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Shut up so I can listen to you

Few things vex online news organizations as much as commenting does these days.
Many sites find themselves flooded with obscene, viputerative, sexist, racist or just plain dumb comments that they cannot afford to properly moderate nor influence and which leave them despairing for the quality of their audience.
Which is one of the reasons the Knight and Mozilla foundations are running a Beyond Commenting Challenge, hoping to unlock innovations in this critical piece of online

Shut up and die
Subtlety usually dies just after civility

journalism and my god speed them on that journey.  (UPDATE: the contest has closed: I'll cover the results in a later post)

When I look at the sorry state of our own news site’s commenting sections, I am reminded of the old maxim: Be careful what you wish for.
Where I work we complained for years and years that our online news had no commenting, no way for our community to have a conversation about the news. Our web platform was centrally managed within the chain (still is, sad to say) and commenting just wasn’t any kind of priority for them.
Our blogs - run on an outside platform, of course - had simple, robust commenting that attracted lively and useful discussions, a feature that helped beat bloggers build an audience and a community. We moderated them carefully, but it was well worth the effort.
One example: back in 2007, when I was the poverty beat reporter, I ran a story in the paper and a blog post about food bank donations dying off in the summer months. In the letters to the editor section of the print product, writers tutt-tutted.
On the blog, readers began talking to each other in the comment section, challenging each other to do something. One reader announced that she was going to organize her street and challenged her fellow commenter to do the same. In the end they put together seven different food drives that collected several thousand kilograms of food and a couple thousand dollars in cash for local food banks. The whole thing built in a matter of three weeks, entirely within the comments section of the poverty blog, by people who’d grown to know each other in that comments section.
That’s the power of commenting, the power of community.
It was less than two years ago that our digital team finally bolted commenting onto our web CMS.
And suddenly we we swimming in filth.
Well, maybe not filth, but certainly crass, petty, juvenalia.
A sample:

IlikeTurtles: Mayor X is nothing but a greedy crook, bent over his desk with his drawers dropped, waiting for the next developer, I’ll bet his Caymen bank account is bursting...

SaltyBoy327: It’s not the mayor that’s caused this mess - it’s all you pinko, poncho-wearing urban hipsters who’ve never worked a day in your lives but think you understand urban planning better than the pros

IlikeTurtles: Shut-up @SaltyBoy327 - I’ve worked every day since I turned 17. Pooh head.

SaltyBoy327: No, you’re a pooh head, @IlikeTurtles. Go take a shower.

… and so on.
I made that exchange up, but if you’ve ever dipped your toes into the caustic solution that is most newspaper website’s commenting sections, you’ll recognize it as a completely authentic exchange.
Why? Why does commenting work in some places - our beat blogs, sites built around comments like Metafilter and Slashdot - and fail so miserably in the general news section?
This question - and the debate over potential solutions to the problems it underlines - has raged for serveral years with solutions falling into a few broad categories:

  • Identity: Force commenters to either use real identities or identities that persist (i.e. can gain reputations) and the quality of commenting will improve dramatically. (The Batavian, Slashdot)
  • Investment: Charge people to belong to the community that can contribute - even a small amount will deter the trolls. (Village Soup, Chronicle-Sun, Metafilter)
  • Crowdsource: Allow the community to police commenting themselves, burying the bad and surfacing the good. (Digg.com, Reddit.com)
  • Moderate Heavily: Pay for staff (our outsource the work) to vet each comment to meet some standard. (thestar.com, cbc.com)

I wish I had the answer and could tell you which will work well - but I don’t.
If you have no budget for technological change I’d recommend a simple solution: turn on commenting selectively, for key articles that will likely draw discussion - and then require the reporter to moderate each and every comment, as well as engage with the readers in the comment section. That would be a win-win: higher quality comments and a free education in the new world of journalism for your reporter.
Still, I can’t help feeling that the reason we’re having so much difficulty solving this problem is that we’re still seeing it through our old media lens, that we’re framing the question, the ‘problem’, incorrectly, and that’s why it’s proving so incorrigible. I don’t know what the right question is, but I’ll bet it lies, not in the comments, but in our definition of a “story” that dead, delivered bit of information, sent from us to them.
Thoughts?

Worth Reading:
Mozilla/Knight Beyond Commenting Challenge
Philip Smith - Comments are Dead: Long Live Comments! 
Slashdot’s discussion on commenting 
Howard Owens on using real names

(Cross posted from my Shift Lock column in Newspapers Canada's The Publisher. Photo by Bixentro, used under a Creative Commons attribution licence)

4 comments to Shut up so I can listen to you

  • You’re right, the Spectator comment section is like the wild west, I alway post under my own real identity ot through Facebook. Thanks for a good read.

  • Lisa

    I think that comments sections can have a role when the article is something community based, or political, such as election time. It can be a time for meaningful dialogue – if people can respect each other’s opinion. If they stop long enough in their verbal attacks on people they don’t know, they might realize they can learn from each other :) From personal experience, the comments role is not suited to news articles where tragic events have occurred. I recall the funeral of a police officer in Toronto having pages of comments and people were brutally attacking the funeral expenditure and other related issues. I was appalled – I thought this isn’t right – his family will read this – how sad they have to see this. Then I found out first hand when I recently lost my sister in a tragic accident. In the anonymity of the online comments people make baseless judgements on all sides of a situation, without knowing the people or the actual circumstances or chain of events. Survivors can read. I pray no one ever has to endure a tragic loss – and it is my hope that should it be covered in media outlets, that the comments are turned off. It will save a lot of pain and anguish.

  • Lisa – I think you’re right that no single approach to commenting is going to work across all types of ‘news’ and commentary, regardless of what other tools you bring to bear (i.e. identity verification, etc). I sympathize with your concerns about the occasional thoughtless of people’s comments in times of tragedy – people have always been thinking and saying these things in their own social circles, of course, the difference now is that we can see them. But I’m not sure the answer is to ban those comments or close comments on those stories – there is real public good (in addition to the bad) that can come from societal reactions to tragedy. While I have sympathies, I think if it hurts or offends you, you need to not read them. We ignored/tolerated drunk driving for so very, very long – at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives – and we have only begun making a debt in that horrible cost by, essentially, vilifying those responsible, by casting them out socially (as well as punishing them). Since many drunk drivers kill their own loved ones, this vilification is especially traumatic for the family. But, on balance? Is maybe worth it? I’m not 100% sure, but I’d rather err on the side of openness and freedom. And Mark-Alan, you’re right the Spec’s comments are a Wild West – we’re working on it, but solutions are months away, sadly.

  • Lisa

    Unfortunately, one doesn’t know the comments are even there until one has finished reading the article in many cases :)

    Is there truly public good served for these commentaries on tragedies? Some people are truly genuine and express condolences to families they don’t know, which is beautiful. However, many comments are attacks and judgements on a situation that they were not a witness to, have no actual knowledge of. They make baseless assumptions of what they presume might have happened, assumptions based on the media’s reporting of the ‘facts’. I use ‘facts’ in quotes, because it has been my experience that ‘facts’ reported are not always accurate. Only part of a picture often is represented, realizing that sometimes that’s all the information that might be available too. Given that, is there really public good that comes out of comments on part of a picture?

    You’re right, there’s no one-size fits all. Not sure what the solution is.