How not to run an online community

For a while now, I’ve been watching the Guardian’s Comment Is Free site with increasing despondency. Almost from Day 1, it’s developed a toxic atmosphere simply because of the way that the technology is designed.

Last night I got an exasperated email from my friend Dougald (which had a subject line I won’t repeat before the watershed) about Georgina Henry’s announcement that you’ll only be allowed to comment on the site once every half an hour. You can have a look at the debate that follows the piece but there are two obvious things wrong with this:

First — it does nothing to get the users on-side and feeling good about the site, it just winds them up as it limits the most enthusiastic users and makes them feel frustrated.

Second — the people who already abuse the system will get round it. All you have to do is delete the cookie for the site after you’ve commented once and the site will let you comment again straight away (Remember: the net treats censorship as a fault and routes around).

It strikes me that the Comment Is Free team know they have a problem but are only willing to use sticking plasters as a solution. Instead they need to technologically start again. Comment Is Free needs threaded discussions and a reputation system for commenters. Add those two and it would soon sort itself out.

By the way, I reckon the best thing on there by a long way is Dan Chung’s photoblog because it appeals to a small group of people who respect his work (he is one of the world’s best photographers after all). Dan puts up more information about the shot than you get in the paper and answers technical questions. It’s a perfect example of using the web to do something that complements what the pros do in in the paper rather than setting up conflict between the pros and the ams.

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