Bob Garfield's de haut en bas attack on web commenters upset two very skilled conversational catalysts, Ira Glass, and Derek Powazek. The false dichotomy of 'we choose who you get to hear' and 'total anarchic mob noise' was dismissed by Jack Lail too. At the same time, Ben Laurie explained how the IETF's open-to-all mailing lists can be hijacked by time-rich fools, talking about the Open Web Foundation.
At Supernova last month, listening to Clay Shirky talk about the problems of collective action reminded me of a small nit I have with his excellent book Here Comes Everybody (which you should all read). He talks about the deep changes that ridiculously easy group forming online has wrought, but he also explains that most of these groups fail, in various ways.
The key to this is finding people who play the role of conversational catalyst within a group, to welcome newcomers, rein in old hands and set the tone of the conversation so that it can become a community. Clay referred to Teresa Nielsen-Hayden, who is a great example of this, and I have had the privilege to discuss this with Teresa, Amy Muller,Christy Canida and others at the Troll Whispering session at Web2Open, and heard very similar stories from Gina Trapini, Annalee Newitz, Jessamyn West and Jeska Dzwigalski at The Users Are Revolting at SXSW.
The communities that fail, whether dying out from apathy or being overwhelmed by noise, are the ones that don't have someone there cherishing the conversation, setting the tone, creating a space to speak, and rapidly segregating those intent on damage. The big problem with have is that we don't have a English name for this role; they get called 'Moderators' (as Tom Coates thoroughly described) or 'Community Managers', and because when they're doing it right you see everyone's conversation, not their carefully crafted atmosphere, their role is often ignored.
In other languages there are words closer to this role - Suw and I thought of geisha a while back, whereas Teresa suggested the Yiddish Tummler - both Deb Schultz and Heather Gold liked that one. In French animateur has the broader connotations of discussion, leadership and guidance needed, but in English we are stuck with enervated latinate words like facilitator. Even an eloquent and charismatic presidential candidatehad a difficult time explaining what a 'Community Organizer' does, around the same time that Bartlett was resorting to card tricks.
Which brings me back to Clay's book - in it he gives an account of the #joiito chatroom that completely misses the rôle that JeannieCool played there, making her sound like a n00b. The software tool, jibot, that has helped keep that conversation going for 5 years, was built to support Jeannie's role as conversational catalyst. I do hope he gets a chance to correct this in the next edition.
The broader issue is one that we are still working on - building rules for who gets to speak where and when, re-imagining the historic model of a single hegemonic public record that print Journalism still aspires to, from its roots in the coffeeshops of London into the many parallel publics we see on the web, and how legal precedents designed for a monopoly of speech make no sense here.
In the meantime, if your newspaper, social media initiative or website isn't working right, you need to find your tummler, geisha, animateur or conversational catalyst, but you should consider giving them a big name title like 'Chief Conversation Officer'.