "hands off" approach to online conversation is widely practiced. Comments that would get one fired from a corporate job are regularly posted in YouTube and Facebook comment threads.

So just exactly what is the right way to look at online conversation moderation? Is the complete hands off approach the way to go? In the real world, although we are free to say almost anything we want, social consequences prevent us from having a completely unfiltered stream of consciousness coming out of our mouth. Once we move to the online world, however, the "online disinhibition effect" can drastically change how many of us behave. While this could empower one to express true opinions without the fear of social retribution, it could also lead to a deterioration in communication, resulting in emotionally charged rants filled with noise. Online communities managers have known this for decades, and the approach to handling this problem has varied widely since the days of dial-up BBS. Despite the differences in approach, I think one thing all seasoned community managers can agree on is the danger of the "broken window" theory. If you leave a virtual community unattended, there's a good chance that it will soon be overrun by trolls, potentially even establishing a rogue social hierarchy, transferring control of the community to rogue members.

So did Engadget do the right thing by turning off comment? Personally I believe something had to be done, but the jury may still be out on the best approach to online conversation moderation. Gary Marshall from did a great write-up on the complete story of what had happened to Engadget. Is community based moderation (comment voting/rating practiced by & YouTube) the answer? Or do businesses need to control the directions of the conversations with very active moderating teams? What ever the answer may be, one thing is for sure: as we rely more and more on social networks and online forums to communicate, the Engadget user comment issue (in effect, a community management issue) is only tip of the iceberg for the number of online community challenges businesses will face in the near future.

1 comment:

Mark said...

If we use the Johari window as a model, the Arena that is known to both yourself and others can be considered a kind of social bandwidth. Of course, if there is more Blind spot and Facade then it just sets things up for the usual drama. It seems self awareness plays a big part in the quality of the content.