Flames and fury, signifying nothing
Many news sites have been in a quandary when it comes to discussion boards. They like the idea of giving readers a voice, an opinion, a feeling of inclusion. But they don't always like the unadulterated, uncensored, off-topic rants that come with freedom of online speech. Rather than pay someone to filter the boards, many sites such as MSNBC.com have simply eliminated them. And that's a shame, because there are times when the chatter of ZDNet's TalkBack posts is more illuminating than the journalism.
Nicholas Thompson writes in the Boston Globe about the dunderheaded nature of online discussion of politics in general, and of "Gulf War II: Return to Saddam" in particular. Thompson finds that most of the posts on Yahoo's political boards on the subject of a possible war have an "unedifying, sophomoric tone." No surprise there, and Thompson thoughtfully elaborates on just why people act stupid on boards -- no face-to-face contact, the freedom to flame, the means to vent frustration.
The author gives props to sites such as Slate for moderating discussion, and for sites such as e.thePeople.com for a user-rated system similar to Slashdot's. Thompson finds hope in technology such as Unchat and Web Lab for their more organized boards, with the latter breaking down larger groups into more intimate gatherings. And that's where he really strikes gold when it comes to online discussions. People in anonymous, large-group gatherings (similar to AOL chat) invariably end up going off topic, try to pick up on any females, and try to offend the most people in the least subtle manner. But smaller, moderated discussions can work wonders -- if only there were a business model.
But according to The New York Times, there is one: Slashdot itself. The Times' John Schwartz profiles Slashdot and its method for making "a few bucks." Basically the site's founders made a lot on paper -- but only a tidy sum cashed out -- when they sold the site a few years ago. The new owner, Open Source Development Network Inc., tells the Times that none of its sites would be profitable alone, but they squeeze out profits as a network, with pooled resources and geeks who buy caffeine-saturated soap in the ThinkGeek online store.
But so far, Slashdot is the exception to the rule when it comes to online communities. Others remain bogged down with off-topic blather and unreadable posts -- and add in conspiracy theorists when you look at political discussions. The solution will always be good moderation software (or people), and a community that can police its own.
The film and recording industry don't like college students, especially the large number who have shared MP3 and video files containing copyrighted songs and movies. The Associated Press's Ian Stewart reports that industry advocates sent letters to 2,300 colleges, asking them to "educate" students against pirating via broadband lines on campus. The statistic they trot out is one from an unnamed university which discovered that 75 percent of its bandwidth was going to the exchange of files on peer-to-peer networks.
"Stealing is stealing is stealing, whether it's done with sleight of hand by sticking something in a pocket or it's done with the click of a mouse," the letter's authors cluck-clucked in the style of Dean Wormer of "Animal House." And while the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America have put their considerable resources into fighting the scourge of online pirating, one lone wolf thinks differently. It seems that Lions Gate studios is not singing with the choir.
Reuters' Bob Tourtellotte reports that the Canadian studio is actually promoting a new movie through Kazaa, a service that is currently under attack by music and movie companies. Though Lions Gate's VP of new media, Tom DeLuca, says he isn't working directly with Kazaa and is not trying to break the industry's anti-piracy coalition, the move could be seen as consorting with the enemy. In reality, DeLuca is just targeting the younger set for this new movie, and a place like Kazaa is where he would find them. Just ask any college student.
DeLuca told Reuters that Lions Gate and other studios could learn more about downloading movies and peer-to-peer networks by working with the networks instead of against them. If only the other studios took this educational tack to the new technology rather than the sic-the-lawyer-ask-questions-later offensive.
"The typical South African Internet addict is not a pimply, bespectacled teenage boy. Instead, it is a young white girl who uses the Internet to chat up strangers and trawl porn sites. A new study, involving more than 1,795 Internet users, has found that while males still mostly work in the information technology industry, young white women are more likely to become addicted to the Internet."
-- Penny Sukhraj, writing in the Sunday Times of Johannesburg, South Africa. First we had the Digital Divide; now we have the Porn Divide, an unexplained phenomenon of female girls "trawling" for porn in South Africa and largely ignoring it in the States. This study begs the question of just who they were surveying, and how they know these people were truthful.
Mark Glaser currently writes technology features for The New York Times, travel stories for the San Jose Mercury News, and a bi-weekly email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association, whose membership includes most major media companies online. That won't stop him from taking cheap potshots at these outlets, when necessary. You can contact him with any juicy tidbits about online journalism at [email protected].