The Need for Best Practices
K5 had a strong run of several years. However the Iraq war followed by the 2004 elections raised activity on the site to a fever -- some would say fevered -- pitch. Everybody is a bit burned out.
Participation has dropped somewhat, but more importantly the rate of article submission has dropped precipitously. As I write, only one new article has made front page in the last week. Others have pointed out the problem this poses and have posted interesting ideas for fixes. As interesting and valuable as these ideas are, I see some flaws in the very idea of "fixing" K5, not the least that the one person who has the power to actually implement these kinds of fixes has other items higher on his agenda.
So, we're in a position of trying to effect change without the power to dictate the rules of the playing field. How do you make everything better in this position? The answer is you don't. You set a clear achievable, and much more limited goal, in the hope of establishing forward momentum.
My goal is to encourage more people to contribute constructively to the editorial process. By improving the editorial process we will automatically improve the quality of submissions. An improved editorial process, along with higher quality content, will attract a greater number of submissions. This will, I hope, nudge momentum in a positive direction.
And yes, I am fully aware of the irony involved in the reactions this article is going to elicit.
1. Give constructive editorial advice in the edit queue, and nothing else and nowhere else.
Premature topical comments in the edit queue reduce article quality several ways. First, they distract from the editorial process. The author is supposed to be improving his article, not debating with you. Second, they tend to harden the author's positions and attachment to the way he's put his article together. Third, as topical posts begin to accumulate, the author may be tempted to move to vote before the conversation burns itself out. Finally real feedback from real readers is a valuable commodity to a writer, and this will encourage writers to submit their works more.
Writing a good editorial post is an interesting exercise in its own right. It's also rewarding to see an article improved due to advice you have given. The edit queue is the only place where you have the power to improve an article.
Methods: Grammar and spelling help is always welcome, but maybe that's not your cup of tea. You have a topical comment burning inside you that you have to get out. That topical comment might just as well be an editorial one. So, instead of writing "You're wrong because of the 1620 Treaty of Blavatsk...", you can write editorially, "Your article needs to consider the effect of the 1620 Treaty of Blavatsk on..." Then you might have the satisfaction of seeing the author change his article, or even his mind. If not, your satisfaction will be that much greater when the time for savage topical response comes.
There is a corollary to this suggestion, which bears mentioning even though I am focusing on the quality of responses:
1b. Authors Should Focus on Editing When Their Article is In the Edit Queue.
Rationale: This is your only chance to improve your story. Plus, you don't want it to flame out before it even reaches a vote.
Methods: If the posters are insisting on making topical comments, mentally convert them into editorial comments. Use the topical comments as a guide to the questions and problems people will have with your article, and strengthen it accordingly.
2.Hold your topical comments until an article is voted up.
Rationale:Encourage new blood to contribute by reducing stale front page articles. Sharpen the focus in the editorial and voting phase.
So, an article's made it to FP. A new person looks at this article and thinks, "This is interesting, and there's some interesting responses." He then puts in his own response, but nobody is home. Very quickly, he will figure out that the front page is a place for stale content. It doesn't follow he'll want to wade into the "Moderate Submissions" for fresh content.
Methods If a topical comment has been burning inside you, and the article gets voted down, post it to the diaries.
3. Debate article's worthiness in the voting phase, and nothing else and nowhere else.
Rationale: Increase the diversity of articles by reducing the tendency to knee jerk vote based on your topical differences with the author.
Methods:Try announcing your intended vote first, seeing if there is a response, then casting your vote, rather than casting your vote and maybe posting why later.
Hasn't This Kind of Thing Been Beaten To Death Already?
Well, yes. It's the intractability of the problem that suggests to me that we aren't thinking about the solution space correctly. Most of ingenious ideas proposed would work to a degree, none of them is perfect, and none of them is going to get implemented any time soon.
It occurs to me that while we wait for the perfect techincal fix to come along, we might explore an alternative approach: setting a good example. That couldn't possibly work, could it?
How will these rules be enforced?
They won't be, because they aren't rules. I find that many people leap to the conclusion that every suggestion for improving the standards of conduct is necessarily a call for official rules and enforcement mechanisms. In fact enforcement mechanisms are often self defeating. There's always a way around them, and for many they present a challenge that is a reward in itself for bad behavior. Remove the challenge, and you've removed the motivation.
What I am suggesting is a code of personal behavior, followed on the honor system, that an individual can follow to improve K5 society. I believe such a code of conduct, if followed voluntarily by a relatively small number of sufficiently talented people, could have the effect of changing the direction of the site.
What about Authors who Can't take Editoral Advice Graciously?
Well, I'd handle the issue of cranky authors scaring of editors the same way I'd handle the issue of trolls scaring off authors: dodge it. If a few flames and a little dudgeon is more than you can bear, the Internet is not your medium. Let's assume for the moment that somebody who is interested in particpating here is capable of mentally screening this kind of thing out. The real problem is lack of positive reinforcement for contribution. If that is there, the negative stuff will be just background chatter.
Will this Work?
If by "work" you mean turn K5 into exactly what you'd wish it to be -- no. But the site will be better for every person who contributes good editorial advice to an author. It will be better for every person who contributes to activity on an article once it is voted up. The site may die, but as long as you're here and partipating, why not do it in the most constructive way possible?
I'm not going to be offended if somebody decides to violate these guidelines in the course of editing or voting on this article, for two reasons. I am proposing a personal standard of conduct which I have no right to impose on anyone else -- this is not my site. The second reason is that my aim here is to generate discussion and hopefully consensus among a subset of K5 participants. I don't expect you to join that subset in order to discuss the merits of joining.