Is the Spending Challenge website a menace to society?

Because that’s what this article would have you believe

“Sterilise claimants urges racist treasury website”. Wow, that’s a pretty strong accusation, especially one levelled at a website funded and promoted by the UK government. But, as always with these kinds of knee jerk articles, it’s missing the point of its target entirely.

“[we need] your urgent help in getting a government website closed down” states the article. Extreme? Just a little. Digging into the Spending Challenge website does yield a scary number of offensive and downright bigotted opinions from the users of the site. But in no way should it be shut down, as the article suggests.

Down with this sort of thing
Down with this sort of thing

I personally think that this is a brilliant and bold move from the coallition, an attempt by Cameron to further cement his status as the first iPM (let’s be honest though, it’s a more practical approach than a Chat Roulette session with Marky-Mark Zuckerberg). On initial inspection it seems to be hitting all the social engagement buttons; user driven content? Check! Comments promoting discussion? Check! Social tagging? Check! There are, however, a few ommissions that somewhat undermine the potential of the site…

Let’s look at the issue of moderation. Anyone who’s used a respectable web forum (i.e. not 4chan) will know that strong moderation on the web is essential to maintain a strong discussion and debate without the conversation becoming “derailed” by off topic or offensive remarks. Heck, this is the way a proper democratic debate works! A strong moderation team will also have a set of well publicised house rules to go by “Don’t do this… don’t do that…” kind of stuff. Okay, I’ll admit that removing content is treading dangerously close to censorship, but, as with any discussion of this nature, there has to be a distinct line that shouldn’t be crossed. Spending Challenge, other than a “Report as inappropriate” button, doesn’t seem to have much moderation. Perhaps some form of pre-posting moderation should be implemented?

Another area that the site is lacking is in tangible feedback. Perhaps this is in the pipeline, but some way of telling people “Yes, we’re listening to you…” would promote faith in the excercise. Then there are the basics, like the ability to share and bookmark suggestions through the ususal social services; again, this would help spread the word and promote the site.

Like I say, the idea in theory is sound however in practice is a little underdelivered (and possibly overdeveloped? I have to wonder how much it cose to put together when surely some kind of open source solution would have done an equal job?) and poorly maintained. I’m all for open discussion and some of the points that could be considered “controversial” are very good fuel for debate and should not be removed; some, however, are just offensive and a better plan of attack for handling these should have been considered.

So, in summary, don’t blame the tools for peoples idiocy. The issue is often rooted deeper than that.

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2 thoughts on “Is the Spending Challenge website a menace to society?

  1. It’s quite hard to design around the social nuances of this kind of site, which is exactly why more effort should be applied.

    The issues are:

    1. You’re running at a very large scale, so labour-intensive moderation will be expensive.

    2. It’s not a real community. It’s too big and general for that. There are no generally accepted norms of behaviour.

    3. It’s deeply political, so a significant minority will have an axe to grind rather than genuinely wanting to create social value.

    We shouldn’t blame the tools for people’s idiocy but designers and site managers do have a responsibility to host the discussion in an agreeable and productive way.

    I’d address issue 1 by getting each commenter to pre-moderate the comment of a random person before them. i.e. They type their comment into a form and approve/reject/don’t know someone else’s comment at the same time. With the current ratio of sensible people to troublemakers this could be effective and sustainable, particularly when combined with a basic level of automated filtering/classification for sentiment, profanity etc.

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