Simon urged me to read Dan Gillmor’s open letter to the Bayosphere community, and I’m very glad he did. It’s a trenchant and honest account of why the experiment “failed” (although, to be fair to Dan, I’d say that failure is pretty provisional at the moment.
In the post, Dan highlights some key lessons he learned. I think several of them are directly and practically applicable to anyone planning “community participation” of any kind on their site (Washington Post, take note):
# Citizen journalism is, in a significant way, about owning your own words. That implies responsibilities as well as freedom. We asked people to read and agree to a “pledge” that briefly explained what we believed it meant to be a citizen journalist — including principles such as thoroughness, fairness, accuracy and transparency. Although some cynics hooted that this was at best naive, we’re convinced it was at least useful.
# Limiting participation is not necessarily a bad idea. By asking for a valid e-mail address simply in order to post comments, you reduce the pool of commenters considerably, but you increase the quality of the postings. And by asking for real names and contact information, as we did with the citizen journalists, you reduce the pool by several orders of magnitude. Again, however, there appears to be a correlation between willingness to stand behind one’s own words and the overall quality of what’s said.
# Tools matter, but they’re no substitute for community building. (This is a special skill that I’m only beginning to understand even now.)
# Although the participants — citizen journalists and commenters — are essential, it’s even more important to remember that publishing is about the audience in the end. Most people who come to the site are not participants. They’re looking for the proverbial “clean, well-lighted place” where they can learn or be entertained, or both.
Audience, community, rules and tools. Audience, community, rules and tools. It has a nice metre to it, and it’s essential to remember it.