A comment on comments

In July last year, I gave a lunchtime talk to the BBC World Service about the meaning of ‘social’ online, the problems that we face with commenting on news sites, and the way I thought we need to consider social functionality design in the news arena.

I opened with a couple of videos: The infamous Mitchell and Webb “What do you reckon?” sketch that has served both Kevin and I so well in our presentations, and a Sky News ident promoting their discussion forums.

My point was that, since the earliest days, news websites have seen interactive parts of their sites, like comments or forums, as a place for a damn good punch-up. And those who thought that they were providing a valuable place for feedback and discussion found that they had actually created toxic environments. I probably (although I don’t remember) mentioned Comment is Free as the archetypal pit of vipers. I usually do.

I went on to discuss the core concepts of social objects, relationships, trust and privacy, and had a stab at attacking one of the core misunderstandings the media has about community: Your audience is not a community.

After attempting to run through what these concepts mean, and how they affect social website design, I went on to emphasise why this is important. From my notes at the time:

Bad community reflects badly on your brand.

A community of fringe voices is alienating and unconstructive, and opens your brand up to ridicule.

I closed with the point that designing for social interaction is not just a matter of slapping comments on everything, but requires forethought and a deep understanding of the nature of ‘social’.

The first question was asked by Peter Horrocks, the Director of BBC World Service. He asked if I could give them examples of any news organisation had done it properly. I replied that, as far as I was aware, no news organisation had taken the necessary steps to create social functionality worthy of note.

The first parts of news sites to get comments were the early blogs, many of them run on Typepad or Movable Type, which was by far and away the best platform at the time. This was before WordPress and before specialist commenting systems, so dealing with spam and moderating comments could be arduous, but most blogs had niche audiences who tend to behave better, partly because they actually get to know one another.

Then other parts of the news organisations heard they siren call of the comment, and before you knew it, they were everywhere. You could leave a comment on almost every news story you stumbled upon, regardless of whether commenting was appropriate. Stories of murders and rapes and disasters asked you, “What do you reckon?”, and people reckoned away.

I have never seen any evidence that news organisations take the problem of community seriously enough. For them, the more comments a piece got, the more page views, the higher they can push their ad rates. So long as nothing was libellous, hey, go for it.

Kevin has said that most news orgs don’t have an engagement strategy, they have an enragement strategy. Community strategies have been focused more on how to keep moderation costs down whilst increasing comments, rather than going back to first principles and figuring out what comments are really for, understanding people’s behaviour in comment areas, and then designing a tool which helps facilitate positive behaviours and reduce the potency of negative ones.

In the half-decade since news organisations have discovered commenting, they have failed to fully understand it and to modify their systems appropriately.

Now Reuters has finally taken a step in the right direction by adding a rating system that awards points for good comments and then, eventually, allows the user to earn extra privileges (which they can also lose through bad behaviour). They have also added profile pages which aggregate comments and provides a count of how many have been accepted, removed or reported for abuse.

That is a good start, but it is just a start. It will be interesting to see what effect their basic rating system will have. Whenever one is rewarding a behaviour, one has to think about how that reward system can be gamed and what unintended consequences might result.

In this case, I can see how a user might put a lot of effort into building up a large stash of points through adding a lot of easy, unobjectionable content in order to get to a VIP user status which they can then abuse. Yes, they’ll be punished for that abuse but not until some of their abusive comments have been published straight to the web.

Why would someone go to all that trouble? On the web, no reason is required other than “Because I can”.

Reuters’ system may help slow down the toxicity of news site comments, but it isn’t the full Monty. It doesn’t address how people might come to form positive relationships via their site. It doesn’t consider how trust ? between readers (or readers and journalists) may develop or be eroded. It doesn’t think about the social objects around which people may want to interact (hint: the story is not the atomic unit of news). It doesn’t do anything to develop a true community.

On privacy, at least, it is neutral. Contrary to the position of one commenter on Baum’s blog post, if you post lots of stuff in public, having that stuff aggregated into one spot is not an invasion of your privacy and is not speech-chilling. If you are ashamed of what your comments collected say about you, perhaps you ought to think a bit more about what you say.

So, Reuters get a point for trying, but which news organisation is going to really grasp the nettle and do interaction properly?

18 thoughts on “A comment on comments

  1. TED have had a ratings system for comments for years and it does exactly what you predict here. Members gradually accrue points for making short unobjectionable comments and all the system really shows is how many times you’ve posted. It’s easily soluble – all they need to do is divide the number of points gained by the number of comments made. I don’t understand why they haven’t implemented it, it’s such a simple fix. And, yes, I did email to suggest it to them. I’d love to see Reuters try it out, perhaps if it worked TED would adopt it too?

  2. The video game news site N4G.com has an interesting ratings system in place for commenters. It’s an absolutely necessary feature thanks to the utterly toxic nature of many comment boards there. Good comments are rated up by other users, bad rated down – the more good ratings you get, the more times you’re actually allowed to comment on a piece and vice versa.

    They also have a points system, but I have no idea what that’s for.

    Oh, and they have different comments sections for ‘idiots’ and ‘less idiotic idiots’ (my names, not theirs). It’s quite interesting, even if it isn’t from a ‘real’ news site.

  3. This issue (or a similar one; that of meaningless polling by news organizations) came up for me this morning when, following the death of yet another indigenous man at the hands of the Western Australian police and the release of data saying that WA police use their Tasers too much, especially against aboriginal people the Sydney Morning Herald asked it’s readers “Are the police too trigger-happy with their Tasers?”. I’m not sure if they used those exact words and my connection is too miserable to go back and check but they used the words “trigger happy”. What use is it to ask this inane question? It’s irrelevant whether Bob in Balmain or Eileen in Artarmon think the police are “trigger happy”. What matters is according to guidelines for safe use and all the data they do.

  4. I still believe that Phil Gyford’s solution to this is the best from a reader’s viewpoint:

    http://www.gyford.com/phil/writing/2010/02/04/comments-letters.php

    “Letters to the Editor;” curated rather than moderated, and requiring some actual thought from the writer in establishing a coherent response to a piece. The immediacy of the comment box does seem to bring out the worst from the online “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”.

  5. I think this is a huge problem for local newspapers where community is important and where the toxicity – good word – really can do damage, especially to local politics. I still find it extraordinary that it’s allowed, especially on small papers where the number of postings a day are small.

  6. @Colin: Ha ha ha. Cheeky!

    @Ellie: To some extent, averaging points per comment might help a bit, but I think what’s really needed is a much more nuanced solution than just points. It has to be nuanced, scalable, replicable and must result in higher quality comments. There are more factors involved in that equation, and it’s not a simple one to solve. I’m just disappointed that so few sites have even tried.

    @Ian: Thanks, will take a look at NG4 and see what they’ve got going on there!

    @Adam: Yes, completely agree that posing stupid questions doesn’t help matters. The BBC do it all the time, which is why Mitchell and Webb’s skit is so funny – theirs is a BBC show! But higher editorial standards across the board would help.

    @Mark: I nearly mentioned Slashdot and MeFi, but started to run out of room. I think their commenting system is interesting, but Slashdot still tends towards hiding the crap rather than encouraging good comments from the off.

    @Nichol: Thanks for the examples. I’ll go take a look!

    @Mike: Happy reckons are always welcome. 😉

    @Ian: Letters to the Editor have their place, but I don’t think that’s a solution to commenting – it’s removing commenting and replacing it with something different. I do think that it’s possible to rework comments so that they are healthier, and I think if we could do so then we would benefit significantly. I wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    @Kim: You’re right, this is a big problem for local newspapers, who are often on the slow side when adopting new technology at the best of times. Lord knows how long it’ll take them to figure out that they are poisoning their own well.

  7. How do you distinguish between a ‘positive’ comment and a ‘negative’ one? Is it just that one’s abusive while the other is constructive?

    If you start attempting to block people posting ‘negative’ comments then surely you open yourself up to being undemocratic? We live in a nation built on freedom of speech after all.

    I agree that derogatory comments could potentially reflect badly on the brand – Radio 5 had some idiot on the other day bad-mouthing all other members of a phone-in debate for daring to suggest that Labour had selected the wrong brother – but surely he has the right to his opinions – and to air them – even if I don’t like it.

    I don’t quite understand how you could police comments to a point where you select some over others because the reader might be more literate, coherent and put forward a better argument, which may be down to education and/or intelligence.

  8. @Richard: I think you’re reading too much between my lines.

    Firstly, this isn’t about democracy. Freedom of speech would be entirely unaffected by the creation a good, functional comment system that encourages positive interactions amongst users. Just as scissors encourage people to cut, so a well-constructed commenting system would encourage people to contribute things of value to the community.

    Whilst it is an interesting problem, that of drawing a line between ‘positive’ comments and everything else, exactly where it sits will vary from site to site, from story to story, depending on the context. But having some standards for what is constructive and what is not does not mean that you automatically marginalise dissent. In fact, a good commenting system would not just allow dissent but protect it by ensure that the mud-slinging that dissenters often suffer is less likely to happen.

    Everyone has a right to their opinions, but I disagree that everyone has a right to harangue, to bad-mouth, or in other ways be an asshole towards others in a public arena. Bringing public discourse to the level of Jerry Springer, which often happens in news comment spaces, isn’t a benefit to democracy, and working towards a system that encourages civility and constructive comments is hardly going to prevent anyone from having their own opinion and sharing it with the world. Anyone, after all, can join Facebook, start a blog, or use Twitter.

    Moderation is not censorship, and neither is encouraging positive behaviours.

    As for policing, why do you assume that the type of system I am thinking about requires it? And why do you assume that education or intelligence will necessarily be a key indicator of poor commenting skills? I’ve seen many well educated people abuse or harass others online. Where’s your evidence that that they are going to be privileged over others with different backgrounds?

  9. I totally agree that in a perfect world everybody who came to our news sites and who commented would provide comments that encouraged healthy debate.

    I just wonder how we decide on what is constructive and what isn’t – and are we being fair to all of our audience by making those kind of decisions.

    I suppose you could argue that, to our fair-minded audience, we should make those judgements…but who are we to judge? We are in a business world – but should we turn potential customers away because we don’t like what they’re saying or how they’re saying it?

    It’s a genuine dilemma for all news sites, I think, because we do want to be open to as many readers as possible.

    On the policing matter, how would you prevent ‘negative’ comments unless the area was policed in some way? Are you suggesting it’s crowd-sourced in some fashion so actually we, the news organisation, don’t get involved at all?

    And the only reason I mentioned education or intelligence is because I wouldn’t want to get to a point where a well constructed argument was seen as a more attractive comment than a one-liner, spelled incorrectly but still making a valid point. I wholeheartedly agree that educated people are capable of abusing or harassing.

    In summary, ahem, I love the principle of a community that can engage in heated debate but yet still be civil – and I’d love to get to that point with user comments on our news sites.

    Perhaps it’s down to the other users themselves rather than the site?

  10. Who are we to judge, Richard? We’re the readers.

    I’m a big fan of the Guardian’s cultural coverage, but the comments in that section have descended into a mass pile-on of hate since the announcement of forthcoming cuts. A subject area which should be bringing forth discussion based around contemporary art is almost entirely dominated by people who are disgusted by it.

    Semi-anonymous trolls have taken over; any attempt to discuss the subject seriously will quickly descend into pissing matches. I’m not interested in that, I’m not willing to condone it, and I don’t see anything changing. That’s why I’m firing up Greasemonkey and turning the whole comment section of the Guardian off.

    There seem to be no ethics in the world of digital comments. There’s no problem with banning people, because they always grab a new handle. There’s no reasoning to force people to not comment anonymously, there’s no peer review, there’s just the ongoing grind of mass perspective, even when it’s not the perspective that is paid for.

    Because what is paid for? What is the thing that attracts readership? It’s an authors voice. A singular voice sometimes, or (as the case of the Guardian) a political voice. It’s that concept of an auteur that guides a creative endeavour t have one message. And if I can’t hear that message, or hear that singular voice because of the shouting of the off-topic users, then something is deeply wrong with the way that commenting works. And I can’t fix it by myself.

  11. Richard, freedom of speech has nothing to do with this. You’re making a common mistake — confusing the right to say what you want (which you have) and the right to be given an audience (which you don’t have). If people want to make toxic comments, they have all the freedom in the world to either create their own blog and post, or go to a site that welcomes that sort of thing, of which there are plenty. Effective moderation removes toxicity without stifling dissent — and believe me, it’s easy to tell the difference. Think of it as the equivalent of “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” for blogging.

  12. I’d like to second the references to the quality of the Slashdot system (though it’s now rather too fiddly and complicated, and the quality of signal has declined depressingly over the last five years) and TheOilDrum. Another point along the moderation spectrum is http://www.unmannedspaceflight.com . This site started out for people with an interest in images from spacecraft, Mars rovers and the like. Thanks to the harsh-but-fair moderation policy (basically, zero tolerance for trolls, pointless argumentation and other negative behaviour, and a significant list of topics that are absolutely verboten because experience has shown they lead to flame), the quality of the discussion is unprecedented in the field.
    http://www.unmannedspaceflight.com/index.php?act=boardrules

    http://www.unmannedspaceflight.com/index.php?act=boardrules As

  13. I realise I’m awfully late to the party on this one, but: first of all, thanks for a thought-provoking post (and discussion) on a subject close to my heart. (By way of context, I spent far too much time earlier this year working on a report on blogging for the BBC and in the process exposing myself to some of the rigours of the online commentariat. In the unlikely event you have the appetite for more self-referential commenting on commenting, take a look here:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2010/02/social_media_and_accountabilit.html)

    More to the point, it occurs to me that another limitation of Reuters’ new approach is that when it comes to *collective* rather than individual abuse, not only does it not act as a barrier, but it could positively facilitate it, by giving a leg-up to those organised enough to form interest groups around specific political positions, a problem widely alleged to have occurred in the old BBC Have Your Say recommendation system, and more recently the subject of controversy for Digg (see http://www.unthinkableconsulting.com/blog/tag/digg for more on that).

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