The LA Times (caveat, I spent a glorious three months there as an indentured servant before leaving to join the founders at Wired) recently attempted to push their own boundaries online by rolling out a “wikitorial” – in which the paper allowed its readers to comment upon and edit the Times’ editorials.
It was a good idea, but poorly executed. The site attracted trolls and showoffs, and was quickly shut down. Dan Gillmor has a good overview of why it didn’t work here, and adds his thoughts on what they could have done better.
But when I read about this, I instantly recognized a core problem with the approach: it was top down community, rather than bottom up. Michael Kinsley, who created the site for the Times, was attempting to force a considered, editorial structure onto a set of readers who had yet to identify themselves or their own interests in any kind of structured way. It was doomed to fail, because communities can’t be created by editorial structures – editorial structures must be created by communities.
This is a classic failing of old school media thinking. Sure, folks could build on top of the Times’ editorials, but then again, why would they? The reason folks build stuff is to build it together, and to do that, they have to know one another, have a shared set of mores, have a conversation that is already going.
A far better approach would have been to create a platform for readers to create their own communities. Leaders will emerge, voices will break out, and conversations will get started. Then the community itself will have a sense of ownership of the media, and begin to moderate out the trolls. It’s one thing for the LA Times to kill the trolls – that feels like censorship. It’s another for the community itself to do it.