The colossal task of building an online community
It started off by allowing comments on the blogs – an attempt to get the readers involved. Then there were the sports stories, which always made readers want to pitch their excitement or disappointment at various matches and send in their messages to various athletes. Comments were eventually opened on our multimedia projects and shortly after, on our features and news stories. More recently, Dawn newspaper’s columnists were also allowed to look forward to receiving their share of comments as well. As 2012 finally comes to an end, Dawn.com is proud to claim that it has managed to establish an online community – something every news website aims to achieve.
The editorial staff at our end wanted readers to have a platform to be able to debate with each other as well as send in their praise and criticism at the quality of our content. The rules set were simple – do not cross the lines and we assure you we will post your comment. What lines? With time, that question kept getting trickier. It started off with the basic requirement of requesting our readers to respect each other’s opinions, religious affiliations and nationalities. Then the need came to ask readers not to use abusive language, avoid racism and personal attacks. If our audience could abide by these rules, we would give them all a voice. And that we did. But when everyone gets a voice, things can easily get complicated. And that is why a moderator or community editor’s job is not an easy task.
On the looks of it, moderators are not out reporting, neither do they have to write on strict deadline and nor do they have to struggle with heavy equipment to produce multimedia projects – they just have to read what you send in to us and hit approve, disapprove or edit. Sounds easy? It did to me until I got involved myself. After assisting Dawn.com moderators over the years, I can now safely say that people doing this job need to be very thick-skinned in order to often witness humanity at its worst.
Even the most positive stories can create the most inflammatory reaction. With readers anonymously sending in their comments from every part of the world, there is no way to track someone and give them a scolding for being so offensive. Nor do we want to discourage anyone from contributing – what we really want is to understand why are we so volatile, angry and impatient?
Lots can be said about that, but while trying to understand all this, one might ask why allow commenting in the first place? Well, as angry and disappointed as some comments can make a moderator or writer feel, they can also do wonders to uplift spirits and prove there is still hope for the human race and room for improvement.
Anonymous commenting can be quite powerful when it works. From old acquaintances reaching out to each other through comments (especially from across the border) to overseas Pakistanis uniting with each other to help a cause – we’ve seen it all happen on the platform we provide. Intelligent debates are often as much fun to read as an article itself. So are interesting quotes. A commentator who knows who he is when he reads this, has often provided an interesting combination of amusing and though-provoking quotes to various articles posted on our website.
Writers such as Nadeem F. Paracha and Murtaza Haider have attracted thousands of comments over the years, which have generated quite a diverse range of debates. Whether people love what these writers have to say or whether they detest their satire and analysis, we allow them to express it on our platform and that’s how a debate is initiated.
Readers are also taken down memory lane by blogs such as those written by Hassan Miraj and often send in their requests to him through their comments asking him to write about places of their birth or hometowns they left behind due to Partition or immigration. The gratitude sent in through these comments on the coverage of these places makes the writer and the editorial staff at Dawn.com feel assured that they are doing their job right.
To allow readers to engage further with professionals, over the years we have invited sportsmen such as Aisam-ul-Haq, Moin Khan and Salman Akbar to write for us and interact with their readers by answering their queries and acknowledging their suggestions. We aim to do a lot more than this and to avid readers of Dawn.com I am sure this is visible.
There are many perhaps who may not agree with the above said statements and instead still think we have a long way to go when it comes to building a community – we recognise that. However, the problem here is that what one person may consider a vigorous debate could be seen by another to be a taunt or an offensive view. How to manage such a situation is where the challenge lies for us. If a thread on a controversial subject is left unattended, there is more of a chance for things to get out of hand. But if a user’s comment is disapproved due to being inappropriate, we are blamed for stifling someone’s voice, or worse – suppressing the freedom of expression.
Bear with us while our team strives harder to accommodate all your views, and understand them – for only once we understand where all our readers are coming from can we encourage more debates and express more thoughts. Dawn.com users have also helped us often in providing additional information on news stories as well as be kind enough to help us rectify a mistake or error in our content and for that we have always been grateful. Thank you for providing your witty one-liners and paragraphs-long personal anecdotes and memories to us. We cherish your praise as much as your criticism. Here’s to hoping 2013 makes our community stronger, more respectful and further accommodating!
Shyema Sajjad is the Deputy Editor at Dawn.com