Project: H2otown, an online community and news site for Watertown, MA

This is Nicnoc — he’s a space alien (and, okay, a puppet). His job is to understand human behavior — exclusively through town council meetings in Watertown, Massachusetts. ┬áThe gag is that Nicnoc doesn’t really understand anything he sees — he gets everything wrong.

Nicnoc was a popular feature on H20town, an online community I launched in 2004 and ran until 2009. Production values were low, budgets lower, and jokes were pretty silly.

I knew we had something special with H2otown when participants in the online community threw themselves a first birthday party (they were kind enough to invite me!).

But why present news in this way? I think sometimes we forget that not everybody feels entitled to have an opinion about everything. It can be hard to remember this, as blowhards often dominate online conversations. But bringing in people who might not feel they have much to say about who’s running for school committee, or the politics of the zoning board, was vital to this project’s success. Humor, and bridging questions, were really vital in broadening the online community and making it into something organic that community members themselves felt they had some ownership in.

It’s easy to go wrong when using humor in a community context, too. Even a site like H2otown quickly became seen as an authority to people who read it every day. A peer who cracks a joke is fun; an authority figure who does risks being seen (or actually becoming) a bully. My approach: I made sure the joke was always on us, never on community members.

Watertown provides a case study of citizen journalism on the web,” Commonwealth Magazine, February 2006, Dan Kennedy

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