The Australian Government has released its interim Convergence Review report, which aims to consolidate regulation for a converged media world and help us cull old laws that don’t make sense any more. Superficially, this sounds fantastic. Unfortunately, the review and report have been a bit of a bungle.
I’m with the Financial Review’s Dominic White, who describes these preliminary recommendations as “at once fuzzy and menacing.”
There is good to be had. The report lists a range of older rules we can safely toss and it’s general principles are eminently supportable.
Summarised, they call for equity of access and communication across channels and forms, reflexive regulation to accommodate a rapidly changing world, a competitive and healthy diversity of voices, rights to access local creative and news content, transparency from service providers and a commitment to the public good.
But there are some problems between the lines – problems that could easily impact the work of online community managers in Australia.
I’d like to focus on two areas in particular: community standards and local content.
No thx, I already have a moral compass
Debates about community standards and how they relate to our online interactions still largely presume that the online world is a wild west. They insist that offline values are not normative in online spaces.
The interim report also falls into this trap, stressing that community standards must be applied consistently across media.
The thing is, they already are.
The standards that matter are already in play. The rest are (rightly) owned by the community. The online community.
Plenty of online communities are responsibly regulated via the work of community managers.
We create policy and process for our platforms that respects Australia’s already complex defamation laws, international copyright protections, international guidance around protecting our young people and guard against prohibited content.
The best community governance is informed and iterated in collaboration with the community it serves. It builds slowly, over time, and it’s cooperatively authentic.
Community managers in Australia do this work, with or without the support of their employers, because they know it makes for healthy, thriving communities.
The same things that the government would rather us avoid online – thinking we’re above the rules, breaking laws, being horrible to one another – are the behaviours that tear online communities apart.
Community managers work to ensure these things happen as little as possible and mitigate the risks if they do.
We design policies that are legally compliant yet human and accessible. We work to ensure they adequately reflect the standards and norms of the online community they’re intended for. It’s critical to understand that these standards and norms do exist. We rarely need to invent them.
Online communities do not exist in a vacuum. Their flesh and blood inhabitants carry their real world community standards into those spaces, and sometimes, sensibilities unique to that community arise.
There is no need to impose institutionalise, ‘external’ governance on communities. The law already applies and groups do a solid job of governing in partnership with community management professionals and other custodians.
There are exceptions. But they are, exceptions. Legislating for the fringe is never a good long term plan.
Online communities could teach offline governments a think or two about practical, human governance that does the job without being obtuse, meandering or self-serving.
Working with us to explore ways we can track down the serial pests that harass our standards abiding members, working with international partners to take out the spam cartels that hijack our attention, helping us protect our members from getting sued for posting a video of their family dancing to a popular song…
That’s something we can talk about.
The interim report recommends that enterprises largely involved in supplying ‘content services’ need to be subject to Australian content mandates.
The report is intentionally ambiguous around the definition of ‘Content Service Enterprises’, but its general criteria of ‘originating in Australia or being intended for Australians,’ ‘having the ability to exercise control over the content’ and that content contributing to revenue means that many online communities would be impacted if it were enacted.
Transferring obligations around local content to online publishers is a flawed proposition. It neglects a critical paradox of the social web; that boundaries disappear, while hyperlocal thrives. Local is too subjective to be applied as a mandate in this context.
Identity is prismatic. We are not solely creatures (or voices) of place.
If I’m an active member of an online community for designers all over the world, am I an Australian, or a designer? Does it matter?
If I’m a member of peer-to-peer recycling community for my local area, do my conversations count as ‘local content’ for the host and publisher? Should they intervene if we spend as much time bonding over favourite episodes of non-Australian television shows as we do the stated purpose of the site?
All community managers know that forcing people to tow a topic line is a hard road to natural sociability.
What about community content and interactions on a platform that chooses to respect pseudonymity?
How do you preserve a representational quota when identity and context is unverifiable (by choice)?
What if the value of a community to its participants (and audience) is a diversity of voices?
Our shades of grey simply don’t match the binary divisions that characterise regulation.
Community managers, whose responsibilities often include incubating, curating or creating content for their communities, could be challenged by the report’s suggested principles and priorities.
Instead of building relationships, moderating corrosive content and helping our members, participants or audience get what they want and need, we’ll spend time fussing over how much ‘local’ we have in our ecosystem (when we’re not arguing about it what it means).
We already spend time assessing the balance of voices on our platforms – who’s heard the most, or least, and is that appropriate or ideal? If we’re asked to influence that balance based on government quotas rather than the wants or needs of actual community members, it weakens our communities and undermines our role as advocate for that group or audience.
It seems to me that this approach would be difficult to wrangle across the peer-to-peer distribution and business models in the digital space. The interim report talks about mandated financial contribution to supporting local content, in place of delivering that content oneself. How might this work for a community owned social blog network where advertising profits are shared amongst contributors? Should content contributors be paid, or penalised, for making it easier or harder for an online entity to meet content quotas?
In a mediascape where compelling content curation is increasingly prized, it’s good to be thinking about the voices we’re able to discover, surface and circulate.
But any decent community manager or editor already thinks long and hard about balance and relevance.
Content must resonate to succeed, which favours content that is ‘local’ to a group by default. If supporting an otherwise unheard group is our goal (and in the world of start ups and online community, it often is), we don’t need new rules to remind us to serve their needs.
I’ve consumed more Australian made stories and content via the socialised web that I ever did on free to air television. The equalising power and reach of social media means it’s inherently easier for compelling local stories to bubble up and reach an eager audience.
Our work is a dialogue, unlike that of many older media publishers. It’s not difficult for us to work collaboratively with users to get more of their stories heard. To us, local means the people that are members of our communities, not their place of birth or offline residence. It’s whoever they are, at any moment.
Imposing offline geographies into our online communities and networks is a simplistic, reductionist move. At best, it’s redundant. At worst, it risks collapsing the (important) spaces that have emerged between the two.
The biggest threat to local content online is traditional media players moving in to dominate communities and content creators already soaring. If we have to play the subsidy and quota game, lets support new media platforms and publishers who want to partner with their communities to build and sustain offerings anchored in Australia, but connected to the world.
Watching Neighbours on the web is not an enriching local experience. Being exposed to new voices within online content communities being catalysed in Australia?
Much more local, and far more awesome. Let’s not inadvertently create a new filter bubble by astro-turfing an Internet of tokenism.
Form does impact content and forms have implicit politics that effect access, consumption and efficacy. People have different contextual expectations across channels and while it’s essential to work against monopolised might, it’s hard to neutralise approaches to content and interactions that are as dimensional as the people involved.
To me, this interim report feels like an outmoded, top-down approach to a multi-modal world that takes care of itself generally better than anyone else can.
We can’t seem to stop swinging back and forth from the unhelpful framing of an exotic cyberspace where freaks and geeks conspire, to the notion that the web is simply a new channel for existing voices and business models.
It’s incumbent upon those who work in the digital industries, particularly those who deal with users, content contributors and online community participants on a daily basis, to guide government toward constructive interventions that could make a meaningful difference, rather than superfluous regulatory gestures that make us less competitive and less able to meet the real needs of our people (who are just as real online as off).
I look forward to the release of the final recommendations in March and hope we don’t see a bevy of new rules without good reason.