Thought for the day:Don't get shot in the Wild West Web

Online bulletin boards on corporate websites can seriously damage corporate health, warns Colin Beveridge.

Online bulletin boards on corporate websites can seriously damage corporate health, warns Colin Beveridge.

It never ceases to amaze me when I discover yet another corporate website that provides visitors with an unmoderated discussion forum - an online bulletin board where new public messages can be posted immediately by all and sundry, without vetting, or censorship, by the website owner.

I can't think of a bigger risk to the integrity of any commercial, or personal, reputation than by exposing it to the whims of the Wild West Web in this way, without the least semblance of even modest protection.

And yet, in the bricks and mortar world, these same naïve website hosts would not allow casual, unaccompanied visitors into their corporate offices, let alone provide them with the facility to broadcast potentially damaging remarks to the world at large.

So, why do they do things differently online? I suppose it's because somebody has oversold them on the concept of community.

Community has been one of the biggest buzzwords on the internet for years, and website owners are frequently exhorted to foster online communities from the ranks of their customers/readers.

But, like so many good web ideas, the creation of an online community should come with a government health warning: "Caution, if you don't govern this community, it may seriously damage the health of your reputation!"

I am not against discussion forums, mailing lists and chat rooms, far from it. I am fully aware of how well these tools can be used to promote genuine community spirit and interaction.

But I also know that their immediacy and far-reaching visibility mean that extremely careful thought must go into their deployment. Don't just put up a forum and walk away hoping that the community will look after itself. If you do, you may well find yourself with problems that make Pandora's box look like a Lucky Bag.

Online communities are notorious for the virulence of their opinions - and these may not always coincide with the interests of the website host.

At the very least, you must always appoint a monitor to keep an eye on what is happening on your site and to remove or modify any dangerous material posted by visitors.

However, post-publication moderation is not good enough for most corporate sites. During the precious time between publication and correction by a moderator, the damage can travel two or three times around the world and may be irreparable.

Ideally, such "sponsored" public forums should be moderated to prevent misuse by ensuring that all submissions from community members are approved - before being published.

Sites ignore these warnings at their peril. And yet there are still many that leave themselves wide open to legal and commercial risk by allowing unmoderated postings to appear.

I'm surprised that their insurers and lawyers continue to let them take these risks of libellous or detrimental postings. Such constant attention does not come free, especially for busy sites, as moderation can be expensive. But I have seen many internal business cases that completely ignored the cost of website moderation.

As far as I am concerned, these costs are just as essential as the apparently "no-brainer" decision to employ building security staff.

What do you think?
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Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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