Broken windows and a call for help

The always excellent Jason Kottke has a post up that got me thinking about the “broken windows” theory and how it applies to online communities. The theory — articulated in this piece from The Atlantic in 1982 — states that crime and bad behaviour of various kinds tends to proliferate where there are obvious signs of neglect, such as broken windows. In other words, if people perceive that no one cares or is looking after a place, the odds of vandalism increase, and The Economist has some hard evidence to back up the theory. The obvious corollary is to online communities or group discussions, Kottke argues (and I agree). As he puts it:

“When forums, message boards, and blog comment threads with more than a handful of participants are unmoderated, bad behavior follows. The appearance of one troll encourages others. Undeleted hateful or ad hominem comments are an indication that that sort of thing is allowable behavior and encourages more of the same.

Those commenters who are normally respectable participants are emboldened by the uptick in bad behavior and misbehave themselves. More likely, they’re discouraged from helping with the community moderation process of keeping their peers in line with social pressure. Or they stop visiting the site altogether.”

This, in a nutshell, is the kind of thing I think we are dealing with a lot in the comments on news stories at the Globe and Mail (the newspaper where I have taken on a newly-created position as communities editor, for those of you just joining us). We were one of the first newspapers in North America to launch comments, but they currently suffer from too little moderation — in part because we simply can’t moderate the 5,000 or so we get every day (we got almost 10,000 on Monday), and not all readers are motivated to click the “flag this comment” link we include nearby. I wrote about our challenges with comments in a recent post that ran at the Globe website.

We are working on adding Digg-style comment voting, and some other features that I hope will help solve this problem, as well as ways of identifying and elevating the intelligent and thoughtful commenters in our community and giving them more profile, or deputizing them in a way — a way of helping to fix the windows, in other words (in addition to removing flagged comments quickly), and of taking responsibility for the conversation. That’s part of what I tried to do with a recent post, in which I read the 2,000 or so comments we got on two news stories about the political meltdown in Ottawa and tried to pull some of the representative comments out.

I can’t do this all by myself, obviously — which is where you come in. If you read anything on the Globe and Mail website that you honestly believe shouldn’t be there, I’d like you to let me know either by flagging it for me on Twitter (I am @mathewi) or by emailing me at mathew (at) If you think we’ve made a mistake, or there’s something else wrong with what we’ve written, please do likewise. And if you see someone say something about the Globe or one of our stories (or one of our reporters) on Facebook, or a blog, or Twitter, or anywhere else, I’d like you to let me know so I can respond. It doesn’t have to be bad — it’s nice to get positive comments sometimes as well 🙂

(Note: the video embedded here is of an interview with long-time online community expert Randy Farmer, which I got from a link at Kottke’s blog)

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