Jeff Jarvis wrote an excellent post on news organizations and membership, taking to task those that were considering the “give us money and get a T-shirt” approach done so successfully by the non-profit NPR:
the membership bar has moved up. It’s not enough to let people give you money and promote you. Now you have to invite them to have a real and meaningful role in what you do, even a sense – if not a stake – of ownership and, consequently, control. ... Note that Wikipedia is trying to figure out what value it needs to add back to its community’s product, not as a controller but as a contributing member itself. That’s part of the secret to successful networks: everyone’s a member, no one is king.
He’s right, but that control means taking control on their behalf sometimes. Theories on how to deal with reader comments have varied widely over the past years, but it’s widely recognized now that comments can be good, but an uncontrolled, live-and-let-die only serves trolls and isn’t really good at “furthering the conversation.”
Take YouTube: An infamous cesspool of ignorant commentary. But because it was free, it proved quite the quandary for other streaming video sites: Free can be quite the competitive advantage. While sites like Brightcove have tackled the enterprise market, competitors like DailyMotion seemed to be driving the market as a race to the bottom. Vimeo took a different approach.
Its front page happily proclaims their mission:
Vimeo is a respectful community of creative people who are passionate about sharing the videos they make.
They make clear who they are and who they aren’t, not only with this statement but with the cheerful, quirky site design, gorgeous display and even <a href=”http://andybeard.eu/2337/vimeo-commercial-use.html”discouragement of commercial use</a>. While there are introductory accounts, any serious users will quickly run up against their upload/download limits that push users to join up, and a lot have. But what they’re really paying for isn’t so much the upload capacity or even the video quality.
People are paying for the respectful community. And Vimeo knows it: Can you imagine YouTube subjecting its staff to its community the way Vimeo proudly does on its staff blog, with folksy talk and funky profile pictures? I don’t think there’s enough hazard pay in the world for the abuse they’d endure.
The truth of the matter is, many news organizations forums aren’t much better (particularly after a Drudge link!). How valuable are the readers that sling mud back and forth, almost with disregard to the topic their commenting on? Their ad value is debatable, but their difficult to monetize at best and a worthless strain on the servers at worst. But what do they add to the community, for all the entertainment (what else could it be?) that they get?
A number of people have been openly hostile to Rupert Murdoch’s talk of closing off his sites to Google’s Index, as if he was not only making a bad business decision but also drowning kittens by the act of withholding News Corp. content (here’s a sample). But Murdoch isn’t stupid, and he hasn’t always been anti-Google. As far as I can tell, a lot of the anti-Google rhetoric is simply positioning for later negotiations, either with Bing or Google later on (Paul Carr has a good piece on Murdoch’s scheming). But beyond that, Murdoch’s made smart moves towards openness when he thinks they’ll benefit his empire: You can currently get almost any Wall Street Article free by simply Googling the title, or even by clicking through on a Digg link, both of which are special arrangements. If he really was as curmudgeonly as he’s made himself out to be, neither of these special arrangements would exist.
And there is evidence that people will pay for the right community and content. Something Awful, for one. When News Corp. launches its paywall, I will be shocked if the only asset users get is the text content: They’re also getting access to a community of moderated commenters (Something Awful has shown they don’t even have to be classy commenters, so those Drudge trolls might yet have a home), convenience, and quite possibly more as the News Corp. empire finalizes its plans.