The challenges of managing user interaction

A panel discussion on social networks brings together four people with very different backgrounds to discuss the issue.

Patrick Fuller, What Car publisher is talking about Pistonheads, an auto forum which Haymarket bought and which has grown under their stewardship, despite concern from the faithful audience. The site now has 75m impressions, up from 24m at the time of the purchase. It is very untidy as a site, he says, but Haymarket can’t change it much as the audience is resistant to change. Wikis and user generated news is next as well as highly targeted and relevant advertising.

Meg Packard, head of community at the Guardian, is talking about the ways people react to contact:

  • consumption (passive, but increasingly an act of creation as reading is an activity which can be tracked)
  • contribution
  • curation (social data play – including adding folkosonomies, or recommending, or annotation)
  • creation

The level of intensity of engagement increases as you go down the list. However, she points out, that people don’t necessarily follow this linear pattern, Publishers have to change from creating content to creating context. Content is the what, context is the why. She has a holy trinity of community development: human solutions, technical solutions and editorial solutions and they all have to work together to be successful. The Guardian has people working in several countries to be able to work round the clock. The moderators are often seen as policemen but they aren’t and they don’t report into the editors in order to preserve their independence and avoid journalists just taking down things they don’t like.

Pete Picton, editor, Sun Online talks about My Sun which was launched last October. Early examples of interaction included flood pictures and a debate on the Olympics logo.

Alison Wheeler, ceo of Wikimedia UK talked about Wikipedia which she says is a top 10 world website, with 285,000 pages per minute, or 12.3bn pages a month. Wikipedia is now 15 times as big as Britannica, she says. English is now only a quarter of the total today. Over 100,000 users in English have made edits. 8.4% of internet users in the States visit each day – 5.6 pages views per user. Wikipedia is the largest site in Bangladeshi worldwide. Why do people come back? People contribute because they feel valued, she says.

The discussion

Mike Butcher asking about what went wrong at the LA Times when it famously opened up the front page which was then vandalised by the users. Alison Wheeler says the reason was they didn’t have proper processes in place to manage and reverse the effects of vandalism when it occurs. Pete Picton says the Sun is happy to take tips from users, but these still have to be checked.

Meg Packard says the Guardian watchword is to embrace not replace – and Peter Picton agrees – the Sun has feed widgets which can be put on Facebook pages.

What about the traditional role of editorial, asks Mike Butcher? Patrick Fuller says he recruited an editor for Pistonheads and “he found the interaction terrifying”. Meg Packard says there is a steep learning curve when traditional editorial and user generated content collide. There is an education job to be done on the users to show them that they need to be responsible for their words, but journalists have to learn new ways of writing and reading – it is difficult to read that “you are full of shit”. But sometimes they are right.

We are not asking people to write stories for us, we are asking them to be witnesses, says Meg Packard.

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