In Moderation There Is Virtue – But Little Profit

I was talking to a lawyer a few days ago.

No, nothing’s wrong. But I scared you, didn’t I? That’s the kind of power lawyers have.

The lawyer in question was Marcelo Halpern, a partner in Gordon & Glickson, Chicago, which specializes in technology. They just redid their web site, making heavy use of frames, but Halpern wanted to point out it was “designed around community concepts.”

What that means is “We have discussion forums to raise the issues of the day in terms of technology law. The attorneys go to the discussion boards on a daily basis to follow up and see new postings. The idea here is that it becomes part of your life.”

It turns out this is not as normal as it sounds, at least in the legal profession. If you go to Law.com, the largest industry site, you’ll find some nice stories (here’s a good one on the DECSS controversy), but discussion forums aren’t offered. Frank Schmalleger, an author and director of the Justice Research Association, runs some forums on criminal law at his Talk Justice site. The law schools at Boston College and the University of Chicago have forums and mailing lists. But in general, the market seems wide-open for what Halpern wants to do.

One hint as to why this is so came from our interview. “We do try to be careful that we’re not giving legal advice,” said Halpern. “You get into issues of liability when someone asks a question that’s not abstract. We have disclaimers on that.” Okay, lawyers are careful.

“It may take a little while for these to start rolling. We need a critical mass of traffic to raise these issues,” he added. Ah hah! Good forum moderation is a skill that takes time to master, it’s a job that takes time to do, and that’s time a lawyer can’t bill. It will take patience to build the G&G forums, and I wished Halpern good luck.

The fact is that outside the technology industry, journalism’s performance in moderating forums may be worse than that of the legal profession.

I’ve never seen a moderator (let alone a producer) appear at one of CNN’s forums, which allows them to be hijacked by any small group with an axe to grind. (I found this to be the case after my son was featured on a story about ADHD – rumors and outright lies were spread but never countered.) MSNBC has a cute little “email the author” box on its stories, but they all go to the same place (letters@msnbc.com). We don’t want to trouble “real” journalists with anything like feedback, do we?

I personally tried moderating the ClickZ Forum for a time, and frankly feel I made a hash of it. There’s a balance that must be struck between aggressively bringing topics to the board and tamping down the flame wars. It’s an intellectual version of handling a campfire – you need a continuous flow of fuel but not too much or the whole forest goes up.

I consider the ability to moderate well to be a great virtue. For the year 2000, let’s find ways to make the best moderators rich.

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