MANAGING ONLINE MESSAGE BOARD BRAWLS

By: Jennie L. Phipps

Technology Is Helping Some Publishers Referee Melees



When obnoxious L.A. Lakers fans virtually took over the latimes.com
message boards last month, management shut them down – despite the fact
that they attracted hundreds of thousands of page views and lucrative
advertising every day.



Besides not wanting to be associated with lots of foul language and
inappropriate comments, the newspaper had understandable legal fears.
Participants were posing as other participants, putting false and
libelous words in each other’s mouths. There were reportedly even a
couple of incidents where angry message board participants contacted
the employers of their targets and made unpleasant allegations. In
short, anarchy.



The Los Angeles Times, fearful that the newspaper would be held
accountable, put an end to the whole business. Newspaper spokesperson
Mike Lang says the message boards will be back once the Times has
figured out a software solution that will give the newspaper better
control.



Two years ago, The Washington Post had similar troubles, says Vic
Sussman, editor of Live Online at washingtonpost.com. Sussman, who
spent 15 years at U.S. News & World Report before joining America
Online, and then washingtonpost.com, calls himself ‘a First Amendment
absolutist.’ Even so, he recognizes the need to muzzle those who refuse
to follow the rules. ‘There are many people who when they have the
anonymity that comes with a keyboard say and do things on which a
publication doesn’t want to put its stamp of approval.’



When Sussman arrived at washingtonpost.com in 1998, he thought the
message boards were offensively out of control. They were shut down. An
alternative, Live Online, was started. It’s a strictly monitored
opportunity for experts and editors to take questions from the online
public. But that didn’t satisfy fans of the free-wheeling message
boards, so Sussman went on a hunt for a better solution. He ended up
making a deal with a company called Prospero Technologies, which also
handles the online message boards for The Wall Street Journal
Interactive Edition and chicagotribune.com.



Outsource it



Dan Bruns, CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Prospero, founded Delphi
Forums, an online discussion pioneer. Delphi and a competitor, Well
Engaged, morphed into Prospero. Bruns’ company keeps a tight rein on
the message boards that it operates for many high-traffic sites,
including sports sections for all three major TV networks. Right now
he’s busy setting up message boards to accompany NBC’s coverage of the
summer Olympics.



‘We have a very significant investment in infrastructure and tools to
manage a discussion site,’ Bruns says. ‘We use everything from user-

management software to moderators and facilitators and a very specific
structure that helps keep the discussion focused.’ The system knows
when a sports fan is out of control and knocks the offender out of the
game, he says.



Prospero charges a site between $3 and $10 per 1,000 page views.
Prospero may not be cheap, but Bruns contends it’s not prohibitive for
many sites.



Be your own moderator



Some newspapers choose to take on the moderator roles themselves. Rusty
Coates, editor of startribune.com in Minneapolis, employs a full-time
message-board monitor. He says the salary cost certainly isn’t
insignificant, but it’s worth it. ‘We have her there because the forum
is an integral part of our site, one of the differentiating points
between us and the print product,’ Coates explains. ‘If we are really
going to say that we’re an interactive media, then we should be willing
to staff it.’



Part of Coates’ justification for a hall monitor is actually a fiscal
one. While the message boards aren’t as big a seller as automobile and
employment classifieds pages, general advertisers like the Target
stores love them, he says, because user demographics are appealing.
Plus the message boards add another 5 million page views a month toward
making the overall picture look more appealing to advertisers. As
Coates says, ‘It’s all money in the bank.’



Taking cues from TV



Some of the most innovative ways of managing message boards are coming
from television sites. Marc Weiss, longtime independent film maker and
past producer of the highly regarded PBS series ‘P.O.V.,’ has devoted
his energies for the last two years to Web Lab, a New York-based site
that turns message boards into high art.



Using specially developed software, weblab.org orchestrates online
discussions about highly charged topics. For instance, it organized
dialogues around the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.
More recently, its discussion groups focused on the interracial
relationship issues raised by the PBS series, ‘American Love Story.’



Weiss maintains that the only way to raise the level of discussion on
message boards is to tightly control them. He requires users to
register and make a commitment to a certain level of participation,
which he says eliminates the hit-and-run mentality that leads to
downward spiraling discussions. Participants can use any name they
want, but they are asked to introduce themselves and reveal enough
about their circumstances so that the other participants know who
they’re talking to.



In return, Web Lab guarantees users absolute anonymity. There are
monitors, but they lay low, mostly just highlighting exemplary
discussions. Weiss says his method encourages an atmosphere in which
the discussion is wide open – getting to the nitty-gritty of tough
topics. ‘To get into a discussion like this, people have to make a
certain commitment,’ Weiss says. ‘This model draws fewer people, but
they have a much more intense discussion and they come back over and
over again.’



A study of the Web Lab discussions surrounding the impeachment
proceedings found that about 450 participants contributed nearly 13,000
messages during the four months the discussion was active. Over half
the respondents reported reading more than three-quarters of the
messages posted in their group, and spent more than one hour per week
reading messages.



Web Lab partnered with Global Media Design, an Orlando, Fla.-based new-

media development company, to build the software that runs the dialogue
groups. Weiss says it is considering a for-profit spin-off to offer the
software commercially.



Another PBS-affiliated Web discussion proposition is managed by G.
Scott Aikens, project director of Mapping the Assets at Connecticut
Public Broadcasting Inc. The program aims to identify ways that
electronic communications can connect the state’s educational, civic,
and cultural organizations.



Aikens, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on computer-mediated
communications, recommends that newspapers consider partnering with
entities that can help control the discussion. For instance, in the
case of latimes.com’s ill-fated Lakers brawl, Aikens suggests that
involving the Lakers organization in the boards might have eliminated
the ugliness.



He also recommends that there be clear rules of civic engagement,
including a demand that participants use their own names, stay on
topic, and limit themselves to two posts a day. When it looks like
there is a dust-up brewing, sites should orchestrate the dust-up by
tightly managing the discussion and ensuring that there is an end
point.



And if the discussion still gets out of control? Aiken concludes, ‘In
situations where it looks like you might bleed, shutting them down is
probably the right answer. There are some people out there you just
don’t want to work with.’



~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~



Jennie L. Phipps (jennielp@bignet.net) is an independent writer and
editor based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She writes frequently for E&P
Online.



Related stories:

ARE MESSAGE BOARDS GOING THE WAY OF THE DODO? (03/20/00)



JOURNAL REGISTER CO. HAMMERED ON MESSAGE BOARDS (12/02/99)









(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher

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