My colleague Neil McIntosh has written an interesting editorial about a flame-up which happened on our talk boards last week. I’ll let Neil tell the essence of the story:
This week’s internal debate was sparked by the first edition of the paper’s new Family section last Saturday. Doubtless with the maxim “a problem shared” in their mind, the section’s editors had hit upon the idea of asking readers to help solve family problems via our talkboards.
The intention was – is – for useful discussions from Talk to be printed each week. A new area was created, the conversation started, and it produced some interesting material. Some readers talked about what to do with the child trust fund cheque they’d received. Others talked frankly about the pain of divorce. And then it was printed in the paper.
The result, in talk-room parlance, was that we were badly flamed. Some users said it was a blatant breach of trust. Users were concerned that what they thought was a discussion between a few of them might, exposed to a bigger audience, leave them vulnerable to identification.
Neil goes into the rights and wrongs of this debate in some detail, so I won’t rehearse them here. One concept which he only alludes to, though, is the sense to which Guardian Unlimited is a space we share with our users. It seems to me that this goes beyond the experience of offline media, where it is clear that the space is owned by the publisher and the users can only comment (like, for instance, when BBC radio listeners complain about a regular feature being moved, or, ahem, national newspapers are forced to correct decisions to drop popular items).
The web space, though, becomes a different kind of shared ownership when you allow user-generated content. Our talk threads are a distinctive part of Guardian Unlimited, but they are also something of a self-governed area, like Scotland within Britain. Because the content is so uniquely owned by the users who created it, we have to be minutely careful with how we speak to that community. Sometimes this can be problematic. But the problems are more than compensated for by the delight in discovering an area of GU which users have made uniquely their own, with little or no input from us.