When an organisation is in the midst of an online community storm, as the Guardian was over Max Gogarty’s blog, the only successful outcome that seems to matter is getting out the other side. Rather like the crew of a ship hanging on for dear life, you batten down the hatches, rely on camaraderie and solidarity, stick to your course and wait for it to pass.
Once the swell has diminished, in my experience, you slap each other on the back, feel smug that you’ve weathered the storm and then carry on regardless. I’ve seen it a dozen times in a variety of organisations and (whilst individuals are very much the wiser) rarely has anything much been learnt by the institution.
I’ve been wondering what discussions have happened at the Guardian. What has ‘Hurricane Max’ taught them? Not a lot, I suspect. After a few weeks of reflection, here are my suggestions:
Authenticity and transparency are vital
You can position a contributor as a fresh, excited lad heading off to India with tales to tell. But if his dad is a contributor and Travel PR, then (much like Max worried about the snakes) you should be fearful. The Guardian holds their community in such disdain that they thought it wouldn’t be sussed out or perhaps they thought it didn’t matter. But, within minutes, just imagine, it was exposed.
The Guardian’s gut reaction is illuminating. Emily Bell, in particular, couldn’t understand why the choice of Max Gogarty and his connexions should matter to readers and attacked the tone of the criticisms rather than the substance. Observer/Guardian voices and Max Gogarty’s dad ascribed the storm to jealousy. But it has more to do with the fact that the community wasn’t told the truth. And when the truth was discovered, the community was dismissed: it was told it didn’t matter. And then, when the Guardian community begged to differ, it was told they were wrong/stupid/jealous.
Honesty isn’t a nice to have: it’s crucial. It’s my belief that if exactly the same content had been published by a bona fide, already blogging ‘gapper’, that it would have passed most of us by. The storm was the result of an old-fashioned commissioning process in a modern context followed by indignant journos telling a passionate community that they were wrong to object.
The community itself is never the enemy
I’m still bewildered as I look back at the commentary from the Observer/Guardian dealt with the storm. Comment in the papers, snide remarks in the Sports email and patronising comments all betrayed a certain level of contempt coming from Farringdon Road directed at their online community. Equally, there was little contrition, if any, from the Grauniad.
It’s difficult to admit than an error has been made or that something could have been done better, but a certain level of humility can be soothing. The Guardian did quite the opposite, pouting impetuously whilst, in essence, telling the community: ‘Like it or lump it.â€ If ‘Hurricane Max’ remains, in the eyes of the Guardian people, an act of overreaction from an irrational mob rather than a legitimate (if rude) protest at an ill-conceived endeavour, I’d be disappointed. Surgeon heal thyself.
What do you throw on a fire to dampen down the flames? Water. What did the Guardian use? Petrol. They ended the discussion and closed the comments. It was an unnecessary and knee-jerk reaction.
Moderation on blogs and in forums is successful when dealt out by a deft hand. Empathy, even-handedness and a thick skin are a moderator’s core competencies.
The Guardian used a sledgehammer to crack a nut and deleted comments, ended the discussion and removed the right of reply. And then continued the debate themselves by allowing (and defended the right of) the Observer to attack the Guardian/Observer community in print. The community was not permitted the same ‘right of reply’. Rafeal Behr’s article still astonishes me. The Guardian/Observer ended the debate online and then attacked the community in print. I don’t think that’s fair.
The storms are worth the adventure
If you want to enjoy the magnificent benefits of an online community then the occasional ‘flare up’ is part of the experience. I’d even suggest that dissent is part of the fun and most of the benefit. People get angry because they care. You’re onto a winner when people care enough to get angry. The storms are part of the experience: enjoy the swell. Emily Bell seems to, at least, half-get this idea.
Does the Guardian get it?
To the casual observer it seems like a storm in a tea-cup. It is, in the grander scheme of things, both trivial and inconsequential. But I’m a man fascinated by online communities, their management and the conversation that the net, and Web 2.0, can enable.
The Guardian was a trailblazer (along with the BBC) when it came to normalising the net and encouraging online participation in Britiain. But this Max Gogarty stuff makes me question whether the Guardian really does have the expertise and understanding necessary to carry on innovating. The high and cack handedness doesn’t feel very ‘webby’. Elsewhere, fourth estate slow-coaches are catching up. Mytelegraph, in particular, is an exciting and radical experiment and it makes the Guardian’s offerings look a little old-fashioned.