The Delicate Balance of Participatory Media
4 min read

The Delicate Balance of Participatory Media

As participatory media goes mainstream, media companies are discovering that it’s a lot easier to hop on the ideological bandwagon of participation than it is to actually do participatory media well.

Along with the upside of “crowdsourcing” its news gathering, Gannet also discovered the pitfalls of participatory news:

The [Cincinnati Enquirer] recently asked the crowd to weigh in on the grisly murder of a 3-year-old foster child.

“All that water-cooler speculation moved online,” said Korte. The readers were convicting the foster parents before charges were even filed. “We wound up having to close down the message boards until an indictment came down. It’s very hard to separate fact from fiction online, and some people expect that whatever’s on our site undergoes the same degree of scrutiny as what appears in the paper.”

As Digg’s traffic referral power continues to grow, it’s fighting a Google-style battle against gaming of the system — and alienating it’s users in the process:

The most recent changes to the Digg algorithm are aimed at grouping users who tend to act as a single voting block, effectively neutralizing their ability to move stories to the home page by simply acting together. One user, noting that the result was a significant decline in the home page stories by top users, said “it looks like the Digg staff is looking to get rid of its frequent posters.�

No one doubts anymore that the walls between content creation and content consumption have fallen away, but there’s still A LOT to be learned about how to succeed in this brave new media world. The challenge for media companies is to find the right balance between participation and control, outsourcing and editorial guidance, openness and order.

The walls between content creation and commerce are also falling away, as we’ve seen with everything from product placement to the uproar over PayPerPost.

The other day, Derek Powazek of JPG Magazine sent me a link to a great essay he wrote about merging (in the context of magazine publishing) the once separate communities of audience, advertising, and editorial. I thought Derek’s description had a nice sense of balance:

We believe that our magazines don’t have three communities, they have one. And within that community, there will be different layers. Some people will mostly consume, and that’s okay. But they should always know that the day they want to contribute, or even advertise, they can.

Then there will be people who want to contribute. But, of course, those people also consume. That’s why they want to contribute! So all they need is the right interface to contribute. If I learned anything in my research for Design for Community, it’s that good content is the best fertilizer for online community.

There’s another community segment that’s very important in this recipe: The organizers. These are the people who want to rate and blog, comment and tag. These are the people who vote on JPG submissions right now – the very same people who “Digg” and blog and bookmark on other sites – and they’re hugely important to the lifeblood of the web. Of course, many of these organizers don’t just organize: they also create. That’s just another reason to treat the magazine community holistically.

Then there are the advertisers. We’re not anti-advertising, of course. We just think that they should be as involved in the community as everyone else. If they really want access, they have to pay for it by contributing to the health of the community. In JPG, our first program to do this is Sponsored Themes, where the sponsor gives the community another chance to get published. Our next issue features the Embrace the Blur theme, which is sponsored by Lensbabies. And, at the end, they’re going to give brand new Lensbabies to the people who get published. This is the kind of community involvement we want to inspire – and it’s just the beginning.

And finally, there are the editors. (And here I’m speaking as the editor of JPG.) We editors are just going to have to get over ourselves a little bit. We have to admit we’re not always the smartest person on the net. When you treat your writers and readers as one community, your job becomes less about being the arbiter of everything and more about being a good community manager. Your role is to inspire, encourage, and assist the community in producing the magazine.

I think the balance in participatory media will be found — but there’s like to be a lot of disharmony along the way.

If participatory media is all about community and the user in control, it’s not surprising that Digg is having so many problems taking a traditional command and control approach to addressing abuse of the system. You have to wonder why Kevin Rose didn’t just come out and ask the “community” how to solve the problem. When you put the users in control, you can’t suddenly decide that they have too much control and take it away from them. As Tony Hung points out:

It seems like the “first principles� of social media — before web applications, AJAX, blogging, and everything (yes, even before Authenticity and Transparency) — are based on conversations: the give and take between two parties.

And based on the utter silence, Kevin Rose deserves a failing grade.

I also saw that Jason Calacanis is wrangling with Netscape users’ obsession with politics, which now dominates the front page. Jason is experimenting with new approaches to the front page that don’t allow one topic area to dominate. By employing Netscape Anchors, Jason was never under the pretense that Netscape users were completely in control — and now the benefit is that Netscape can experiment with different models without facing the same issues of hypocrisy that Digg is currently facing.

All of this learning process is a good thing, but it’s instructive to see Digg’s growing pains exacerbated by having to live by the sword/die by the sword.