Last week the LA Times started an experiment with letting users edit editorials wiki-style. To apparant surprise of the LA Times editors some of the visitors started misbehaving. As a consequence the LA Times pulled their wiki of the web again, mere days after they started the experiment.

Others have commented on how the LA Times should not have been surprised: a lot of netizens are a pain, and have made trolling their mission. Dan Gillmor called it a sad victory for the trolls. Bryan Alexander at Smartmobs suggests this might be an example of the tragedy of the commons. I think there might be something completely different at stake here. Maybe the LA Times did not think long enough about how to embed this experiment in their usual web presence and community of readers.

In my experience wikis work best if two aspects are taken care of. Focus, and most importantly community. The free playing field a wiki offers is a great boon if those who use that playing field feel connected to eachother. Then social self-control and responsibility taking will kick in.
The openness of wiki is partly a myth. In the wiki spaces I have seen flourish and flounder over the last few years this always has played a role. Without focus or community wikis fail.

Jimmy Wales had much the same message at Reboot the other day, stating that saying that anyone can edit Wikipedia is really more PR than actual fact. It is a tight community of contributors that keep Wikipedia alive and kicking. Their mores amongst eachother define the degrees of freedom anyone has within the wiki space, and what behaviour will be tolerated. It takes an actual community to be able to use a commons, when that breaks down or is absent the tragedy occurs.

My own local news paper has offered a commenting function on all their articles for quite some time now. To get to the articles, however, one has to register as a reader first. After that registration you are free to leave your comments unmoderated. This creates just the right barrier to keep the trolls out. (Whether it is wise for a newspaper to put all their content behind a barrier is a different discussion however).
By installing that barrier, the local news paper has limited the access to their space to the actual readership of their on-line news. Thus it turns their readership into a group that is more defined than a bunch of strangers. What has the LA Times done to ensure that the people accessing the wikitorials actually felt they were a guest, instead of an anonymous stranger that just as easily could trash the place?

Another point raised has more merit I think, and that is the question whether wiki-style editing was the right format to begin with. Editorials are about opinions, and wiki is more suited towards collaboration, than towards the exchange of opinions (disregarding forking that is, which also happened in the LA Times experiment, and a useful habit in Wikipedia). In this case I don’t know. How does that work at the South Korean Oh my news, which is in large part a product of citizen journalists? What do their op-eds and editorials look like? How do they come about?

All in all I it is sad that this experiment turned out the way it did. At the LA Times some people undoubtedly stuck out their necks for this. And undoubtably the cynics already told them that this would happen, and they will regard this outcome as proof in point. I have a feeling that if the experiment had been prepared differently it would have worked out better. A shame really.

[UPDATE] Jeff Jarvis follows much the same reasoning as I do. He also adds that news media are too much in love with themselves to really bring out the potential of this experiment, as they won’t let the people decide what is a hot topic. I recognize that from the media in the Netherlands. I come across stuff on the tv-news and in news papers that I have already seen or heard a week before. A journalist friend of mine last Friday told me that most news media think it is only news if they have carried it themselves, regardless of how many other sources already brought that story. Also increasingly press coverage seems to be about the press coverage something gets. Metablogging but then different 🙂

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