Webzines and Their Bulletin Boards

(Note: This article originally appeared online at The Electronic Newsstand, in slightly different form. But it's not archived there, so it's archived here instead.)

When Feed launched in the spring of 1995, it promoted the interaction it promised to facilitate between itself and its readers as one of its primary distinguishing features; Salon followed suit by incorporating the concept of such discourse into its name. By the summer of 1996, reader bulletin boards had become so integral to the general concept of the webzine that Slate was roundly castigated for not having one in operation at the time of its launch.

The notion that underlies such thinking is obvious enough: the sense of loyalty and involvement a publication can generate by cultivating an ongoing conversation between itself and its readers is one of its most important assets. Print publications have tried to initiate such conversations almost from their inception; as early as 1624, English newspapers were including readers' voices in their pages in the form of letters to the editor. A few hundred years later, editor Edward Bok further expanded the channels of communication between The Ladies' Home Journal and its audience by pioneering the modern advice column. More recently, Hugh Hefner created his chain of Playboy Clubs - actual physical spaces where Playboy readers and representives of the magazine, aka Bunnies, could "communicate" with each other. The online world, in turn, promised to dramatically increase the potential for such interactions - any publisher who wanted to could easily create his or her own virtual space in which to engage readers. For general-interest publications that were more inclined to offer their readers ideas rather than product placement, this opportunity was especially promising. With a bulletin board in their bag of tricks, these publications could potentially capture a portion of the audience that now finds talk radio so compelling.

But despite all the expectations this new kind of interaction engendered, no one really knew how it would play out. Online bulletin boards had existed for years, but the task of effectively integrating them with a magazine raised many questions: how closely, for example, should bulletin boards be tied to a magazine's primary content? How much control should editors exert over them? How might editors grant readers real equity in their magazines, rather than simply increasing their ability to respond to articles? Should they even consider going down that path?

Today, many of these questions remain largely unresolved. Still, the editors experimenting with bulletin boards are generally satisfied with their experiences so far. According to Feed Senior Editor Sam Lipsyte, Feed's bulletin board has definitely helped build a sense of community at the site. "The Feedbag isn't just about 'I loved this article' or 'I hated it' or 'I agreed/ disagreed, here's why,'" he says. "Sometimes in its most interesting moments it just gives rise to fascinating riffs on the topic at hand, ushering in new elements that hadn't been considered before. This can also backfire, of course, with pointless rants, but that's preferable to no one saying anything at all."

Read a few too many pointless rants from the malcontent providers who invariably show up on bulletin boards, however, and you might tend to disagree. Feed, Salon, and Slate all make attempts to keep conversations on track, but such moderating is mostly done on a part-time basis. Jack Shafer, Slate's Deputy Editor, believes it will ultimately take a more concerted effort to maximize the true potential of threaded discussion. "If you go back to the early days of talkshows on the radio, it was sort of a community forum and there wasn't much structure. People would call up and talk about whatever they wanted to," he says. "But in the talkshow format now, you see really high-information content, with people calling up and expressing their views on narrow subjects guided by a moderator."

In other words, Shafer suggests, bulletin boards need editors too. This viewpoint is complicated by the fact that many of the people who participate on bulletin boards vehemently disagree with it - what's the point of giving someone the opportunity to speak their mind, they might ask, if you're not committed to letting them express exactly what it is they want to say? It's a question that points to an inevitable consequence of interactivity. Give readers a column inch, and they'll start acting like writers - petty, defensive, obstinate, and demanding. And before you know it, that bulletin board you created to help cultivate a sense of community and reader involvement can end up becoming an instrument of mutiny.

Salon has had to address this situation for some time now. When it created its reader posting area, TableTalk, it gave users substantial freedom and a pretty good interface; the result was a bulletin board that had enough standalone virtues to attract users who had little interest, and sometimes outright contempt, for the editorial portion of Salon. These users began to feel a sense of ownership of TableTalk that had at least some claim to legitimacy: they were amongst the board's most frequent and passionate posters, and for better or worse, traditionally there is the sense that a board ultimately belongs to those who use it most, regardless of who might actually own it. Eventually, Salon had to face the consequences of this dysfunctional relationship marketing: every time it tried to exercise its authority in TableTalk, it met with bitter resistance from a group of dedicated posters who resented Salon's intrusions on "their" bulletin board.

"When we started TableTalk we had no posted rules of any kind," explains Scott Rosenberg, Senior Editor at Salon. "We didn't want to go with some sort of specific code, because the moment you put up a specific code, people try to break it. Instead, we went with the notion of modeling behavior, and it worked pretty well." According to Rosenberg, however, one group of TableTalkers eventually began to pursue other posters from discussion to discussion in an attempt to drive them out of TableTalk. At that point, Salon posted a set of community standards that essentially said that the board would not tolerate persistent personal attacks. "The moment we posted that, things got hot in there," recalls Rosenberg.

And when a member of Salon's staff (who is no longer with the publication) deleted a series of postings that he felt were objectionable, things got even hotter. "Some members got mad at this - they thought that there was this sort of arbitrary deletion going on, and they were partially right," Rosenberg explains. "We came in and cleaned up and apologized, and said that it wouldn't happen again, and then tried to move beyond it. But at that point, battlelines had been drawn."

The potential for situations like this, which can drain resources from publications that don't have many resources to begin with, has no doubt contributed to the conservative approach that many webzines have taken to reader interaction. For the most part, Feed, Salon, and Slate still model themselves on traditional print magazines: if you took away their bulletin boards, it would have little impact on their editorial. Sure, the promise of public, hard-to-suppress refutation that bulletin boards make possible certainly increases writers' anxiety, and perhaps even their fact-checking efforts. In addition, both Feed and Slate prominently feature bulletin board-style dialogues in their editorial sections, and Salon is planning to conduct at least one upcoming author interview within TableTalk rather than within the editorial section of the site.

But given the fervent tenor of much the initial conjecture surrounding how webzines might evolve, these particular developments seem slight. Indeed, when Michael Kinsley made his case for the primacy of editors and writers via his much-publicized restaurant analogy, more than a few web faithful responded as if he'd committed an unforgivable act of heresy. A year and a half later, however, Kinsley's penchant for food prepared by the chef instead of a fellow diner seems more widespread than ever. There's nothing wrong with this, of course. The notion that pervasive, power-to-the-reader interaction is a de facto requirement of web-based publishing has always seemed like a kind of bait-and-switch tactic; many magazines may simply wish to take advantage of the web's revolutionary economies of production and distribution.

On the other hand, it would be interesting to see a webzine take a more radical approach to the possibilities of reader interaction than to simply make it easier to respond to writers, editors, and other readers. For example, how about giving readers a more involved role in helping to determine a magazine's content? Certainly, the world is in grave enough danger of death-by-focus-group as it is - and yet with public opinion of journalism so low these days, why not spread the blame around a bit by making readers more accountable for what they read?

On a less ambitious note, webzines might simply require their writers to participate in bulletin board discussions on a less superficial basis, or at least make it more attractive for them to do so. And this doesn't necessarily mean paying them. One innovative way to achieve greater writer interest in bulletin boards, for example, might involve a Star Search style contest, wherein two writers pit their columns on a given subject against each other, readers vote for the one they like best, and the victor is awarded the opportunity to defend his or her title against the next contender, and consequently, another paycheck. Such competition would undoubtedly have writers trolling the bulletin boards with unprecedented dedication in an attempt to curry favor amongst readers.

-- G. Beato

current   |  archives   |  about   |   |  elsewhere