There has been a lot of discussion this past week about what a community website should be and how it should react to news events affecting the community and it’s members. If you read any online story, the comments that follow it are often rude, vulgar, degrading, offensive, and immature. I am not sure what it is about the Internet that makes people lose all sense of decorum and how to behave. I have been involved in the local online community website environment for a few years and I have said and done things that I wished I hadn’t done. But it never reached the level that we see now when you read any of the reader comment after news stories.
I think a community website should be different than a news site. We don’t really report the news. We comment on it and talk about how it affects us or the community. It takes you out of your comfort zone and you hear other opinions. You may not change your mind but it does give you another side of the story to look at. Most people don’t engage in debates or discussions with friends and family about serious issues if they know that there are differences of opinions which can lead to arguments and ill feelings. That’s where a community website comes in and gives people the opportunity to vent, and talk about the issues they feel are important without having to worry about it affecting friendships or family relations.
In the Elk Grove area, there are many local and various blogs. A community website can have a big impact on a community. In our area we have seen it have an affect on local elections. In city council races it can be an effective tool to help get the word out and raise grass roots support for a candidate. We saw that in the 2006 elections here where Pat Hume and Gary Davis defeated incumbents to win a seat on the city council.
As with any online website where anonymous people are involved, it can be a balancing act with trying to allow freedom of speech, but at the same time moderate what is being said so it’s not offensive to other members. Who decides what is offensive? That’s the struggle that community sites go through. Some sites use members and scoring to help moderate. I was a member of a website that did that and it was not very effective because it was easy to circumvent the system and abuse it. No one knew what the rules were. The site administrator kept that part of it secret. Groups of people could get together and limit what other people could say if for no other reason than they didn’t like the person or what they were saying. It was easy to abuse and I was on both sides of that. It became a juvenile game and reminded some of us of being in middle school again with cliques of people. The community moderation didn’t work and failed miserably. A lot of it was based on politics. What was the criteria? How many scores did you need? No one knew except the man behind the curtain. In addition to all that there was simply a lot of negativity. Lots of complaining about businesses and bashing them. For some reason when people go to a restaurant and don’t have a great meal they want to go online some place and complain. Not to the business, but to the public in an attempt to hurt the business. I don’t believe in that.
As my friends and family can attest, I have always been a very outspoken person. On the site I was a member of, that didn’t sit well with some of the members. After awhile it became part of the game trying to get under their skin. I was pretty good at it too. But it got old because discussions would always go back to the topic of censorship, either by the community or the site administrator. There was no rhyme or reason for much of it. Eventually a group of us were removed from the website. We were challenged to put up or shut up or do it our own way. So that’s what we did. We started our own community website. People thought, wow this is a group of outspoken people, it’s going to get ugly without some type of community moderation to keep things in check. They could not have been more wrong. We have our differences and things get heated, but in most all cases things blow over. We don’t have to worry about community members using scoring to keep people in check. It is basically self moderated. I have to step in from time to time to edit things, but it is very rare. We are pretty lenient. Our motto is “speak freely in open civil debate.” There is no 100% free speech. I do reserve the right to moderate what is said and if something is offensive it will be removed. Our little online Elk Grove website has carved out a nice niche. We have a lot of really intelligent members, and it can be intimidating for some people.
Another thing is we are becoming a community. This past week all that was tested when a member of the community was faced with some difficult times. Our site made a decision to stand by a friend and family member. The other site for whatever reason chose not to and instead allowed people to turn it into a circus and allowed some very rude and unfortunate things to be said. We are not a news organization, we are community website, and we believe in standing by friends in time of need, not throwing them under the bus. We’ll leave that to the websites that allow ridiculous comments. If that’s what they want, they can have it. I’ll take our group any day. It takes strong leadership to do the right thing. Sometimes it’s hard, but in the end, you do it because it’s right. That’s what makes Elk Grove Laguna Forums a different community website.