Here's a New Year's resolution every news site should make: Throw the bums out! There is no reason to allow a small number of bullies to corrupt a community discussion forum. If your message boards, story comments, or blogspace has turned into the kind of place where decent people can't have a decent discussion, bring the hammer down ... on behalf of the rest of your users.
Yahoo News GM Neil Budde has shut down Yahoo's news message boards -- temporarily. In a note of explanation, he said:
"Yahoo! News is working on new ways for readers to comment on the news and participate in a discussion around it. While we work on our new community features, the message boards that were linked from individual news articles have been taken offline.
"As they were set up, the Yahoo! News message boards allowed a small number of vocal users to dominate the discussion. In addition, related discussions from similar news articles were not easily linked.
"Over the next few months, we plan to offer new discussion forums based on topics in the news and incorporating the latest features to foster a better discussion for all of our readers."
Now obviously there's no reason to have a gap of potentially several months between old and new systems ... except to perform a bit of social surgery. This is not a technical matter; it's a maneuver to drive out the scum so the new boards can have a fresh start. Presumably the new boards will have reputation management and filtering tools; Neil has been talking about that for a long time.
Because of its global scale, Yahoo's challenge is much, much more difficult than the interaction management issues faced by most local news sites. In a more intimate context, there's really no need to engineer complicated software tools to implement reputation management; peer pressure is, after all, a normal human process that works just fine in smaller settings. The more common problem I see on local news sites is simple abandonment of leadership responsibility on the part of the sponsoring news organization.
Set goals. Communicate those goals and ask for help. Follow through with both leadership and management.
An online community needs an explicit social contract. I'll repeat the "new covenant" draft that Loren Omoto, Frasier Van Asch, Dan Gillmor, Christine Montgomery and I drew up at a Poynter workshop almost two years ago:
We promise, with your help
To listen to what you have to say.
To help you have a voice.
To give you tools so you can control our relationship.
To be open about how we gather and produce the news.
To deliver news on any platform you want it.
To respect your time.
To be relentlessly useful.
To be relentlessly creative.
To be a good citizen and help you be a better one.
To facilitate your efforts to find relevant news and information. Even when we can't provide it, we'll help you find it.
To never abuse your personal information.
To help nurture community discussion.
To be a catalyst for social agendas.
To be constructively involved in shaping the public dialogue.
To revisit these promises and to keep evolving.
Love, [We, the media]
That's just a start. It needs a second component: A call to leadership on the part of community members. When we launched BlufftonToday.com, we took a cue from the Poynter manifesto and used these words:
"With your help, we will provide a friendly, safe, easy to use place on the Web ....
This is a place where you take the lead in telling your own story. .... In return, we ask that you meet this character challenge: be a good citizen and exhibit community leadership qualities. It's a simple and golden rule. Act as you would like your neighbors to act."
With your help.
If your message boards are rotten, shut them down and start over with a sense of purpose. You can't do it without the help of your community. And the community needs you to be a leader. Step up and do the job.