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Flaming Ideas

Online forums should offer much more than idle chatter.

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.

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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