Reinventing the Newsroom

Comments on Commenting

Posted in Communities by reinventingthenewsroom on August 14, 2009

At Poynter, Patrick Thornton’s advice on making comments better while showing trolls, racists and other ne’er-do-wells the virtual door should be required reading for digital journalists. For the most part, it’s simple, practical advice: Engage with commenters, elevate good comments in roundup posts, and hit the unredeemable with the ban hammer. And the one bit of advice that would require some back-end work — verifying users — is well worth considering.

One of the things I like best about the baseball blog I co-write is our roster of well-informed, thoughtful and witty commenters — often when I write a post I find myself wondering how Joe D. or CharlieH or KingmanFan or one of the many other Faith and Fear in Flushing readers will have to say. How did Greg Prince and I create that community? Mostly it created itself — we wrote stuff people liked day in and day out, and those people gave us a huge compliment by making our site part of their daily habits. But we also did some of the things Thornton advises: We joined the conversation and responded to comments on posts, and we had zero tolerance for trolling and commenters going after each other personally. (If we delete a comment, we explain why, in hopes that a commenter who’s new or had a bad day will understand and try again. We’ve never had to ban anybody.)

The result is a rich conversation and loyal readers. Readers appreciate a certain amount of protection: Everybody (even trolls) wants to see if their comment caused somebody to respond, but nobody (except trolls) likes to see a conversation go off the rails, with sniping and back-biting drowning out any attempt at an interesting discussion. Protect the conversation by kicking out the uncivil and you’ll eventually see something wonderful happen: Your commenters will defend your site against abusers and vandals as vigorously as you would, if not more so.

Still, I’m careful with the self-congratulations. Faith and Fear is a relatively small community, and scaling up personal moderation, promotion of comments and other good commenting habits is difficult. As Thornton notes, columnists should moderate their own work — it’s in their own best interests and should be a baseline part of the job — but I sympathize with reporters whose stories may hit a nerve and explode with comments.

That’s my one (mild) reservation about Thornton’s advice: It may not scale for big sites.

Big sites need not only best practices but also technological help, and figuring out the right mix is something I’ve been playing with for some time at EidosMedia. (Our editing-and-publishing systems include comment-moderation tools.) As is the case so often with the Web, I think the first answer is to give the tools to the commenters themselves:

  • Let users give comments a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Sure, some people will vote up everyone who agrees with them and vote down everyone who doesn’t. But that will average out, with trolls and blowhards voted disproportionately down. Fade or hide comments below a certain threshold, giving a site de facto moderation without resource headaches.
  • Let users “ignore” other users, so their comments are replaced (for that user only) by a simple **You are ignoring this user.** I use this regularly on troll-heavy discussion boards I frequent, and it’s really satisfying.

To that, add some tools and practices for moderators and site administrators, giving you a number of ways to keep undesirables in line:

  • An excellent tip from Placeblogger CEO Lisa Williams: Moderate new users’ first 10 comments. Trolls and haters are mostly people with poor impulse control, and few will be able to summon up the patience to leave 10 reasonable comments and then let rip. I bet doing this would eliminate about 90% of most big sites’ comment troubles.
  • “Disemvoweling” a comment lets trolls and tinfoil-hatters rage on, with only consonants displayed. I’ve heard the result described as like reading something said by someone who’s inhaled helium from a balloon — it emasculates hate speech, leaving the hater squeaking away in a vaguely comical fashion. You probably don’t need this if users are voting and new users are vetted using Williams’ rule, but it’s an effective option.
  • “Bozo filters” let the user keep posting, but he or she is the only one who sees the comment. Again, this might not be needed if you’re using the above techniques, but it’s a good alternative to the ban hammer in that trolls and troublemakers may not know they’ve been banned and seek to creep in another way. Plus there’s something wonderfully satisfying about it, isn’t there?

To all this, one more thought. Yes, comments promote a two-way flow of information between writers and readers, and that’s great. But seen from a slight remove, the health of a comments section is another way of measuring reader engagement. An active commenter has made your site a habit, and that’s what we all want. Habitual readers are different from drive-by readers coming in to a single article via search or sharing. They’re the readers you can tailor ads to, upsell to premium products or convert to subscriptions.

Voting buttons for comments are a form of moderation, but they also give readers something to play with. The same goes for ignoring users, and a host of other things you can do related to comments. Let readers see their number of posts, and give them visual rankings they can aspire to. Let them follow other users, direct-message them and fill out mini-profiles — tools borrowed from social networking. To spur engagement, do everything  you can to foster a sense of play alongside good conversation.

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