When a highly-charged political issue like this comes to pass, I always think about my friends and peers who work community in the media, and the challenges they must be facing. If you want to talk about Brexit’s impact on comments, community and moderation, there is perhaps no one better to speak with than Mary Hamilton, executive editor for audience at The Guardian. She joins me to discuss the preparation and the impact, plus:
- What Mary learned from building local audience teams in Australia and the U.S.
- The ROI of on-site community for The Guardian
- Are online comments of historical significance?
“We have a strategy which is building towards membership. We know that some of our commenters are our most engaged audiences, they’re the people who are most likely to want to contribute to our journalism in a meaningful way, and we see enormous value in those direct relationships with that audience, and outsourcing that to other organizations doesn’t make strategic sense to us.” -@newsmary
“[If what] you mostly care about is that people are reading you, not necessarily the platform on which that’s happening, and you’re not bidding for a membership or even a subscription approach, then in that case, I can completely understand why you’d use the Facebook Comments plugin, because at that point you’re boosting the reach of your work off-platform, at the same time as maintaining that form of engagement.” -@newsmary
“[An] important thing about community that a lot of news organizations miss or don’t see value in, is what happens when you listen. The point of commenting isn’t just to let people make a comment. The interesting things happen with commenting, and with on-platform community engagement of all kinds, when you actually listen to what people are saying and then feed it back into your news generation processes.” -@newsmary
“What your readers can help you with in terms of the journalism is just astonishing. Genuinely incredible. And there are news organizations who don’t do that sort of work, who don’t prioritize that sort of work, and for them the value exchange and the value discussion is going to be different, I think. … It’s hard to justify it as community work, if you’re not actually engaging with the community that you’ve found.” -@newsmary
“I’m a huge believer in the power and the importance of careful moderation for ensuring that everybody gets to speak and also ensuring that people don’t end up just yelling at each other, with no purpose and no reason. … Because we know that people will speak on our comment threads who wouldn’t feel comfortable or confident speaking elsewhere. And when those people’s voices are heard, and those people are able to articulate themselves, sometimes change happens.” -@newsmary
“The Guardian has a massive, massive dataset of comments. We’ve kept every comment made on The Guardian since we opened comments, I think nearly 20 years ago now. That dataset provides an enormously, potentially valuable resource, not just for historians of the future, but also present-day sociologists, present-day people who are looking into the way that communities develop and react. I don’t think The Guardian or indeed, any other news organization alone, has the scope to be the avatar of, ‘This is how people reacted.’ But I do think this stuff is valuable, and is worth documenting historically.” -@newsmary
“[When dealing with an emotionally-charged news event in your community:] Prepare for the unexpected. Don’t build yourself an incredibly rigid plan and then try to stick to it, because what happens on the day will basically destroy whatever plan you had. Plan to be as flexible as you can be, so that you can react to what’s happening, rather than what you think will happen.” -@newsmary
About Mary Hamilton
Mary Hamilton is The Guardian’s executive editor for audience and has been working in community building and management – along with social media, SEO, growth hacking and analytics – for the last four years. Mary helped launch The Guardian’s Australian edition before moving to New York to build an audience team there, then coming back to London to head up global audience strategy.
- Community Signal episode with Talia Stroud
- The Guardian, where Mary is executive editor for audience
- The Guardian’s Australian edition, which Mary helped launch
- The Guardian’s US edition
- The Guardian’s reporting on Edward Snowden
- Talia Stroud, director of the Engaging News Project, which conducts research aimed at helping media organizations better engage readers
- Facebook Comments plugin
- GuardianWitness, a user-generated content platform where The Guardian requests submissions from the community
- The Guardian Members, a paid membership program for those who support the work done by The Guardian
- Bassey Etim, editor of the community desk at The New York Times
- MetaFilter, an established online community that Mary praised for their approach to community management
- Mary on Twitter
00:04: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Tweet as you listen, using #communitysignal. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
00:21 Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, and thank you for joining me for this episode of Community Signal. Last week, we had Talia Stroud of the Engaging News Project, and this week we continue our news media run with Mary Hamilton, the executive editor of audience at The Guardian, one of the most widely-read media outlets in the United Kingdom. As the executive editor for audience, Mary has been working in community building and management, along with social media, SEO, growth hacking and analytics for the last four years. She helped launch The Guardian’s Australian edition, before moving to New York to build an audience team there, then coming back to London to head up global audience strategy. Mary, welcome to the program.
00:54 Mary Hamilton: Hi, there.
00:55 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a pleasure to have you on.
00:57 Mary Hamilton: Thanks, it’s a pleasure to be here.
00:58 Patrick O’Keefe: Give us a high level view of audience strategy. What does that mean, what is it comprised of, for The Guardian?
01:05 Mary Hamilton: Sure, okay. So, we think about audience development in several different ways. I head up the editorial teams who oversee how we interact with our audiences, from first touch through social media, right the way through to people getting very involved in our journalism, contributing and commenting. So, it’s quite a broad sort of spectrum of functions that we have in the newsroom, and of ways that we have of talking to our audience, and elevating their voices back to us within the newsroom as well. So, I actually head up a group of teams, all working in areas that kind of overlap a little bit in some cases. So we have a social and new formats team who think about social media and about reshaping our journalism for the best state it could be to get to the internet. We have teams looking at loyalty, we have teams looking at social media at scale and the ways that we optimize our journalism for the internet. And then we have teams doing community journalism, and a dedicated in-house moderation team.
02:03 Patrick O’Keefe: When you were building out a new audience team in a different country, like you did in New York, because The Guardian is, obviously, as I said, very well-read in the UK, but there’s a US edition, there’s an Australian edition, etcetera. When you’re building out a new audience team in a different country, what’s the process like, where do you start?
02:18 Mary Hamilton: Actually, I’ve kinda built out two different audience teams now, because when we went out to Australia, I was part of the launch team there. And for the first year and a half-ish, the audience team was me, there was one of me. It was a really interesting role, because it meant that I had to get good at doing everything, if I wanted to be able to actually operate at the sort of scale that we were talking about. So we were trying explicitly to build a new audience within Australia. We had an existing audience when we launched the Australian edition, but the majority of that audience was either British expats or Australians who’d lived in the UK for a while, so they were familiar with The Guardian from a kind of British-facing perspective. And we were trying to, instead, build a local audience of people who were interested in the sorts of journalism that we were gonna do within Australia. So we were looking for an audience around politics, around environment, around immigration issues, those kinds of topics, which wasn’t an area where we were known at all. So one of the interesting things that I decided to do around that, was effectively to start completely from scratch. So, not to build on our existing Australian user-base, because we knew that we were actually going for a completely different audience.
03:27 Mary Hamilton: And so we started up new social media accounts, we explicitly made them very tailored to that kind of local news content, and discussion of the sorts of things that we saw that local audience really starting to care about. So we focused really, really hard on politics and environment in particular, over the first few months. But we treated the Australian community on platform as a completely new thing as well. So, one of the things that we saw, was we saw people from other parts of, I guess, the social internet, other news sites. We had commenters who’d historically been having arguments on places like the Sydney Morning Herald, turned up under our politics threads and started rehashing the same arguments. So we had to do some quite heavy work initially, setting the community tone, and setting the community norms for those people, so that we didn’t end up with people just using The Guardian as a place to rehash old conflicts. Yeah, I did an awful lot of triaging and an awful lot of thinking about how we build an audience strategy that worked intelligently for everybody, from people who’d never heard of The Guardian before, to people who thought that The Guardian was a British newspaper, through people who really liked what The Guardian did in particular areas and might need to be coaxed into exploring the rest of what we did, through people who just really, really wanted to support us, and to find ways of making space in their lives for us.
04:46 Patrick O’Keefe: You were really building out a strategy for the audience, right?
04:50 Mary Hamilton: Yeah, definitely.
04:50 Patrick O’Keefe: So, obviously Australian people are different from British people, are different from Americans.
04:53 Mary Hamilton: Oh, yeah, everyone is different from Americans.
04:57 Patrick O’Keefe: In both good and bad ways, I assume. But, were there any surprises as you cultivated for those audiences? When you were like, “Okay, I thought we were gonna do it this way, but the Americans are so different in this way,” or “the Australians are so different in this way, that we have to change our strategy in this way,” were there any big surprises for you?
05:14 Mary Hamilton: Sure. Sticking with Australia for a second, I was astonished by how angry people got when we did things that they perceived as light. The Guardian’s always been a mixture of hard news and entertainment, and kind of playful intelligent takes on current affairs. And there’s always been this sense of balance that we’ve tried to cultivate. And when we got to Australia, people were so excited about us turning up and doing politics, that they got quite angry with us when we covered culture, for example, and I was genuinely quite startled by that. And then I dug more deeply into the recent strategies of the other news organizations that existed in Australia, and a lot of those which had been considered by their audiences to be very serious news organizations, had deployed digital strategies that were pretty in a pure play reach, and it involved publishing a lot more entertainment content. And in some cases, the audience was genuinely perceiving a dumbing down. Now, I’m not sure whether there was a dumbing down, but the perception was definitely there. So for us going into that market, the minute that we started to look at the lighter side of things, that audience that had felt let-down suddenly reacted very, very angrily, because they were worried that we were doing the same thing, basically.
06:36 Patrick O’Keefe: How do you deal with that perception? Because The Guardian’s being consistent to The Guardian, you’re bringing your brand of The Guardian to another country, so you’re being consistent with your brand, but it’s almost like their expectation didn’t meet with what you really already are.
06:49 Mary Hamilton: When we landed in Australia, I think our audience was initially expecting us to change the outcome of the election. They were expecting frankly impossible things from us. [chuckle] But the way that you do that, is you just do what you do, if people ask you… You develop… ways of gently explaining that, “This is how certain things work, and this is why we operate in this way.” And with something like that, where people are expressing a fear that you’re going to do something in the future, the best way that you can allay that fear, is to just carry on with what you’re doing, and then not do the thing that they’re scared of.
07:18 Patrick O’Keefe: Be consistent.
07:19 Mary Hamilton: Yeah. And building trust with an audience like that takes time, and what people needed was time to work out whether or not they could trust us, so we just gave them that. The US is just a completely different beast, partly as well… So when I went out to Australia, I was part of the team who was going out there to start up for the first time. Whereas when I moved to New York, I was coming into an office that had already existed for quite a long time, and had some massive successes, that had really kind of put The Guardian on the map in the US, especially around things like Wikileaks and the NSA files that Edward Snowden released. So, you’re coming into something quite different, you’re coming into something where it’s a lot harder to pivot than it is to build from scratch. And lot of what I had to do initially was spend real time getting under the skin of what people already expected from us there, rather than saying, “Well, we want to be this, so we’re going to do this.” It was more of a case of looking at, “This is what people already think of us, this is the niche we’ve carved for ourselves. Do we want to make that niche deeper? Do we wanna make it wider? How do we go about differentiating ourselves in a market like the US, which is so over-served and over-saturated.” Yeah, does that make sense?
08:24 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, it does. And what was the answer there? As you said, the US has a lot of… Over-saturated is a good way to put it. We have the standard bearers for journalism, and we have plenty of other types of publications, and then we have a very large and vibrant independent media, if you will, online, that caters to everyone and gives them the news that agrees with them, if that makes sense?
08:45 Mary Hamilton: Yep, it does.
08:46 Patrick O’Keefe: How did you pivot or what did you end up deciding to do with the US market, as far as audience was concerned?
08:51 Mary Hamilton: Well, we spent quite a lot time explicitly trying to build a tone of voice that was distinct from the UK publication, on social media in particular. We focused really hard on Facebook in my first year or so, which made a lot of sense at the time, in terms of just that was where the audience was. And we were explicitly trying to build a channel for US news and politics that was distinct from our kind of global brand channels, so that people who were gonna be excited about the sorts of… Again, The Guardian’s politics coverage is internationally renowned, but we hadn’t developed, at that stage, a space to really promote that coverage or to engender discussion around that coverage beyond the comment threads. So we just spent a long time trying to do that, and trying to nail a tone of voice that really worked for the US. Because American use of language is really different to British use of language, and to Australian use of language. And the norms around how you frame yourself and phrase yourself on social media are quite different, so we just spent a lot of time trying to refine something that enabled us to speak like Americans, but retain The Guardian’s voice, if that makes sense.
10:00 Patrick O’Keefe: It does, and it’s funny, if someone were to look at The Guardian’s work in around audience in Australia, and the US and UK, and just look at the social media channels and see how things are posted and see how things are phrased, they can probably see those differences at work, can’t they?
10:13 Mary Hamilton: Yeah, I would have thought so.
10:15 Patrick O’Keefe: So last week when I spoke with Talia Stroud, she made the point that there are so many instances where other entities have encroached on what the news media used to do. For example, she said that people used to look at media for the weather, now they pretty just don’t. They go to weather.com, or they go to a website, or they go to Google. And the media used to make money through classifieds. Now people, at least in the US, overwhelmingly go to Craigslist. And the truth is, some media orgs are treating community the same way. They are all too happy to shut community or audience engagement off of their website completely, and push that engagement to someone else’s sandbox. Now The Guardian has, what I would describe as a balanced strategy. Meeting people where they are, meeting people in various social media channels, also maintaining a presence on-site community, and devoting resources to that. So what’s your view, just personally, on media organizations who close community, close comments, close any sort of engagement completely off of their own websites?
11:08 Mary Hamilton: I think, fundamentally, it boils down to what your strategy is as a news organization. I think it rarely, if ever, makes sense to shut down engagement completely, but for some news organizations, on-site community represents a massive investment of energy and time and resources that isn’t justifiable, based on the return that you get on that investment. Now, that’s not the case for The Guardian. We have a strategy at the moment which is building towards a membership. We know that some of our commenters are our most engaged audiences, they’re the people who are most likely to want to contribute to our journalism in a meaningful way, and we see enormous value in those direct relationships with that audience, and outsourcing that to other organizations doesn’t make strategic sense to us. But if you’re running… For example, if you’re BuzzFeed, and what you mostly care about here is that people are reading you, not necessarily the platform on which that’s happening, and you’re not bidding for a membership or even a subscription approach, then in that case, I can completely understand why you’d use the Facebook Comments plugin, because at that point you’re boosting the reach of your work off-platform, at the same time as maintaining that form of engagement.
12:18 Mary Hamilton: I think the other important thing about community that a lot of news organizations miss or don’t see value in, is what happens when you listen. The point of commenting isn’t just to let people make a comment, the interesting things happen with commenting and with on-platform community engagement of all kinds, when you actually listen to what people are saying, and then feed it back into your news generation processes. We don’t just have comment systems on our site, we also have a user-generated content tool called Guardian Witness, which allows us to explicitly call out to our audience for images, for text, around particular new stories. So, if there’s a breaking news story in a particular area, we can say, “Hey, if you’re there, you can send us eyewitness information securely in this way.” But also around things like Brexit, for example. We were able to explicitly ask readers, in different parts of Europe, what their opinions were around Brexit, pull those together and translate that into actual journalism, that wasn’t just available on our site, but also changed the way that we might think about commissioning certain types of journalism as well. So that feedback loop, for me, is absolutely crucial if you’re gonna try and extract value from community development as a news organization.
13:30 Mary Hamilton: What your readers can help you with in terms of the journalism, is just astonishing, genuinely incredible. And there are news organizations who don’t do that sort of work, who don’t prioritize that sort of work, and for them the value exchange and the value discussion is gonna be different, I think.
13:44 Patrick O’Keefe: The magic that happens when you listen.
13:46 Mary Hamilton: Yeah.
13:47 Patrick O’Keefe: I love that.
13:48 Mary Hamilton: Otherwise, it’s hard to justify it as community work, if you’re not actually engaging with the community that you’ve found.
13:54 Patrick O’Keefe: Well said. I can’t argue. I want to go back to the paid memberships for a moment. Because you mentioned that, and The Guardian offers paid memberships, at various levels, to people who wanna support the work that you are doing, and there’s various incentives for being a member. Have you tried to measure the likelihood of community commenters and people that are actually engaging on your website, in the likelihood that they will become paid members, as opposed to just the average viewer?
14:16 Mary Hamilton: So, we have some preliminary data that suggests that there’s a positive correlation.
14:20 Patrick O’Keefe: Okay, I was just curious, and it makes sense. The New York Times has found something similarly. Bassey Etim, who leads community over at the Times, I’ve had him on the show and talked to him many times about this subject, and he says, “Yes, the data shows us that people who comment are more likely to be subscribers, and are more likely to give us money.” So that is, for us, the ROI, it’s very interesting how you draw the difference between models, and how important on-site community or deeper engagement is with a subscription-based model, with a model where people are paying you directly, as opposed to a model where you simply want to be read. I find that difference to be really interesting.
14:53 Mary Hamilton: I think increasingly what we’re seeing, is the news business kind of deals with the downturn in advertising revenue… Is we’re seeing models that fragment and that take quite different strategic approaches, and I think community is just one of the places where that’s most visible from the outside.
15:06 Patrick O’Keefe: So let’s talk about Brexit, I wanna talk about Brexit. The thing is when I saw Brexit and I followed that news, the thing that happens with me, being in the profession that I’m in, is when anything like that happens, I don’t just think about the issue, my thoughts always go to the people who are working community, audience engagement, at the publications that have to deal with the kind of on flow or the overflow of comments and the overflow of reaction, and just the struggle and the work that they’re now facing. So in June, Brexit happened, and the UK voted to withdraw from the European Union, and there’s really no one… Or there’s perhaps no one better to talk with about Brexit’s impact on community commenting and moderation than you, because as you said, The Guardian has this wonderful reputation for political reporting and journalism, and obviously being such a well-respected publication in the UK, that’s where people went. That’s where people went to vent, to applaud, to share their frustration. And this wasn’t a surprise issue, you knew it was coming. You knew the vote was coming, you had some time to think about it, you had time to prepare. What did you do?
16:10 Mary Hamilton: So we knew the vote was coming, but we didn’t know the result. And I think it’s probably fair to say the result was a surprise to pretty much everybody, including the people who were leading the campaign for it, which compounded things. So we prepared as though it was gonna be a busy day.
16:26 Patrick O’Keefe: Right, that makes sense.
16:27 Mary Hamilton: What we didn’t do quite, was prepare as though it was going to be more than double our highest ever comment total, that was an unexpected level of business. And the reason for that is, as I say, is because the result did not go the way that people were expecting it to go. And I think potentially, we also haven’t factored in the Daily Telegraph, who are another news organization in the UK, who’d recently done a site redesign, which has involved them turning off comments. So when people were looking for debates, The Guardian remained kind of one of the places where that debate could happen. And I think that we saw people who were looking to be able to comment on news stories coming directly to The Guardian as a space to comment, in the absence of being able to comment, perhaps, where they might have done in the past. And yeah, it was a very, very busy day, across the board. We had prepared for overnight shifts to be very busy, because as with an election, what tends to be the busiest and most tricky time is the overnight period, but we just had not expected the sheer scale and volume of the reaction to the result.
17:34 Patrick O’Keefe: So, for the people who were on the frontline, dealing with moderation, interacting with visitors directly, what was the feeling? Was there excitement for the volume? Was it a stressful day? You mentioned the Telegraph, I think that’s an interesting dynamic too, I’m not as familiar with them. Were their commenters and their comments moderated to a similar standard to yours, or was it totally different? Did you just get this onslaught of people who didn’t know the sort of normal Guardian standards? I guess… It’s a lot of questions. What was the feeling there, for the people on the front line?
18:04 Mary Hamilton: So, I can’t speak for all of them. One of the things to bear in mind is that because I’m leading multiple different teams on a day like that, I don’t get to spend a lot of time with each one. I think it’s very difficult as well to parse out the feeling of a day like that, from the impact of the news itself. So at The Guardian, a fair few of our colleagues are European… Everybody woke up, I think shell shocked is a good way of putting it, by the news itself. And then you added in this astonishing, just outpouring of emotion that happened in the comments, on both sides of the equation. I think it would be fair to call it a very difficult day, but I’m also really proud of how my teams worked, how they came together, to do the best possible work on a day like that. I think for a news organization right, days like that can be some of the hardest times, but they can also be some of the most exciting and some of the most exhilarating times, to be working in this field. Because there’s this glorious thing, where everybody kind of comes together, everybody knows what the point of the job is that day, everyone understands what needs to be done, and everyone just goes and does. And I was astonished by how strong the moderation team was and how well they managed to keep everything together, in the face of this absolutely incredible, just like I say, outpouring of words, of conversation.
19:26 Patrick O’Keefe: Did you adjust any of your normal processes for that activity, either in preparation or as you realized this is a monster, this is just a crazy amount of volume. Did you do anything different as far as moderation or strategy, or how you looked at comments, approved comments, anything like that?
19:43 Mary Hamilton: So, something that we’ve been doing for quite a while now, is being more judicious about where and when we open comment threads. So, thinking about being quite careful and considered about when and where we have comments turned on. And that day we had to close threads that we would have liked to keep open for longer, just for resource reasons. We always are quite ad hoc about how we do this, because sometimes there’ll be a comment thread which is very difficult but where good conversation is just starting to come through, and you want to be able to safeguard that, and to see it continue. So we don’t have kind of strict hard and fast rules about things only staying open a certain amount of time, if they’re at a certain busyness level, or whatever. So we had to tread quite a difficult line between wanting to stay on top of and manage the community reaction to what we were seeing, but also one of the things the community needed at that point, was just to be able to have that emotional release, and that emotional response to things. So I think we probably made decisions in a slightly different way than we would’ve done, had it been less busy, or if there’d been less of kind of a emotional resonance to the news. But yeah, we had to close threads we would otherwise have quite liked to keep open, just for pure volume concerns.
21:00 Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned the emotional nature of the news, and obviously it’s a highly charged issue. And community people… We talk about this on the show a lot, we talk about the idea of self care, and of the fact that these are people who are professionals, they do this every day, this is their work. But, they’re also people. And so certainly the news, as you mentioned, impacted them, obviously. Was there anything different on that day, as far as managing just how people… I guess the self care of the community staff, or taking care of them to make sure they were in a good place, dealing with the volume, dealing with kind of the emotional nature of the issue? And probably, I would guess, but might be wrong, some of the comments maybe being even more offensive than normal comments you might see, and just the toll that takes on a person?
21:42 Mary Hamilton: So, it’s interesting, because I think the impact of the refugee crisis was probably greater for the moderation team, because it went on for longer, and because of just the sheer callousness of some of the comments that we were getting. We knew that we were seeing comments from organized groups of people, and those comments were extremely rough, and extremely difficult to deal with. I can’t go into too much detail, but I think one of the things that Brexit has kind of illuminated, is the need for us to be more active about how we think about rotating moderation shifts, so that people don’t have to deal with the worst of the worst for too long. So we changed the structure of the moderation team over the last six months or so, to put in some stronger management structures. The moderators have been working really closely with our product development teams, to start to design out some of the more problematic aspects of our commenting system. So we have our own in-house built commenting platform, which in some ways is genuinely fantastic and does exactly what we need it to do, but in other ways isn’t yet as developed as we’d like it to be, in terms of assisting moderators in their day jobs. And I think one of the things that Brexit has done, is really kind of illuminated the need for us to be able to be more flexible around volume, and to find and integrate tools that let us do that intelligently.
23:07 Patrick O’Keefe: So, as anyone listening to this knows, obviously you know, we’re dealing with a rather heated election season in the US right now.
23:15 Mary Hamilton: Yeah, I’ve noticed.
23:17 Patrick O’Keefe: That’s a wondrous thing, isn’t it… Between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And it feels like, no matter what happens, there will be a very vocal part of the country that is angry. And I wonder with Brexit, it kind of alluded at this… But do you feel like if it had gone the other way, that your community reaction… Obviously, it would have been different, would it have been any quieter if that side of the debate had been voted down? Would it have been any different, do you feel, would the activity have been any less?
23:46 Mary Hamilton: It’s hard to say for sure. But my experience of the day after the Brexit vote, as the result came in, was that a lot of people were reacting out of shock. I think part of the reason why we saw such high volumes was because of that shock. It wasn’t just about what the result was in terms of who was talking, it was also about the kind of shock that people were feeling, that something that they really had not expected to happen, had happened. Coupled with this sense that one group of people were feeling very vindicated by this, and another group of people were genuinely just astonished and… I’m trying to find the right word, that won’t insult large groups of people…
24:23 Patrick O’Keefe: I know. But after it came out, as an American watching from across the pond, there were all of these comments that were kind of made fun of by people who were like, “I didn’t even think that would happen.” There was one kid, who was like, “I voted that. I voted for it, but I didn’t think it would happen.” There were multiple people who said that. And it was almost like it was a surprise that it had even gone that far, that it had even happened, that even though people had voted for it, maybe jokingly, maybe because of a protest vote, it ended up happening. And that seemed to just astonish them.
24:53 Mary Hamilton: Yeah, and I think at the same time, on the other side, if you like, on the anti-Brexit side, a real shock that this had been not allowed to happen, but a real shock that things had reached that point. And I think, genuinely, that shock leads communities, leads people, to just want to talk. It leads people to want to draw their own personal line in the sand, and say, “I don’t like this,” or, “I do like this. I didn’t want this,” or, “This is exactly what I was desperately hoping for, and I couldn’t dream of ever happening.” I think that when something challenges the status quo like that, you have to expect that more people than you’d normally see getting involved, are gonna start to want to get involved. So my instinct is that if the result had gone the other way, we would not have seen the same volumes.
25:39 Patrick O’Keefe: Do you feel online discourse like this and, for example, the people interacting with each other on The Guardian’s website and through social media, through The Guardian and the profiles and whatnot, do you feel like there’s a role that that can play in bridging the gap between two groups like that? Because obviously the UK will still exist tomorrow, it still has to go forward, it’s still a country of people who disagree over things, like any great country. But do you feel like online discourse, in discourse and spaces like this, is part of the long-term solution to bring the people together?
26:11 Mary Hamilton: I think conversation definitely is, and I think having venues for that conversation… I think moderation is crucial to having those discussions productively, because a lot of the time what you get in conversations around this, is basically just an argument. And people shout past each other, and then they get very aggressive with each other, and nothing really changes or goes anywhere. I’m a huge believer in the power and the importance of careful moderation for ensuring that everybody gets to speak, and also ensuring that people don’t end up just yelling at each other, with no purpose and no reason. And for that reason, yeah, I do think that these sorts of spaces do have a role to play, just as much as the kind of free-for-all spaces do. Because we know that people will speak on our comment threads who wouldn’t feel comfortable or confident speaking elsewhere. And when those people’s voices are heard, and those people are able to articulate themselves, sometimes change happens. But it’s very kind of individualized, and very slow. The purpose of a conversation isn’t necessarily for people to have their minds changed, the purpose of conversation is just as much for people to say, “This is what I think, and if you don’t agree with me, then I’m not gonna agree with you or really listen to you.”
27:26 Mary Hamilton: And one of the things that can happen on news websites and on forums, and on places like MetaFilter who do this very well, one of the things that can happen in those smaller spaces, is more direction, more explicit kind of capacity for people to lay out what they want from a conversation, lay out the rules of debate and the rules of engagement, and then debate within those. And I think that sort of reasoned debate is increasingly rare and increasingly important.
27:58 Patrick O’Keefe: When we think about historically significant moments in time, when we look back 50 years, and we try to talk about the reaction that people had to something that happened… I feel like online comments and online discussion, especially on important publications, publications of record, outlets like The Guardian in the UK, like The New York Times in the US. I feel like the online response that they document, may very well be, 50 years from now, how we look back and see how the public reacted. Because obviously the internet is the communications medium of choice right now, and this is how people communicate their feelings and share their reaction. I don’t wanna make it more grandiose than it is, but are online comments and the conversation that happens around historically significant issues like this, at publications like The Guardian, is that something that is worth documenting? Is that something that is worth having 50 years from now so that people can look back and say, “Okay, that happened, and here’s how people reacted.”
28:55 Mary Hamilton: I think so, I don’t think The Guardian’s comments would be necessarily a representative sample. But I do think that kind of debate and discussion has a great deal of value, and not just for historians either, also for people who are looking at trying to decipher how different sorts of interaction work, especially now the internet exists and is the main medium through which we communicate with each other. The Guardian has a massive, massive dataset of comments. We’ve kept every comment made on The Guardian since we opened comments, I think nearly 20 years ago now. And that dataset provides an enormously potentially valuable resource, not just for historians of the future, but also present-day sociologists, present-day people who are looking into the way that communities develop and react. Like I said, I don’t think The Guardian or indeed, any other news organization alone, has the scope to be the avatar of, “This is how people reacted.” But I do think this stuff is valuable, and is worth documenting historically.
29:54 Patrick O’Keefe: It bothers me when reputable outlets, and reputable communities, social movements, publications, whatever, don’t keep those comments, because I get that, a closed community because I get that, there’s reasons for that, as you illustrated. But they simply destroy the database, like, “It’s gone. We did that for 10, 20 years, and this is a repository of human interaction and culture for this audience of people,” but it’s not important enough to do anything with, except for destroy. I just worry sometimes that that sends the wrong message.
30:24 Mary Hamilton: Yeah, I’d agree with that.
30:26 Patrick O’Keefe: If a community professional was gonna have their own Brexit or mini Brexit… Because no matter what space you’re in, there are highly charged issues that occur, that are… I don’t know, perhaps once in a generation issues, perhaps once in a long while issues, that the community is divided, highly charged, argumentative, very highly disputed issues. If they have to face that issue, and it directly impacts their audience in a massive way and they are preparing to engage, manage and moderate, and they asked you, they say, “Mary, what should I do, what advice would you give me?” What would you tell them?
31:00 Mary Hamilton: Prepare for the unexpected. Don’t build yourself an incredibly rigid plan and then try to stick to it, because what happens on the day will basically destroy whatever plan you had. Plan to be as flexible as you can be, so that you can react to what’s happening, rather than what you think will happen. That sounds weirdly [unintelligible], I think, but building the sorts of systems that allow you to be flexible, I think is absolutely crucial for moments like this. I think I’d say prepare your resources well in advance, but prepare for the after effects to be longer and bigger than you might otherwise think. Day one is gonna be the most difficult day, but adrenaline will see you through it. By the time you hit day seven, or day 10, or I think we’re now on what, day 60?
31:47 Patrick O’Keefe: The numbers just keep going up.
31:49 Mary Hamilton: Yeah, with something like Brexit. Brexit hasn’t happened yet. We had a vote. It’s gonna be potentially two-and-a-half more years of this, maybe more, who knows? And when something like this happens, it’s potentially a step change, it isn’t just one big day. So preparing for how you’re gonna cope with the weeks after an event like this, is just as important as how you’re gonna cope with the day of the event.
32:12 Patrick O’Keefe: Flexibility, and long-term planning.
32:14 Mary Hamilton: Yeah, lots and lots of both. I think the other big thing, is just making sure that you’re able to articulate what you need to unwind, and to find breaks for yourself, deciding what the threshold is… Some people don’t ever want to relax their standards, but making a decision ahead of time about if you’re gonna get sort of two, three, four times your normal volume of discussion and debate, or are you gonna relax your standards around the things that you’ll support or that you’ll countenance? Are you gonna just say, “Well, I’m only gonna moderate a part of the community, and the other part I can trust to look after itself.” And if so, which part are you gonna cut loose? Or does that mean that you actually shut down posting most places, except for a small zone that you think you can control, and that you can oversee properly. Make your decisions about where you’re gonna cut back ahead of time, even if you never have to use that.
33:07 Patrick O’Keefe: Excellent! Mary, this has been a great conversation, and I know that Brexit is still, as you kind of said there, still a fresh issue… 60 days is a long time… It’s not, you’ve got years of this. But I really appreciate you taking the time to share your experience with us today.
33:20 Mary Hamilton: No worries at all. Thanks for having me on, it’s been fun.
33:23 Patrick O’Keefe: We have been talking with Mary Hamilton, executive editor for audience at The Guardian. Follow her on Twitter @newsmary. If you have any questions that you’d like me to answer on the air, please submit them at communitysignal.com/qa. For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad. Bye for now.
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