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?

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