Friday, June 17, 2005

Article on citizen journalism omits a key component

Steve Outing has written a wonderful overview of styles of citizen journalism. The article contains a lot of interesting tidbits to comment on, but I'll restrict myself to the two most pertinent IMHO:

1. I strongly suspect that most newspaper reporters, editors, and executives would cringe at most if not all of the ideas presented here.

2. Outing left out one important feature that can help mitigate many of the problems raised by citizen journalism (offensive comments, inaccuracies, filtering based on quality), namely, moderation. Slashdot has been using it for years, and frankly the site wouldn't work without it. With it, the site has remained one of the most popular technology news/discussion sites on the web.

Slashdot grants moderation points to a select group of users (not always the same ones), based on users who have logged in and created accounts, frequency of visits to the site, length of readership (how long ago you registered), and 'karma', or the number of moderation points a reader has collected on his or her postsl.

Here's an excerpt from Slashdot's FAQ:

The end result is a pool of eligible users that represent (hopefully) average, positive Slashdot contributors... It all works to make sure that everyone takes turns, and nobody can abuse the system, and that only "regular" readers become moderators (as opposed to some random newbie ;)

When moderators are given access, they are given a number of points of influence to play with. Each comment they moderate deducts a point. When they run out of points, they are done serving until next time it is their turn.

Moderation takes place by selecting an adjective from a drop down list that appears next to comments containing descriptive words like "Flamebait" or "Informative." Bad words will reduce the comment's score by a single point, and good words increase a comment's score by a single point.

Moderation points expire after 3 days if they are left unused. You then go back into the pool and might someday be given access again.

And from the FAQ question 'Moderation seems restrictive. Is it really necessary?'

In short, yes.

As you might have noticed, Slashdot gets a lot of comments. Thousands a day. Tens of thousands a month. At any given time, the database holds 50,000+ comments. A single story might have a thousand replies- and let's be realistic: Not all of the comments are that great. In fact, some are down right terrible, but others are truly gems.

The moderation system is designed to sort the gems and the crap from the steady stream of information that flows through the pipe. And wherever possible, it tries to make the readers of the site take on the responsibility. (emphasis added)

The goal is that each reader will be able to read Slashdot at a level that they find appropriate. The impatient can read nothing at all but the original stories. Some will only want to read the highest rated of comments, some will want to eliminate anonymous posts, and others will want to read every last drip of data, from the First Posts! to the spam. The system we've created here will make that happen. Or at least, it sure will try...

Lots of people complain about the system and disagree on the quality of posts, but overall the system works extremely well - I tend to read comments filtered down to the top 40 or 50, and I almost always find that one or two add valuable information and/or insight to the original story. On the other hand, I almost never see juvenile or inflammatory posts at this level of filtering.

I really wonder if people in the mainstream journalism arena aren't aware of this system (which is available free through Slashdot's open source content management system, so no one has to reinvent the wheel) or if there's something about it that they feel wouldn't work for their sites. I think I see an article in this...