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Say the Times cleaned up its online discussions and raised the tenor of conversation. More readers would participate in the online dialogue. And should advertisers sponsor the discussions, the online participants would become more valuable to the Times than they are as passive readers. From a branding standpoint, the New York Times could transform its online forums into the eBay of elite opinions.

Many online forums already strive to improve the quality of discourse. In particular, the community that has grown up around the open-source software movement-which includes information technology professionals, geek hobbyists, and more than a few Star Trek fans who contribute to such sites as slashdot.org-does a far better job of online facilitation and interaction than do the nation’s top newspapers and online publications. According to Siobhan O’Mahony, a professor at the Harvard Business School, the open-source community “has been dealing with how to create forums for constructive online dialogue for the past 10 years. And if it can find solutions to this problem, then anyone can.”

This community understands how to use its skills to turn readers and posters into design collaborators who can create value where none existed. These forums employ techniques that boost the chances for innovative interactions. “Hackers may have more experience than we do,” O’Mahony says, “but there is no reason why mainstream companies can’t learn from them.”

The most advanced sites use software to control the process. Some systematically rank contributors according their posting history. Some let readers score each posting, so the highest-rated messages automatically move to the top. In some cases, a community’s most trusted participants become de facto editors who weed out unsavory contributions.

To be sure, the open-source community has its own brand of flaming. “You will never have a perfect system,” O’Mahony acknowledges. “You might get the occasional read the f___ing manual’ comment, but in these environments, it is more likely to be sanctioned.”

Innovators who value customers’ interaction know that the business acronym CRM needs to stand not only for customer relationship management but also for community relationship management. Furthermore, they know there is no better place to look for insights into interaction management than among the open-source initiatives running worldwide. Innovators who don’t know these facts should reread the first paragraph of this column.

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