In praise of message control

One of the challenges we face as an organization that wants to foster a sense of community among our members is that there are very legitimate reasons that absolutely open conversations can’t occur in our space.

It runs counter to the whole spirit of web 2.0 and social engagement, I realize, but hear me out.

As I’ve described before, my current employer is a professional association / bargaining agent hybrid. The latter part of that equation is what makes message control important. We represent our members in collective bargaining. This has a couple of different effects:

Effect the First: The ugly game that is negotiation

Hands up if you’ve ever bought a car. Okay, well, since I can’t see you I will assume that many of you have. Those who haven’t have probably bartered or negotiated over something, though. So you are all familiar with the art of negotiation. When you offer the friendly car salesman $20,000 for a car, you don’t really expect to take it home for $20,000. You just want to get him away from the $28,000 sticker price. He hems and haws and tells you that he can’t possibly go lower than $25,500; you pretend to walk away in disgust before coming back and telling him quietly that your wife will kill you but maybe you can go up to $23,000…

On and on it goes, until you both agree that $24,000 is probably fair and he’ll throw in the sport package floormats and the first oil change free.

Now, imagine you weren’t buying this car just for you. Say you were buying it for a whole group of people. (Hmm, this analogy is being stretched a bit). The reality is you did pretty well, you knocked $4,000 off and you’re getting those sexy rubberized floormats. But you had to hold those cards close to your chest; you had to pretend to walk away and imply your wife was going to kill you.

What if the salesman could log on to your group’s website, call up the forum thread on the car purchase initiative (like I said, we’re reaching for this analogy) and read your post from last week when you said you were willing to go up to $25,000 for the car if you had to.

The negotiation would have gone a lot differently, don’t you think?

Effect the Second: Et tu, lonelygirl15?

I’m digging this whole car-buying analogy so let’s stick with it. So now you’re negotiating with the car salesman but instead of him logging on to see your comments, he’s logging on and reading that a bunch of the members of your organization think you’re going after the wrong kind of car and that they have serious doubts that you’re the best person to lead the car purchase initiative in the first place.

Think that might undermine your bargaining position a bit?

Nevermind that 95 per cent of your members support your position, we’ve all seen that the moderates don’t bother commenting on websites. As far as the car salesman is concerned, you’re working without a net. You don’t have a bargaining leg to stand on.

So what is a poor boy to do?

And there, my friends, is the proverbial rub. How does an organization engage its membership in a meaningful way while still being mindful of the potential dangers of open and public engagement?

I’ve got a few ideas but I’m really hoping to get some comments from anyone who may have ideas of their own.

  1. Be upfront
    This is a given. If it comes down to heavy moderation, explain upfront what the moderation criteria are. Don’t wait to be asked or criticized because by then it’s too late. When someone says “Why was my comment blocked?” they are really saying “My comment was blocked, what a bunch of fascists!”
  2. Be reasonable
    Only posting positive comments, even within a clearly-defined moderation environment, smacks of insincerity. Even if 95 per cent of the membership supports a position, the other 5 per cent has a right to be heard. Find a way to include the dissenting viewpoint. It it works for the Supreme Court…
  3. Be proactive
    Respond to the negative comments, even if they don’t make it past the moderation filter. The benefit of brining the conversation inside your borders is that you can refute misconceptions and ensure legitimate concerns are framed in the proper context. Don’t ignore the malcontents, engage them and do it on your terms.

Any others?

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