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?

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