Citizens actually read the mission statements posted on citizen media sites, maybe because whatever your site is - a citizen enterprise, a professional site, a citizen-professional hybrid - it requires explaining. Site operators interviewed for this report frequently volunteered that they rarely had to intervene to tamp down bad behavior. Many credited contributors for heeding the goals articulated in their terms of service (no threats, no personal attacks, no publishing copyrighted material, etc.), and in the “About” statements that characterize sites as places for citizens to disseminate news and chat constructively.
Steve Yelvington helped craft a mission statement for Bluffton Today using the language developed by a working group at a Poynter Institute Web+10 conference. The language defines what he called “a new social contract between old media and citizens around the concept of participation.”
The site statement reads, in part: “With your help, we will provide a friendly, safe, easy to use place on the Web for everyone in Bluffton to post news items, create a unified community calendar, and share photos, recipes, opinions ... In return, we ask that you meet this character challenge: be a good citizen and exhibit community leadership qualities.”
Yelvington said, “Much to our positive surprise, people read [the statement] “and took it seriously. They bought into the social contract.”
When the contract is violated he tries to defuse the offender with a light touch. Yelvington recounted how an incident at a girls’ lacrosse championship game migrated into a flame war on the site, with the high school girls posting under fake names. He quickly unpublished the attacks, suspended the accounts of two combatants and told them they had to call a site administrator named Ryan to re-activate. He also sent a note to “the rest of you,” saying, “This is a small town, and it may look anonymous. But if you think people can’t figure out who you are, you’re wrong. Don’t make Ryan have to call your Dad.” In the aftermath, he said, “A couple of the girls became real leaders on the web site with their real names.”
Site operators report inevitable tensions between maintaining civility and upholding the freedom and openness of expression that web dwellers demand. Mark Dilley is a member of a collective that decides policy for Arbor Update, a volunteer-run Ann Arbor, Michigan, news site that declares in its mission statement, “The true value of the site is not in the posts themselves but in the discussion.”
Dilley said the site lost half its traffic while organizers debated how to handle an inflammatory and frequent poster, given the site’s commitment to open discussion. The group compromised by creating a 90-day probationary period for new posters.
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