Why I’ve found that online communities on media sites always seem doomed to fail

I’ve spent a long time over the years working at media companies and specifically around the software and design that supports commenting and forums. Having watched the Guardian close the “You Tell Us” thread last week, I thought I might jot down some thoughts I have about the experience.

I want to say up front, I love the interactivity of the web. And I think it is a mistake that news companies currently seem to be out-sourcing a lot of the commenting on their articles out to Twitter and Facebook, rather than run it themselves. A lot of people think comments on news sites are toxic, but I’d argue that’s often because they are poorly run, and the company doesn’t really know why it has them. I certainly get annoyed at journalists who are sniffy towards “below the line” commenters, a snobbish attitude that I think belongs back when it was much harder for readers to question your pieces.

At the moment we don’t have comments on the Mirror site where I work, and I must confess it is a slight relief not to be immediately called a twat every time I press publish, but equally I find sites without comments don’t feel as alive. You know an article has had an impact when it has generated hundreds of comments.

But it is forums and communities that I wanted to focus on, with respect to “You Tell Us”. It strikes me as the latest in a long line of similar online communities I’ve been involved in, and I wanted to try and draw out a commonality that they all have. And it may not make welcome reading for those who have devoted such a long time to participating in them.

There are five communities over the years that I wanted to particularly look at – the BBC’s old Doctor Who message boards, the BBC Points Of View board, the BBC’s Archers messageboards, and the Guardian’s Talkboards and “You Tell Us” thread. They are all places that I’ve enjoyed dipping into and contributing too, sometimes as just a chit-chatty contributor, and sometimes in a more official capacity.

And this is what I think binds them together.

1. The behaviour of the regular users becomes self-limiting for the community as a whole

What I’ve seen again and again is that a hardcore knot of the community become hyperactive on the board, and this begins to inhibit new users from posting. A classic example, from the Points Of View boards, would be that someone would post saying they think Bruno was being a bit harsh on Strictly with his judging. A regular would immediately reply along the lines of “yes we’ve done this topic to death, there’s a thread from the last series here.” It’s not a welcome. It’s an intimidating conversation killer.

If you ever start saying that to the community, they immediately accuse you of lying, and say that no they welcome people with open arms. It doesn’t matter that you can see the metrics on new registrations and new posters. It doesn’t matter that you’ve done user-testing sessions where you’ve shown people the boards and they’ve told you that they’d quite like to post but they wouldn’t because it feels unfriendly. The community can’t see it.

2. The community believes they are representative of the primary audience

After a while communities like this become pretty fixed in their size, with a shared bunch of in-jokes and references. But a key thing seems to happen. They seem to begin to think and act like they are the key primary audience of the media company. Of course we are, they say, who uses your website more than us? We’re here every day, hanging out, and commenting on your programmes or discussing your articles.

It’s really hard to convey to them what an edge case they are – only a minority of users ever comment, and only a fraction of those will post more than a few comments during the lifetime of their active account. The activity of commenters and forum posters is a classic Zipf curve. I once calculated that “At least 20% of the comments left on the Guardian website each month come from only 2,600 user accounts” at a time when the audience of the website as a whole was in the order of 70 million.

3. The community consequently over-estimates their worth to the organisation

This again I have seen happen over and over. When the BBC closed the Archers messageboard, there was one contributor who was invited on the radio and insisted that corporations would kill to have the dedicated kind of user feedback on their product that the Archers messageboard was giving them about their programme. It isn’t true. If self-selecting forums were a key way of getting user insight, every corporation in the world would be falling over themselves to run messageboards.

Likewise, on the Guardian, at the time of #Nestgate [see here and here to understand what #Nestgate was] and again with the closure of “You Tell Us”, posters insist that it is going to cost the organisation revenue. With an audience now approaching 100 million online, there is literally no way that the incremental page views of a group of a couple of thousand people posting in the same threads every day is going to negatively affect the bottom line. Closing all comments might, but closing individual bits of community while making comments easier to get into for casual posters won’t.

And the business knows this, because it can see all the figures.

4. Change becomes a source of conflict with the organisation

I was Head of UX when there were several unpopular changes to the Guardian commenting system, and I was a Product Manager at the BBC when we migrated Points Of View from the howerd2 system to the DNA system. These were deeply difficult projects, not for the technical complexity, but for managing the messaging to the users. “You’ve destroyed this community”, “You don’t listen to us”, “You don’t know what you are doing” were the kind of comments I would get swamped with.

The community can’t see that they aren’t the only users of a system, or the only potential audience, or seem to remember that they’ve just spent two years telling you how shit the current system is before suddenly falling head-over-heels in love with it the second you announce it is going to change.

And in two years time it all happens again, as the same voices that swore blind they would never post again because of your changes are leading a charge against whatever tech changes come next.

That isn’t to say that development and design work was flawless. For example, I’m personally the idiot who signed off a design banner on the BBC website that was basically a big advert for Sky TV.


But, and this is important, commenting and forums are never as “mission critical” for the organisation as the community involved believe them to be. They are never a big ticket project.

And I’ll never forget that I once moved POV from being threaded to flat, and the Guardian once moved comments from being flat to threaded, and the arguments against the changes I saw were exactly the same each time – “this makes it harder to follow conversations.” It can’t possibly be objectively true.

5. The community lashes out at the people in the organisation who care most about it

Closing the Guardian Talkboards was without doubt the worst weekend of my career to date. At some point in the future, I’ll maybe write a long post about it. It wasn’t done in a way that anybody in the frontline at the Guardian would have chosen, and generated a lot of bad blood. I was pleased to note the other day that one of the “life rafts” that users scrambled to – Not The Talk – is still going.

But it also illustrated another point about dealing with this kind of community.

It is usually the staff who care most about that community that end up bearing the brunt of the abuse from it.

It’s hideously ironic. You can spend hours debating internally what you should or shouldn’t do with a user community and the software you provide for them. But at the end of the day in all these situations there’s usually only a couple of people at a media company who are prepared, or whose job it is, to front up with names and faces and enter the debate.

I’ve seen it over and over again, and usually been the chump prepared to front up and enter the discussion. It’s demoralising – as you watch a community you’ve enjoyed being a part of you turn on you and refuse to countenance any argument that their individual community isn’t entirely the same as “the big picture” for a community platform across a big media site.

I love internet communities so much

The thing is, it makes it a bittersweet experience working on internet communities. I love the interactivity of the web. I love the way it has opened up the media to more voices. And I love laughing and joking and wasting time online talking pish with a familiar bunch of users. Pre-Twitter, forums were my main tool of procrastination, as well as being something I felt should be taken seriously as a customer service channel by media organisations. But it feels like they are incompatible with being hosted by a major media site.

Anyway, that’s my tuppence. Have yours below…

You might also be interested in:
Closing Mustardland – the end of the Archers messageboard