We see major media outlets in significant financial troubles these days. And in political discussions all over the Web, you’ll hear talk of new paradigms, or political bias, or lack of journalistic integrity, or a host of other reasons given for those troubles. Regardless of the cause(s), it seems to have become pretty clear that news sources of the past have not yet reconciled themselves to the way information flows across the Web.
One of the clear (though far from the largest) Illustrations to me is the guided search site About.com. This site operates with a staff of designated topic experts, called Guides. The Guide is responsible for content topical to the subject to which they’ve been designated. They regularly update their sites, and run blogs, and basically any other on-topic content that About.com decides is consistent with their editorial philosophy.
Where we start to see cracks in the About.com operation, however, is in user interaction. As a site that has managed to get itself listed as a search engine, users will find very few opportunities to contribute input to the site, unless the Guides themselves take on that initiative themselves. In fact, About.com actively states that the Guides are the final arbiters of user interaction on their assigned sites and user forums.
Because About.com maintains such a hands-off approach to the activities of its Guides, the site is infested with inconsistency. For example, the site includes user forums, and a page of Forum Guidelines, which include prohibitions against personal attacks and spam/commercial posts. And yet, despite this posted set of rules, AND even though it includes in the registration process a step where users must agree to these rules, not everyone running the forums enforces those rules. One of the most egregious examples is the US Liberal Politics user forum. In that forum, user after user has pointed out repeated copyright violations, personal insults and attacks, and instead of the Guide there enforcing the published rules, one can look at thread after thread, just like this one, where the regulars who agree with her political persuasion have free reign to bypass the swear, to personally attack and insult others, and to display every vestige of hostility and hate. Take this challenge: Sign up for a username with About.com, you’ll see an option to Register at the top of the thread page linked above. Report the activities you see on that thread. Within 24 hours, you will find yourself unable to access the forum, instead being redirected to the About.com generic homepage.
Now, go one step further: try reporting that, to About’s support team. You’ll find they are nothing of the sort, because if you get any response AT ALL, it will defer to the Guide. And Deborah White, the US Liberal Politics Guide, does not respond to questions. Ever. Despite a Forum Guidelines page that explicitly states:
Flames or rude / insensitive remarks will be removed.
She has NEVER removed an offensive or insulting remark. Not once, and I’ve been a member of that site since 1999. Nor has she ever made the least effort to explain her (lack of) actions.
This unwillingness on the part of About.com to hold its staff accountable for the unethical treatment of customers that even violates its own published policies is a clear illustration of the disconnect between the mainstream media (About.com is owned by the NY Times, and there is every reason to believe this disrespect for readers comes from that parent) and the readership it loses with every passing day. In fact, one can browse the entire News and Issues “channel” at About.com, and you will find a wasteland of unused and inactive forums. Primarily, in my opinion, because About.com refuses to acknowledge that the Web is not, and has not been for years now, a one-way channel. About.com is not the least bit interested in hearing from its members. It has posted a few weak efforts to get a user group for feedback, but it continues to ignore unethical and negligent behavior such as the above. One former Guide, Kathy Gill, even went so far as to reveal that forum activity isn’t even a measure of a Guide’s performance.
So why bother to be a search site, About.com? You’re not interested in the user experience, you refuse to address user complaints, and you permit unethical treatment of users by Guides, even when it violates your own published rules?
It’s no wonder that the news media are failing. They’ve failed to see the Internet for what it is, even among efforts they’ve taken on that supposed to be central to interaction *with* the Internet.