Friday, July 25, 2008

Virtual Community or Private Club?

I've blogged before about the efforts of my hometown newspaper, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, to promote citizen journalism on its Web site. (See archived blog entry from March 14, 2008.) In my judgment, the editors* are sincere in their efforts to use the Web site to build a virtual community that supports and enhances the "real world" community.
(*Disclosure note: the top editors of this paper and leaders of this effort are friends and former colleagues, as I worked at this paper for more than 20 years full and part time.)

But I noticed something recently regarding audience reaction that makes me wonder whether the development of an online community supportive of the geographic one is really happening with regard to one of the tools the paper hopes will accomplish this -- the threaded message board forums.

Since the D&C relaunched the site, I've been regularly reading and occasionally participating in the forums. One thing that stood out was the large number of "regulars" among the participants. So one night recently I did a quick study of the frequent posters and their contributions, and came to some surprising conclusions. The forum area, a Gannett template using software called Pluck, conveniently reports total number of threads and posts in each forum area, and also reports stats with each user's avatar about their most recent post and total number of posts. That provided the data needed.

On the evening I did the analysis (July 17, 2008), the total number of postings since the March re-launch was slightly more than 10,000 (10,356 to be precise) in 42 forums. The individual forum totals ranged from around 4,100 posts in the "Open Forum" (where threads of any topic may be started) to zero posts in some of them. The forums devoted to individual communities are notably under-used; among the 14 devoted to Monroe County towns most have only a handful of threads and at most a few dozen posts, sometimes months old. Two forums dedicated to neighboring rural counties have total postings in the single digits.

But what was really interesting was the user analysis. By going through the most popular threads and looking at the most-frequent posters, I compiled a list of what I believe to be the "top 20" users based on total number of postings. (Disclosure note no. 2: that's not based on an exhaustive review, but I believe it to be reliable. In other words, in my quick review of the forums I may have missed one or two individuals who belong in the "top 20." But if I did that wouldn't change the numbers; if anything, it would make the results MORE top-heavy.)

Among these frequent posters, the top three accounted for nearly a QUARTER of the total postings. Together just three pepole tallied 2,481 postings out of the 10,356, or 24 percent. Notably, these three know each other and a great many of their posts are basically conversations among themselves. Two are friends -- a couple, actually -- and the third is an antagonist whose postings frequently are insults directed toward those two or rebuttals of insults they have made against him.

Working down the list, the "top 10" posters (including these three and seven others) accounted for about 40 percent of the posts -- 4,228 out of 10,356. Just 20 frequent posters accounted for more than HALF the total -- 5,337 out of 10,356, or 53.5 percent. I was, frankly, surprised that it was that heavily skewed.

The goal of setting up forums is to provide a community "conversational commons." And 10,000 entries since early March averages out to more than 500 a week, nearly 80 a day. Taken at face-value, those numbers seem to be reasonable indicators of good community conversations developing. And some of the forums are explicitly linked to off-line communities of interest, including area oenophiles and young professionals, and many conversations there are specifically tied in to offline community activities such as meetings and events. These are very explicit efforts to support the offline community with the communication tools of the online community, and something the paper is very committed to encouraging.

Also, the forums are not the only place citizens can partiicpate on the D&C's site. The paper has a number of designated community bloggers whose blogs appear on the same page with several staff blog. Any registered user also can maintain a blog, and most-recent entries are featured on the same page as those staff and community bloggers. An editors' blog allows readers to register questions and concerns about coverage and many stories have online chats associated with them where readers can comment separately from the general forums area.

But as this drilling-down into the numbers indicates, among the general forums only a tiny fraction of the user community is actually accounting for a large proportion of the activity, creating the potential for conversations to get lost in the "noise" generated by a huge number of postings by the regulars. The situation could be analogous to people who want to get into a conversation at a party but can't because it's dominated by a few fast-talkers who never let others get a word in edgewise. In the D&C's case, it probably doesn't help that the "top three" have a reputation for being aggressive and often insulting in their comments, primarily to other regulars but sometimes to newcomers as well. (One of the top three has boasted in forum postings that he does this intentionally as a conversational tactic, to see if newcomers will stand up for themselves or "run," i.e. quit posting.)

There's no real answer to this conundrum. If a forum is open to the community, then it must be open; it makes no sense to put limits on how frequently or how many postings an individual may make. And it's not as if there is any sort of upper limit on the number of entries in a thread, so postings by the heaviest participants don't prevent others from joining in -- except in the sense that people wishing to join the conversation might not because the thread looks like a small-group activity not welcoming to outsiders. (The party analogy again.)

I'm curious what others make of this. When we talk about "news as a conversation" does this qualify? Is it a useful exercise for the community just to have the facilities for a conversational commons available, even if they are dominated by a relative handful of users? Is it a useful exercise for the news organization that sponsors it? Does anyone know of any research into this phenomenon that is more systematic than my back-of-the-envelope quantitative case study? Comments would be welcomed and appreciated!


Doug Fisher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doug Fisher said...

It's a typical Zipf curve, very common all over the Internet (and actually pretty common in most organizations). We see it in Hartsville Today. About the best you can hope for is to make the curve a little shallower.

You will find more systematic research on this in our first-year report on HVTD at:

I will have a follow-up study at this year's NNA/Huck Boyd symposium in September which will be the first longitudinal study of posting trends. The Zipf curve is still there, though somewhat modified.

Jack Rosenberry, CCJIG Chair said...

Thanks, Doug. I'll check out that research. I have heard of the Zipf curve and its application to the Internet, so it's not surprising to learn it has been applied it to this phenomenon. I appreciate your pointing out where.