The Pantagraph’s Time-Out, and Other Ways to Improve Comments
Central Illinois’ The Pantagraph recently instituted a brief time-out during which no comments were allowed on new local news. The reasons why will be all too familiar to anyone who’s tried to host an online community or even be a member — which is to say just about everybody.
As editor Mark Pickering explained in announcing the time-out, “the problem is one of civility. … Unfortunately, some commenters choose to ignore the rules of fair play and civil discourse, which only yields responses from others that turn a legitimate ‘discussion’ into a free-for-all that has no place on our Web site.”
I certainly sympathize. But I think The Pantagraph — and many other news organizations and Web sites dealing with the same problem — would get more out of giving its readers tools to help them police their own community.
The Pantagraph already has some pretty good tools, including a mini-social network in which commenters can friend each other, write their own blogs, and create compelling personas. That’s a great start. And on the discussion side, readers can report abusive comments. But comment moderation doesn’t scale particularly well once communities reach a certain size, it only takes a couple of trolls to spoil a discussion, and hiring more moderators is an expense few news organizations can afford right now.
What’s more likely to work is to put more tools in readers’ hands and to give them more to do within discussions. It’s fairly simple for a good IT department, it’s cost-effective, and it lets readers do the work for the news organization — a principle espoused by Tom Sawyer long ago.
For instance, give users the ability to vote comments up or down, and then fade comments below a certain threshold. The typical objection to this is that people will vote up those who agree with them and vote down those who don’t, and so cancel each other out. To a certain extent that’s true. But enough people will punish bad conduct that trolls and the serially obnoxious will get voted down and out of visibility, effectively moderated without staffers having to intervene. Moreover, voting up or down can be addictive — and anything that gets readers to spend more time on your site is potentially valuable to you.
Second, let users “ignore” other users, replacing their comments (for that user only) with a string such as **You are ignoring this user.** It’s surprisingly satisfying, and effective — particularly if users can see how many people are ignoring them.
Finally, make users’ “rank” more apparent. Show their number of posts, giving visual awards after a certain number. (Seems nuts? Think how excited some of us get when the color of our eBay star changes.) Show the average rating of their posts by other users, their number of friends, and things like that. Valuable readers get to advertise their value to the community, while readers who need to work on their impulse control can see that as plainly as everyone else can.
These tactics not only let readers help with comment moderation, but also give discussion boards a sense of play, making readers more likely to engage with them and come back to them. That’s a win-win.
In addition, give moderators and site administrators some targeted new tools, such as disemvoweling (reducing a troll’s comment to consonants only, which turns hateful screeds into comical blither) and bozo-filtering (which lets users keep posting, but only they see their comments). Those two are useful, but my favorite idea belongs to Placeblogger’s Lisa Williams: Moderate users’ first 10 comments.
It’s a simple idea, but a really effective one. Trolls and haters want a reaction, and thrive on instant feedback. Few of them will be able to control themselves for 10 comments just to get a rise out of someone with the 11th. Reasonable people, meanwhile, will understand the reason for the trial period (particularly if you approve comments held for moderation quickly) and may even appreciate what it does to the tone of debate.
The Pantagraph’s heart is in the right place. But I doubt its cooling-off period will work — if people who like to bait each other on discussion boards thought about their own actions, they wouldn’t indulge in name-calling and incivility in the first place. Yet the Pantagraph, like other papers, has fields too big for a few shepherds to police. The best defense against wolves? Pass out sticks.