Evolution of comments needed

Amidst all of the brouhaha of the latest instalment of bloggers versus journalists, George Brock, the head of journalism at City University, hits on something that is important: Comments on news sites need to evolve.

They’re rarely rewarding, many comments overlap, the sequence is incoherent and quantity of rewarding reads very low.

This isn’t to say that comments and user contribution are problematic, but in many ways users comments have become a victim of their own success. When I was doing research about blogging in 2005 for the BBC, I quickly realised that something happened when you brought blogging technology to large media organisations. The scale of audiences and the potential level of participation, even considering participation inequalities, would quickly overwhelm these systems. I could see if first hand in the BBC News online newsroom that summer.

I often wonder if we need to go back to first principles with comments. Why are we doing them? I’m serious. We need to ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve with comments. In some ways, I often feel as if comments are just vox pops, or man on the street at an industrial scale. Are user comments just another way to canvas public opinion? Mostly, comments are seen as a way to increase user time on site, which isn’t in itself a bad thing.

I’d argue that user interaction can be so much more. I think we should be using interactivity to capture the expertise in our audiences asking them what they know not just what they reckon. I think more active interaction on the part of news organisations begets better contributions, and I’ve got five years of examples and personal experience to prove that. It’s not a quick hit for traffic like writing a shouty comment piece is, but it helps build a loyal audience over time, one that comes and stays because they see value in the interaction, not just because they like to let off some steam or enjoy verbal jousting.

There is also increasing evidence that asking people to display a certain level of commitment might not only improve the quality of comments but also the quantity. Josh Benton at the Nieman Lab has written about Gawker’s ‘tough love’, what they refer to as a tiered commenting system, introdcued in mid-2009. It initially led to a drop-off in comments, but now growth has increased and at a faster rate than before the system was in place. As a Gizmodo reader, Josh believes that the comments have improved as commenters are in essence made to audition. For news sites, Josh sees a lot of lessons from the project and writes:

In any event, complaining about awful commenters seems to be the first thing any gaggle of journalists does when lamenting the new news reality. The default solution has been to say every commenter should have to use his or her real name — a solution with practical as well as ethical problems. (Although Facebook Connect may be taking away some of the practical concerns.) Still, there’s a whole world of ways a news site can improve the tenor of its comments while keeping itself reasonably open. Gawker Media’s success is one example of how.

And last month, Josh says that growth trends are continuing. He says that the systems strike the best balance between complexity and simplicity of any comment system. It’s definitely worth a look.

I couldn’t agree with Josh more. There are so many ways that we could improve the tenor of comments. The first step might be rethinking the content. The constant shouting of columnists begets shouting from commenters. Shrill comment pieces beget shrill comments. It doesn’t require a PhD in psychology to see that content meant for another age might not work as well in this age of rapid response from thousands of online commenters. Honestly, the lack of evolution of content is one of the first stumbling blocks in terms of community strategies. As Clay Shirky says, technology won’t solve what are fundamentally social problems.

The most sophisticated commenting system in the world won’t prevent a blow up when your writing style is akin to wielding a flame thrower in a forest of tinder dry wood. Venomous columnists defend their right of free of expression but condemn the blow back. You can’t square that circle.

Now, you might argue that this is my personal choice if I don’t like shrill columnists. I never read them, and as busy as I am, I doubt I ever will. However, my response is that a content strategy akin to filling a swimming pool full of acid and adding demon piranhas is, for most sites, bad business. That kind of poisonous environment is very expensive to manage and moderate, and advertisers will avoid it like the plague. Also, and I know this from seeing the stats, often this content might have a quick hit in traffic while people rubber neck online to watch a good fight, but they are mostly drive-by visitors. They are here and gone in less than five seconds, no good for you unless you believe the juiced metrics that include these fleeting clicks.

We have a lot of options. The content needs to get smarter just as the commenting systems need to evolve. I know a lot of people working in community on news sites know this. What’s holding us back?

5 thoughts on “Evolution of comments needed

  1. This is an overdue look at an interesting problem. It feeds into the wider issue of how you engage your users. In the search to get value (and revenue) from content, I think it’s important to engage your visitors. If you do that, they in turn add useful, relevant comments that build on the original content making it more useful and valuable.

    This is all very well for niche content, and in my experience, the more niche the content, the less venomous and more useful the comments are. This holds true on big sites like the Guardian (just check out the rugby blogs, as opposed to CiF) as well as niche sites like FlightGlobal.

    The difficulty is to find the value for much broader news type information. Maybe we should be questioning the value of having comments on some articles/columns at all, if all they are provoking is a tide of anger? I don’t know what the answer is, but it is certainly worth going back to first principles and exploring the possibilities.

  2. Aaron,

    I think the first few years of discussion about engagement around journalism was whether there was value in it, and then as participation became the norm and the basis for a number of new content sites, the traditional media took notice. However, something shifted. The focus became all about commentary and comments and much less about partnering with our audiences to enrich our journalism and deepen our engagement with them. I guess the notable exception would be Alan Rusbridger and still forming ideas about mutualisation.

    Oddly, at the BBC, we used to do this long before the Have Your Say platform was around basically using nothing more than a call for contributions or first person witnesses at the bottom of a story and an email inbox.

    My call to go back to first purposes is really a call from a journalist trying to think about how can audiences really participate in what we do, not simply by giving their opinions but by adding their expertise and experiences. I think the Public Insight Journalism project in the US has been doing this for a few years under Andrew Haeg. Public broadcasters are doing this.

    I’m not entirely sure that we need comments on everything. I really don’t. I advocate that sometimes journalism is just intended to convey information. Editorially, it’s not a call for participation. I think engagement has to be part of a much deeper editorial strategy in which we really think about what we want people to do, how we want them to contribute. More blog posts will follow I am sure. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I agree with your point on the shift in focus from engagement to provocation, by which I mean the aim was to provoke comments rather than engage in conversation. I wonder if one of the reasons for this was that media organisations confused their audience with their community.

    Although the community is part of the audience, it isn’t the same thing. It’s the community that you need to engage as a writer/editor/media organisation if you want comments that evolve an article rather than making it a sound stage for polemical rants and personal/political attacks.

    Again, with niche content, because you generally need to be interested in the topic to read it (if you’re not interested fishing, who wants to read ‘fly fishing’). Your audience and community are much closer. I wonder if more work needs to be put into identifying who your community is, who you should be engaging with. This is something that I think would be quite frightening to a lot of journalists and their organisations, who fear losing control of what they write about. But i think that’s part of the process of engagement.

  4. Good post. I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue from different angles recently, due to my new assignments, which I’ve yet to announce, and the comment culture I’ve met there. My new employer has actually turned off the comment section on most of the news articles, using Twingly to allow blog reactions under the articles instead, and has started to re-introduce comments on more specialist stuff – like travel articles, but here they’ve outsourced comment moderation. Blog comments on the other hand are pre-moderated.
    What I’m finding, and its not a new observation, is that each news site seems to have its own comment culture, and whether you’re a journalist, columnist or blogger working for the site, readers will at times attack you for “being” the site you work for and not for what you write. Sometimes you do get invaluable comment threads adding real perspective to a certain topic, but you can almost predict which articles will attract flame wars – such as those on Islam and immigration – and some sites’ comment culture is more vitrolic than others. And of course, if you write for a site owned by the journalist union, which I have done in the past, you’d better be very careful to never make any grammatical or punctuation mistakes – or you’ll be flamed instantly;-)

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