Coral by Vox Media Guides

Going to The Well: An Interview with John Coate

John Coate might just have been the world’s first online community manager. Hired by dial-up bulletin board The WELL in 1986, he also founded and managed, which declared itself the first news website to interact directly with readers. He now works with Edgeryders, a community based around knowledge, diversity, and change.

When he arrived unexpectedly in our own community, we felt compelled to ask to share some of what he’s learned in more than 30 years of online community management.

What is the one thing you want people to understand about online communities?
I want people to never forget that the [other] people are real, regardless of being connected electronically. This means that one should behave as if one is actually in the same room as the other people, employing all modes of courtesy one expects in person. It is very easy to get into conflict in online conversation, and difficult to resolve it. The more people who understand that going in, the better it goes.

There are benefits to being in an online conversation. You can edit your remarks before you send them, creating better clarity. And you don’t usually see the other person until your minds have made a connection first, but it will all fall apart if one [person] objectifies the others too much.

What are the most common mistakes that people still make in online communities?
Because you are not in the same room as the others, so cannot see body language and other signals that exist in person; because it is possible to be less than perfect with word precision, and finally because some people are just better at articulating their thoughts, it is important when reading others’ comments to oversupply understanding.

We humans seem to be calibrated to misunderstand each other, to not trust. We get defensive. We entrench. We reiterate ever more strongly the point we’re trying to make. Thus, online conversations easily fall into arguments that become impossible to work out.

That said, democracy is messy, and so is online conversation. To me, good community management means modeling good behavior so that participants trust that there is always a way forward.

What do you want to see more of in online communities?
“Online community” is now a label used for just about any kind of online gathering for any purpose. Many “communities” are really little more than crowd-sourced product support sites. It has become a feel-good term that to me tends cheapens the word.

A real community is built on relationships. When it works best, the relationships evolve to where there is a mix of personal and professional interactions in which each person has their own ratio of the two.

Communities thrive on new people coming into the group. That can’t happen unless a site is built around group conversations that allow the participants to efficiently interact over a range of subjects, using tools that remember one’s place in any given conversation; easily allow placement of visual and audio media (so you can show as well as tell); make it seamless to go from public to private or from asynchronous to real time conversation, and are easy to manage and host – all in an atmosphere of friendliness and acceptance.  Such sites are remarkably rare, considering that the medium is now decades old.

What have we lost over time in our online interactions?
I don’t think too much has been truly lost in the online world because the options available for connecting with other people are many and varied.

But there is one unfortunate trend where news and journalism organizations eliminate comments and direct public input attached to stories, articles, etc. But I don’t fault most organizations for doing it, if they aren’t willing to try something more likely to produce facts and observations that help improve a reader’s understanding of the story.  

Just leaving open a comment space with no editing, supervision, or serious interaction with the writer, makes the comments come off like a half-hearted nod to being modern and digital, but usually results in a clutter of ad hoc opinions that serve no purpose other than helping the commenter feel more self-satisfied. Journalists have no time for such things.  

But let’s be honest: most news stories contain inaccuracies. Interaction with the public can help if done right.

When I started back in 1994, I pitched it as a way for a news organization to evolve its relationship with the community it serves. The idea was to experiment with creative ways to use new digital tools to interact directly with the public. We tried a lot of various ways of interacting, but there were, and continue to be, many new things to try. I’d like to see more of that without worrying too much about quarterly ROI.

The good news about The Coral Project is that it is a real try at fixing this, and other similar problems.  

When it comes to big national stories, I’m not sure there is likely to be a lot of value from direct public contribution to a given story, but I think the more local a story gets, the better the odds that someone will bring something – and maybe its video from a dash cam – that illuminates an aspect of the story.

This process of public input takes place in huge numbers every day, but it seems like Facebook and other social media sites are where it lives, instead of [on] sites owned by news organizations. I think this is regrettable and a lost opportunity.

How would you make the case for a newsroom to invest in community engagement?
With careful planning, design and supervision, the news organization can recapture the social energy that should remain an integral part of the organization’s offering.  

What happens too often now is that social media contains links to the story and captures all the interaction. In this current era, where it is hard to tell what is true or real, and accusations of “fake news” come from the highest levels of government, news organizations must assert on every front their standing as a touchstone for the public, and any community within it, to get to the truth.

One thing I learned long ago in online communication is that the public (aka the users/readers) will go along with all kinds of projects and experiments if the presenting organization makers clear that it is trying something out and the user/reader is an integral part of the experiment.  

This is difficult to do within the culture of a big newspaper or TV station that has decades of only presenting finished products. But this fortress-like mentality has resulted in continual loss to others who work more freely with new media tools. I think that a news organization would find its reputation enhanced rather than diminished by leading rather than following in these ways.

What do you wish for with the future of online communities?
I wish for online communities to serve as unifiers in society that help us get away from the extreme and increasing polarization so prevalent today.  

It remains one of the few ways that people who don’t know each other can meet in a low-risk way, where their minds come into play before other attributes. This is why the word ‘community’ was applied to online communication to begin with – and remains the reason why it has any real meaning today.


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