B y 2009, the Post-Dispatch’s “Talk of the Day” column had been around for five years, and some at the paper were wondering whether it had run its course. Every weekday, more or less, the paper would pose a question to readers—“Why did Sarah Palin resign?”, for instance, or “Where did you play as a kid—and not tell your mom about?”—who would respond in comments. But the comments were often rude, or intemperate. Although readers seemed to enjoy “Talk of the Day,” the feature often seemed to divide rather than unite the Post-Dispatch commenting community.

On November 4, a little more than a week before he called the school, Greenbaum aired his frustrations with the feature in a blog post: “[M]any days, I am sorely tempted to stick a fork in TOTD and say it’s done…. Would you miss the Talk of the Day? Do you have any suggestions to breathe life into it? Is it worth continuing? Look, I get that politics is interesting and infinitely debatable, I just don’t think anyone’s really debating here; they’re just name-calling.”

Pretty much every news outlet these days wants to become a place where readers come to debate and converse with one another. But the conversations they hope to foster are predominantly authoritarian in nature, mimicking the one-way dynamic of talk radio rather than the two-way dynamic of friends talking. Talk radio is very popular. A lot of people like it. But there’s nothing authoritative about it. A talk radio host can be stupid, and glib, and abusive, and have no interest in legitimately conversing with or listening to his callers—and his failures will not necessarily result in a diminution of status. His listeners are an audience, not a true community, and they are only indirectly connected with the host and with each other.

Online news outlets today say that they’re trying to build a community, when what they’re really building is a talk radio show. They don’t present an environment where true communities can form—and then they act surprised when these “communities” fail.

In his 2007 book Living on Cybermind, the anthropologist Jonathan Paul Marshall writes about thirteen years in the life of Cybermind, an online mailing list founded in order to “explore, exemplify and discuss the sociology and psychology of cyberspace.” Marshall’s book is perhaps the best longitudinal study of online patterns of interaction that I have seen. The Cybermind community resembles the sort of community that news outlets might like to build—its members were highly intelligent, articulate, and engaged in the world around them. Understanding how and why the listmembers came to trust each other, and to trust the list as a community, might help outlets understand how things work—and why things don’t work—on their own Web sites.

Marshall suggests that we think about online community interactions in terms of the sort of “gift economy” favored by some stateless societies. On Cybermind, each individual message was a gift, and participants attained high status based on their skill at both giving and receiving. A good gift was salient, brief, and didn’t make too many demands on a receiver’s time. An accomplished giver gave their gift with the idea that it was to be received by a community, and with some idea of who would be receiving it. An accomplished receiver didn’t just let a gift sit there unmentioned, but instead acknowledged receipt and, if appropriate, reciprocated with a gift of his own. The most respected members of the Cybermind list were those who were best at this. They became respected for what they said and did, not for who they said they were.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.