Cultivating a Community Garden, not a Public Toilet

    by Margaret Rosas
    April 16, 2009

    I recently attended the Integrated Media Association conference in Atlanta and sat in on a panel of web content providers addressing public radio folks about online content. Jesse Thorne moderated a great discussion about how to provide content your audience wants to hear, how to listen and how to foster online communities around your content. Online community building is of particular interest to our project as it is a key feature Radio Engage will provide.

    The Sound of Young America

    Merlin Mann made the following observation about how to handle community and conversations:


    Creating community is not as simple as turning on comments … That is not a community; that’s a public toilet.

    公廁 The public toilet is not the place where you want to hang out, converse, and connect with your neighbors. It is quite the opposite, you are in and out and don’t stop to open your eyes or nose to the environment. This is exactly how I feel every time I venture into the forums of our local paper (why did I come in here and how fast can I get out?).

    Merlin continues his observation to support his claim:

    If you just give people an opportunity to dive bomb in and say one thing and go away it’s not a conversation, it’s scrawl. When you turn on comments, when you encourage community, when encourage any of that, you also take on a responsibility to manage a certain expectation. Anytime you turn on a community aspect it not only needs moderation of some kind, but you are obligated to listen, respond and then show how that input had an impact on what you do.

    His analogy to a public toilet got me thinking about what the contrasting metaphor could be for cultivating a more engaging platform. In meeting with KUSP, Terry Green suggested that what we are seeking is well aligned with a community garden. The Local Government Commission defines community gardens as “places where neighbors can gather to cultivate plants, vegetables and fruits. Such gardens can improve nutrition, physical activity, community engagement, safety, and economic vitality for a neighborhood and its residents.”


    Community Garden

    As we near the launch of our conversation platform for public radio stations we are working to establish best practices for creating an environment that cultivates a forum for civil discourse. Not every community has the same configuration but these are key areas that seem to distinguish the troll-laden public toilets from the more captivating community gardens.

    1. No anonymous users. Reveal the names and faces of the community – user accounts are required for everyone who wants to contribute comments and discussion threads. Even if an avatar and user name is used in place of real names, there are reputation systems in place to expose the behavior of the users.
    2. Create the culture. Model desired behavior. Don’t turn on comments if you aren’t going to participate. If you allow comments, expect to participate. Don’t turn on comments and never come back.
    3. Allow the community to self-moderate. Provide the ability to flag abusive comments and reward good comments.
    4. Reputation system. Highlight comments by showing them on user profiles and throughout the site.

    We are looking for more ideas and inspiration as we seek to create the community garden effect for Radio Engage. We invite comments, thoughts and places of inspiration as we craft our solution.

    Tagged: comments conversation public radio radio engage
    • Thank you Margaret for taking the time to share intelligently *:-) I’ll see you in the garden *:-)

    • I particularly like the statement that community requires not only moderation, but a commitment to demonstrating a willingness to listen, respond, and follow through.

      And I believe that providing an opportunity for responsibility for the community TO the community will result in greater vitality and value to the community as a whole. Ownership encourages additional investment.

    • This is a very thoughtful and concise framing of some important issues that rings true. It’s a difficult balancing act to maximize both openness and the sense of a safe community environment. I live near a city park and the urban gardener who has the most popular and visible (exposed) plot also has to do much more work than her more protected peers fixing the damage done by an inconsiderate few.

    • Dee Elling

      Great point about responding to comments. That’s what turns the blog/comment (newspaper-style, like “letters to the editor”) dynamic into a real conversation.

      The challenge is, some comments are difficult to process and respond to… that is hard sometimes.

    • Michael A. Lewis

      It’s interesting that this blog discussing guidelines for opening comments, does not follow them.

    • Hi Michael,
      What do you mean by that? How are we not allowing comments on this blog?
      Mark Glaser
      Editor, Idea Lab

    • @Lee — Thrilled to see you in the garden!

      @Robyn — The idea of ownership is a great one that I will add to the list. I am wondering how to best encourage ownership to community members? I know of some communities that promote active members to moderators.

      @Hunter — It is my hope that moderation can be spread to other members as well — so that the most popular areas are not burdened by only one person. Your story provides a great extension to the community garden analogy!

      @Dee — Too true! I think that was Merlin’s exact message. He exercises the ability to turn off comments when he knows he can’t respond.

      @Micheal — I’m here Micheal and Mark is as well; perhaps not as quick as you had hoped. But we ARE listening and learning.

    • The “no anonymous users” will eliminate the most oppressed sectors of the community because non-anonymity allows retribution against those expressing unpopular ideas. That is why the US supreme court (McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm’n (93-986), 514 U.S. 334 (1995) in their 7 votes for McIntyre, 2 vote(s) against said this in their decision ” It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation–and their ideas from suppression–at the hand of an intolerant society. The right to remain anonymous may be abused when it shields fraudulent conduct. But political speech by its nature will sometimes have unpalatable consequences, and, in general, our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech than to the dangers of its misuse. See Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630-31 (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting). Ohio has not shown that its interest in preventing the misuse of anonymous election related speech justifies a prohibition of all uses of that speech. The State may, and does, punish fraud directly. But it cannot seek to punish fraud indirectly by indiscriminately outlawing a category of speech, based on its content, with no necessary relationship to the danger sought to be prevented. One would be hard pressed to think of a better example of the pitfalls of Ohio’s blunderbuss approach than the facts of the case before us.

      The judgment of the Ohio Supreme Court is reversed.

      It is so ordered.

      Does your no anonymous speech policy not therefore disenfranchise the most oppressed members of the community and excluded from participation? Or is that the plan?

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