November 4th, 2006

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.

Comments (21 Responses so far)

  1. du système, surtout quand les décisions qui sont prises remettent en cause la valeur première qu’ils en tirent : leur (chère) notoriété. Voilà donc un très sympathique rapport de force qui vient éclairer un enjeu majeur actuel qui interpelle les services 2.0. Quand la notoriété est la valeur que retirent les utilisateurs du service, il faut que les règles du jeu soient claires et durables, faute de quoi la confiance en prend un coup. Or, les gens sont intelligents et savent construire

  2. (which has a story about Gannett’s move here), and involves being open to contributions from……this morning, and read the cover story – The Internet Sucks.……to debate the merits of the algo change because plenty of people……seemed a little excessive — the company has been handed another $30-million.…

  3. political system (supposedly democratic in nature), when two candidates are running for the same position, the one that gets his name out the best tends to win the election. They are gaming a system that we believe shouldn’t be gamed. Scott Karp makes an excellent point about Digg and gaming when he examines the same situation. 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

  4. The Upside and Downside of Google’s Newspaper Deal 1 day 22 hours old Publishing 2.0 at Web 2.0 2 days 9 hours old The Delicate Balance of Participatory Media 3 days 12 hours old YouTube, Google, and Rumors vs. Truth in the Blogosphere 1 week 20 hours old If You Can’t Tell Whether Something Is An Ad, That’s Deception 1 week 1 day old

  5. Google を見習って法務部門を充実させるのが急務だろうか。 ちなみに Publishing 2.0 の Scott Karp はまた面白いところに目をつけていて、曰く、コミュニティが本当に賢いなら、Kevin Rose は Digg ユーザのコミュニティにどうしたらいいか聞けば良いはずだ だそうだ。そう言えば以前の Kevin Rose は、abuser の発見・申告をコミュニティ有志にやらせようとしていたこともあった。結局それは破綻したということなのだろうか。

  6. The Delicate Balance of Participatory Media Posted in vizeds and journalism(t) . Closed

  7. Principles for Ethical Contact by Marketers Discussion Draft For Public Comment」 11/10追記: 関連記事として 「ウォールマートのFlog(やらせブログ)事件にみるメディアとしてのブログ – nikkei BPnet」 「The Delicate Balance of Participatory Media » Publishing 2.0」 「J-CAST ニュース : NHKに取り上げられた 女子大生のブログ炎上」 (↑このニュース、タイトルだけ見てスルーしてたけど、そういうことだったのですね)

  8. [...] I don’t want to debate the merits of the algo change because plenty of people have done a good job already. [...]

  9. Hey Scott — thanks for the quote. ;)

    I don’t know if KRo has ever polled the community about what they think; with their command/control attitude towards communications, their completely opaque process at deciding what is spam, deletion of accounts (Remember AliWood!) and rejigging of the algorithm is the opposite of what “social media” is all about.

    Hypocrisy? Yeah … that’s what it sounds, like doesn’t it?

    t @ dji

  10. Bleh. Anyone who gets abused by one of the people running these sites finds out damn well there’s class divisions. Pretending otherwise for marketing purposes is one of the most irritating aspects of the popularity-mining goldrush.

  11. [...] Reasonable people can disagree about what is ‘important’ – news about developments in city council, or news about developments in nuclear politics on the other side of the planet. My money’s on the latter, though increasingly the audience seems to be moving to the former. But it strikes me as troubling that the media are meeting the challenge from online competition, at least in part, by cutting resources, outsourcing reporting and focusing on conversation. It’s certainly true that there is much to learn from non-journalists on important news – even distant stories – the 2004 Tsumani and reports from Iraqi bloggers are good examples. What I want, though, in an age of increasingly secretive governments, the suspension of habeas corpus, the spread of foreign wars and the proliferation of nukes in distant corners of the planet, is Seymour Hersh, Sydney Schanberg, David Halberstam and John F. Burns on the story. When it matters, I don’t want pajamas media. I want someone with a Pulitzer (well, with the exception of Judith Miller, in any event) – or someone with a desperate hunger to win one – and all of the resources of a professional news organization behind them – on the story. Related Posts [...]

  12. [...] with   |   Email this entry   |   TrackBack URI   |   Digg it   |   Track with co.mments   |     |   Cosmos Click here forcopyright permissions! Copyright 2006 Mathew Ingram [...]

  13. Maybe they are betting that more users are better than few “cliquey” users.

  14. [...] Scott Karp deals thoughtfully with the balance between publisher control and user control in participatory media. [...]

  15. I love it. The script kiddies are making trouble for the dark tipper (i.e. mr. wanna-be hacker himself…kevin rose).

    Secondly, Hey’re not able to manipulate the standings on a whim anymore. As an end user I was getting a little tired of reading Kevin Rose self promotion hype from third parties. Everyone is watching now… the fake weighting can’t go on my friends.

    Kevin & co. are spending all kinds of time sculpting the frontpage and manually balancing content for the 99% of users that only watch and don’t participate. Seriously, how many techtv tss content from yesteryear is being rehashed to the frontpage? No more promotion of LEO, okay?

    Digg is dead, I’m going to invest my time making someone else a web 2.0 millionaire… someone that cares about the community, not just themselves.

    E. David Zotter

  16. Don’t typically comment to say yeah, I agree with ya, but, yeah, I agree with ya.

    These are hurdles that all social, participatory media have to face and I think you’ve nailed the crux of it here “The challenge for media companies is to find the right balance between participation and control, outsourcing and editorial guidance, openness and order.”.

    That’s precisely why I’ve defended the Slashdot model, in the face of the Digg model, because there is room enough for both approaches – any one service will need to find its own way to deal with that friction.

    As a Perl hacker would say – there is more than one way to do it.

  17. [...] Additional reading on the problems over at Digg can be found here, here, and here [...]

  18. [...] Via Publishing 2.0, news of controversy. The popular news site, in an effort to stifle abuse, now attempts to neutralize “voting blocks”, which has apparently decreased the influence of some of the site’s more popular users. Something worth following if you’re interested in UGC or online communities in general. [...]

  19. [...] Scott Karp makes an excellent point about Digg and gaming when he examines the same situation. [...]

  20. [...] discussions on journalistic standards. Scott Karp looks at the problems digg is facing in his delicate balance posting. Democratization of content means a loss of control for the editors and by extension [...]

  21. [...] find it interesting that Scott Karp calls out Digg in his article The Delicate Balance of Participatory Media, for not listening to the community. He even references another article in which Tony Hung states: [...]

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