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You are a fool. You are a moron. Nothing you write is worth reading. Please go away and contemplate just how stupid you really are.

That’s neither my opinion of Technology Review’s readers nor the feedback I get from writing these columns. But those comments fairly represent the disgraceful level of discourse at such online publications as salon.com, slate.msn.com, and nytimes.com. Talk about lucrative opportunities missed. Talk about failed innovation. Talk about misunderstanding a medium.

The New York Times, for example, may be a superbly edited newspaper, but it has a horribly moderated online forum. The Times publishes a dazzling array of Pulitzer Prizewinning columnists and invites registered readers to respond online. It’s a tantalizing proposition. What policy wonk wouldn’t want to post a clever rejoinder to a provocative column by Thomas L. Friedman or William Safire?

I can easily imagine the Times’ online op-ed forums becoming the well to which the global intelligentsia come for their daily drink of conventional wisdom. Numerous think tanks, foundations, and public relations firms might cheerfully pay a premium to post their takes on what the newspaper of record declares the hot topics of the day. The site could build both the brand and the business and could prove a profitable complement to the paper. It hasn’t happened.

More often than not, the postings that appear under the New York Times digital brand embarrass more than they enlighten. The logic and the language of the postings range from the infantile to the puerile. This state of affairs is sadly true for a host of other online forums that represent high-quality publications. Why? Apparently, these publications care more about editing online text than facilitating online conversations. They treat customers like readers rather than potential participants. Anyone schooled in economics is familiar with Gresham’s Law: bad money drives out good. Well, indifferent moderating invites a Gresham’s Law of Online Interaction: idiotic postings drive away contributors who have something interesting to say. The conversational currency is debauched, and that, in turn, is fueling the popularity of weblogs. Who wants to slog through screens of drivel in hopes of finding one or two worthwhile postings when some the smartest and most coherent posters host excellent sites of their own?

A company’s most valuable assets are its customers. Management’s failure to appreciate that-and cultivate customers’ appreciation of the company-is a sure sign of laziness. If the New York Times-or Dell, IBM, or Pfizer-wanted to be a little less lazy about making sure their customers remain assets, they would pay more attention to the ways other organizations manage online interaction to their advantage.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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