Lisa Williams | MIT Center for Civic Media

Recent blog posts by Lisa Williams

The Community Whiteboard Test: Does your new community project prioritize participation, or passivity?

Anyone who's worked in the software industry is familiar with "the legacy problem" -- the fact that it's often easier to build something new from scratch than it is to overhaul and extend an existing system.

I certainly believed that the Legacy Conundrum applied to news sites -- that it would be easier, in many ways, to create a community site from scratch than it would be to effectively integrate community features into the website of your average metro daily newspaper in North America.

As the broad shakeout in news industry continues, I see more and more "from scratch" projects. What have I found?

It's not necessarily easier to build a community site from scratch -- at least not with a major mental overhaul first.

This year I've read dozens of project descriptions from news organizations or individuals with experience in those organizations for new community sites -- but fewer than a handful have more than the bare minimum of participatory features; most are simply another website that gives a visitor a message that their job here is to passively consume information.

Four Social Cues for News

Over the past few years, a great deal of effort has been invested by traditional news organizations in making their websites look and feel more "social."

I suspect that many within the industry have moments of doubt about the whole process, especially when they compare their industry's own efforts with those of companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. These companies appear to have more resources and fewer constraints, and add features in a rapid and casual manner that sometimes looks effortless to the outside observer. (It isn't.)

However, if we compare CNN's website today to that of CNN five years ago -- or do the same thing with many other newspaper websites -- we can see that there's been significant progress.

In 2004, most newspaper websites were vehicles for one-way communication; there was no way for a reader to leave a comment. Many sites were even frustrating to link to, as stories had permalinks that weren't so permanent.