Pre-Internet days, a newspaper in Denmark that printed cartoons could be assured that they wouldn’t be seen in other parts of the world. Those days are over. With protests and riots still burning bright in the Middle East over cartoons depicting Mohammed, we cannot ignore our global neighbors even if they live on the other side of the world. As newspapers in the U.S. consider whether to run the cartoons, simple searches online can show anyone what the fuss is about.
But after weeks and even months of frustrating conflict over the issue, where can people vent their frustrations in a safe way? Where can they perhaps find common ground?
One surprising place was in a forum run by Topix.net, a news aggregator that until recently was known for collecting all the local news for thousands of locales. The site, now majority owned by three newspaper chains, added moderated forums last December, and found itself quickly swamped in the Mohammed cartoon controversy. The Denmark Forum became ground zero for arguments and discussion that eminated from around the world — from the United Arab Emirates and Libya to the UK and Oklahoma City.
Topix.net CEO Rich Skrenta (pictured here) wrote on his blog that the thing to do when the discussion gets hot is not to shut it down (like Washingtonpost.com had to do) but to keep it going. So if you skim through the Denmark Forum, you’ll find plenty of flames, personal attacks, and four-letter words sprinkled through the discussions.
But Topix.net does indeed moderate the forums, and even added one killer feature: The site uses geolocation to pinpoint where forum participants are posting from. And that location is displayed below your screen name, so you can’t pretend to be in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when your location is really Atlanta, Georgia. Just that one simple feature took some of the anonymous flaming and hoaxing out of the discussions, making them stronger.
Though the discussions on the Denmark Forum are dominated by hateful and ignorant people, the fact that they are even together, exposed to other points of view, can’t help but make them less ignorant. At one point, a Saudi in London condemned the attacks on embassies and other violence by Muslims, which brought a round of sympathy from the other participants. At various points, people do try to find common ground.
The following is an email Q&A that I had with Skrenta of Topix.net. He told me more about how Topix.net moderates its forums and how this type of open global discussion — warts and all — can promote more understanding.
Q: When did you launch news forums, and how many postings have you had?
Rich Skrenta: We launched the community participation system on Dec. 12, 2005. We’ve had 48,000 posts as of today. The highest posting day so far had 4,000 posts; on average we’re getting approximately 3,500 posts per day.
Q: How do you moderate them? How much is technology filters and how much is human oversight?
Skrenta: We have a combination of software filters and human moderation on the forums. About half of the posts being moderated are being done by software and the other half by human review. The tools for moderators to use to deal with bad posts are pretty good, so it’s easy to scan a large number of posts in a short time and deal with problem users quickly. Our goal with the moderation tools was to make the moderators as productive as possible so the system could scale to hundreds of thousands of posts per day. We have experience building large-scale systems of this sort in the past at Netscape/AOL.
We don’t like to see bad posts on our forums; at the same time, there is such a vast gray area between the obvious spam and trolls and the clearly reasonable posts, that it really makes you start to question what your role should be in censoring opinions that are being expressed. Perhaps they are strongly expressed, heated opinions, but someone took the time to participate. Maybe they used some four letter words to express themselves, but it’s in a three paragraph post that makes some points. What do you do? How do we choose where to draw the line? Is there a list of words you can’t say? Ideas you can’t express? Should I be deleting a post simply because someone is “yelling” online?
Our Denmark forums are a real trial-by-fire. We had some heated threads before this but getting 15,000 posts in a week over a global issue such as this was unexpected. I’m glad that we were able to keep our system running OK through this. We’ve already made some changes to our filters and adding a few new moderation tools as a result of this experience.
Q: Do you worry about legal issues, slander and libel?
Skrenta: We reviewed our system prior to launch with our lawyers and are comfortable with our approach.
Q: How exact is your geolocation technology? Have people complained their location was wrong?
Skrenta: The geolocation technology we use is 99% accurate on a country level, 80% accurate on a state level, and 75% accurate for U.S. cities. Often for a wrong city it still gets the right “neck of the woods” for a poster. It says I’m in San Francisco when I’m actually in Palo Alto. It is finding the location of the poster’s ISP, not the poster themselves, which can be surprising.
A big benefit, though, apart from the geo-approximation of the poster, is that, since it’s not generally practical to forge, the location is a second handle on the poster’s identity apart from who they’re claiming to be. So if someone posting from Riyahd claims they’re an American living in Chicago, it’s easy to see that they’re probably not telling the truth. It also helps contain identity masquerading in the forums. A user can log out and log in again and change their username but it’s
often easy to spot them since they’re posting from the same location. The geolocation “outed” a number of posters who had been pretending to be a number of different people.
No one has really complained about it. One person in a thread I saw was confused why a different city than where they lived was showing up, another posted said that was probably their ISP’s home office address. Overall the texture of the forum experience seems to have been improved and there hasn’t been any backlash.
Q: What do we gain as a global society to allow unfettered arguments to rage like this? Does it lead to greater understanding?
Skrenta: I think it does lead to greater understanding. There will always be those who choose not to discuss or listen, but where else can a suburban Californian go to debate a global issue with citizens from Iran and Lebanon and Saudi Arabia? We have to believe that open debate and discussion are ultimately positive and beneficial to humanity. It may not be perfect, but as the saying goes, it beats the alternative. Don’t build the system in the first place? Censor all the posts or shut it down? Only let a few tell the many what they’re allowed to hear? That’s not where we as a society want to go.
Topix, interestingly, being owned by newspaper companies may be the ideal entity to run a system such as this.
Q: Have you considered ways to summarize the best points of the highly trafficked forums to make it more readable for a broader audience?
Skrenta: Some kind of group voting system, to promote key posts? Perhaps… I don’t have a clear idea how to do that yet. Perhaps this is where journalists come in.
What do you think? I apologize again that our comments here at MediaShift were down the past couple days. They are working again, and please use them to share your thoughts. If you have questions for Skrenta, please ask them in the comments, and I will relay them to him.