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?

Chart: Who Participates And What People Are Doing Online

Kevin: An interesting chart based on Forrester Research that looks at online behaviours across age groups in the US. One thing that is very interesting is the relatively small group of "Collectors", those who use RSS and tag content to gather information. Even amongst the very active Gen Y group (22-26), the highest group of collectors is 18%.

Asbury Park Press blog launches coffeehouse newsroom

Kevin: In a move that echoes the FutuRoom in Prague and its network of news cafés across the Czech Republic, "Freehold InJersey, a community news blog run by the Asbury Park Press and Gannett, has launched a coffeeshop newsroom in conjunction with Zebu Forno Cafe in Freehold, New Jersey". "We hope that having a 'newsroom' in the center of town will encourage folks to drop by, talk to me and the other writers, and participate in a community conversation," said Colleen Curry, the editor of the website and creator of the partnership. It's smart, but the thing that sets the FutuRoom's cafés apart is that they also derive revenue from the cafés so that what was previously a cost centre, a newsroom, becomes a revenue stream.

Participatory media: Encouraging people to ‘level up’

Derek Powazek has an interesting analysis of the quirky quiz show on US public radio (NPR) called Wait, Wait Don’t Tell me and looks at the lessons the show provides in developing participatory media projects. What I like about this post is that he’s looking at a relatively traditional media format, the radio quiz show, through a different lens, from the point of view not of radio but of social media and gaming. I like from the start how he re-defines the term “crowdsourcing”.

For my purposes, it means collaborating with the people who used to be the silent audience to make something better than you could make alone.

I’m going to focus on two of his points and let you read the rest of the post to get the full monty. I couldn’t agree more with his second point about structuring input. You have to give crowds a goal, something to aim for.

Too many crowdsourced projects create a blank canvas and have a rather utopian view that the crowd will create a masterpiece. It just doesn’t work like that. You’ll most likely get obscene graffiti rather than a Van Gogh because not a lot of people engage with something when it isn’t clear what they are engaging with. A vacuum encourages vandals. They assume that no one is looking after your particular corner of the internet and will usually start trying to sell Viagra if you’re lucky. I still hear Field of Dreams strategies at conferences, a “build it and they will come” ethos that was discredited by anyone with credibility a decade ago. (If someone espouses such a strategy and dresses up with a lot of buzzwords stressed to impress, run away. They really are just snake oil salesman.)

I think Derek makes another good point when he says “Encourage the audience to level up”. Again, this is taking a concept from gaming and applying it to participatory media. Most people still passively consume media (although many more people are sharing and recommending media). It’s often referred to as the user-generated content pyramid or the 1-9-90 rule (although this might be changing). A participatory media project or service should give “new users a clear path, limited tools, and an awareness of that those on the next level can do”, Derek says.

Too often, media create crowdsourced projects that are akin to bad dates, they are all about us. It’s focused on what we, the media, not what we, the people, get out of it. As I’ve been saying for several years now, if user-generated content plays actually provide value to users, not just media outlets, then more people will participate. Creating levels for users and clear benefits for them as they contribute more is one solid strategy for achieving greater participation and better results.

The Wiki-fication of News: Topic Pages and collaboration

The concept of topic pages, living stories and the wiki-fication of news has been discussed for a few years now in journalism circles. However, now we’re starting to see this movement gain pace with not only examples on major news sites like the New York Times and the Spokesman-Review, a very pioneering local newspaper in Spokane Washington in the US, but also in a new breed of digital journalism start-ups.

For instance, Honolulu Hawaii-based Civil Beat (formerly Peer News), a start-up with support from the Omidyar? Foundation (of Pierre Omidyar founder of online auction site eBay)?, has recently launched with a focus five specific news beats: Hawaii, Honolulu, Education, Land and Money?. Omidyar wants to use the site to create a new kind of civic square for the 21st Century, and one of the features of the site is topic pages. For instance, they have in-depth pages on Honolulu Planning, Hawaii Student Achievement and Hawaii State Government Deficit. These topic pages are explainers that I would assume grow over time with new information. It’s not clear because much of the content is behind a paywall.

The paywall, or ‘membership’ model gives members full access to the site for $19.99 a month. I use the quotes, not necessarily to sneer, but because most people will see membership as a subscription. I suspect that the branding of it as membership is meant to highlight the community and engagement aspirations of the site. The journalists are referred to as reporter-hosts.

I might pay for a 15-day pass to explore the site a little further, but I do notice that the site has a lot of internal links but not many external links, at least from the content that isn’t behind the paywall. That might because of the very local nature of the content, it might be a strategic editorial choice or it might be the lack of internet proficiency by the reporter-hosts. It definitely is an interesting experiment, and it’s one that I will be watching closely.

Another context and community led experiment, Toronto-based OpenFile launched this week:

Structurally and editorially, the site is centered, as its name suggests, around files: topic pages-meet-news articles, focused on a particular problem or issue, that combine text, photos, video, and links — “sort of a multimedia package,” Craig Silverman (digital journalism director)? says.?

OpenFile has six core principles: Local first, always collaborate, keep tools handy, stay open, be useful and curate the conversation. They are good principles, and as Megan Garber says at Harvard’s Nieman Lab, it will be fascinating to see new media journalism maxims finally put into practice and tested. One thing that is very interesting is how editorially led this project is. The technology doesn’t appear ground breaking, although the design is pleasant and clean, but the editorial thinking is very forward looking. The key thing will be to see how this is put into practice. Not everyone take to this type of reporter-host, journalism as curation mentality natively. It isn’t something that most journalists were trained to do, and engagement is a difficult skill to train. The write up at the Nieman Lab is very comprehensive, well worth reading the full article.

Last week, I was at the European Alliance of News Agencies conference in Budapest, speaking about blogging and social media journalism. With news agencies suffering because their primary customers, newspapers, are suffering, many of the conversations had some element of revenue streams or new business models. It’s very interesting to see with OpenFile that they will be geo-tagging all of their content, something that I’ve advocated for a few years. Why would they make the effort? Wilf Dinnick, founding editor and CEO of OpenFile says:?

Because all our stories are geotagged, and we’re still focusing on local news, we will be able to deliver the major brands the opportunity to deliver advertising to very local levels?

Geo-tagging is available in many open-source content-management systems. With geo-tagging built into many camera phones and increasingly easy in digital cameras, it is now easier than ever to geo-tag content. It takes some thinking up front, but it’s a wise investment for the long term.


How to start a movement

Brilliant video here from Derek Sivers, who discusses with real insight what would otherwise have just been an amusing video of a guy dancing.

This makes me think a couple of disparate thoughts:

1. Nurture your early community members: They are the ones who will bring in new people to your community.

2. That explains why the early social media leaders are mainly now eclipsed by followers: later followers don’t follow the leaders, they follow the early followers. That says something strange about human nature, but I’m not quite sure what!

Hat tip to Johnnie Moore.

Involving your community

I just spent five or so minutes reading Randall Munroe’s fascinating blog entry about the colour survey he recently ran. Randall writes and draws XKCD, “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language,” which is a pretty popular amongst geeks.

XKCD’s popularity gave Randall a rather large pool of people to draw upon for his survey: In the end, “over five million colors were named across 222,500 user sessions.” That’s not bad going and certainly produced some interesting data to chew over. I rather liked this chart of dominant colour names:

Randall’s survey is a great reminder that your community, whether internal or external, are an amazing source of information that you can easily tap into. Services like Poll Daddy or Survey Monkey let you ask questions of your community, through which you could potentially be learning a lot about your business, your community’s needs, topics of interest… possible areas of enquiry are limited only by your imagination.

Well, in truth, you are limited by your imagination, your relationship with your community, and its size. There’s no getting away from the fact that if you have a tiny community, you won’t get a big enough response for the results of your survey to be meaningful. Equally, if your relationship with your community is poor, they won’t feel inclined to take the time to answer your questions. But if your survey answers questions they have themselves, taps into a vein of curiosity or, as in the case of Randall’s colour survey, provides a novel way of procrastinating, then you are much more likely to see success.

It’s worth having a think before you put any survey together on how best to do it. You have to get it right first time, because you can’t run the same survey twice and expect people to engage the second time round. I have learnt the hard way that you can read and read and read your questions over and over, and there will still be errors. So make sure you have time to do some test runs with friends and colleagues so that you can locate and fix errors. I’d also say that it’s important to understand how you’re going to analyse the answers before you formulate the questions. Services like Survey Monkey allow you to automatically create graphs to visualise your data, but if you get your questions wrong, the graphs won’t save you.

There’s so much potential for businesses who enter into dialogue with their customers and staff, and surveys/polls are just one way to realise some of that value. It just surprises me that more businesses aren’t nurturing their communities and collaborating with them to gather useful information that both parties can then benefit from.

Five counterintuitive rules for building community

“Communities aren’t built through grand visions,” says Julian Dobson his a great post about community building. A grand vision is nice ‘n all, but it takes action to build a community and there’s a skill in knowing which actions are the right ones. Julian runs through a list of five, and I think all of them are applicable to business communities as much as third sector communities. For example:

2. If you want to be a leader, start by serving.

Creating community, by definition, isn’t about ego. There’s no room for celebrities. Leaders prove their worth by mucking in and helping out. You win respect by being ready to serve. If you’re out to make a name for yourself, why should anyone trust you?

If you want to start a brand community or an internal community of interest, think about how you would engage with it and what you could do for others in that community. How would you serve others?

Julian’s post is very thought provoking, even more so when you put it in the context of enterprise community building.

Do you want a community or a following?

Fabulous blog post from Richard Millington today. Richard asks a very important question of companies who are trying to do community building: Do you want a community or just a really big following? Most businesses, he says, just want (need?) a big following and aren’t really suited to having a community.

You only need a community when your audience has a desire to talk to each other and when there is a benefit (to the audience!) from talking to each other. Very, very, few organizations fit this criteria. Perhaps as low as 1 in 10.

If you don’t understand what you want or need, you won’t have the right strategy to achieve your aims. Read Richard’s whole post for more insights.

(Hat tip to Stephanie Booth.)

How many friends can you make in a week?

The New Scientist reports some research by Susan Jamison-Powell at Sheffield Hallam University which seems to show that prolific bloggers are more popular, regardless of the quality or tone of their posts.

[She] studied the popularity of 75 bloggers on the site Livejournal.com. She looked at the number of friends each blogger had, the number of posts they made, the total number of words written and the overall tone of the posts. She then asked the bloggers to rate how attractive they found each of their peer’s blogs.

She found that the more words a blogger posted, the more friends they had and the higher their attractiveness rating. The tone of their posts – whether they contained mostly positive or negative comments – had no effect.

The BPS goes into a little bit more detail, explaining that the Liverjournalers were invited into a new community and then asked to rate their fellow community members after one week. I’m not sure if this falls within the bounds of Bad Science, but it’s certainly not an accurate reflection of how communities build in the real world.

My first problem is that you just can’t extrapolate from communities on LiveJournal to blogs in general. LiveJournal has always had a different demographic to, say, bloggers using Typepad or WordPress. LiveJournal has always had a gender bias towards women, for example: currently it has 62.5% female and 37.5% male, the rest unspecified. And the bulk of users are between 18 and 34 (with an impressive spike at 30), historically much younger than demographics for other tools.

Furthermore, LiveJournal is culturally different to many other blogs and blogging platforms and has traditionally been the meeting place for people who felt that other platforms were too open for them or who felt disenfranchised by mainstream tools and wanted to be with their peers. LiveJournal, for many, was where you could be yourself and enjoy the company of people like you, no matter how weird others thought you were.

LiveJournal isn’t a typical blogging community and results from studies on LiveJournal can’t be applied to other bloggers.

But furthermore, after only a week of getting to know someone, you have very little information to go on. Those who talk most will almost certainly get higher rankings than those who are quiet simply because they stand out and can easily be remembered. If you are trying to get to know 75 people in just seven days – and you have to ask if that is even possible – you’re going to rank the noisier ones higher just because they are the people you’ve had most exposure to. If you’ve had very little conversation with someone you are bound to rank them near the bottom simply because they are still strangers and humans tend to be stranger-averse.

How would this study have turned out if they had got to know each other over the course of a month? Or six months? Or a year? You know, real human friendship timescales. And how does the nature of the community change how people react to each other? The study doesn’t say what the raison d’être of the community was, and whether these people were gathered around an issue they cared deeply about or were just mooching around online, killing time.

The lesson that this study appears to be teaching is that bloggers should write more, and not worry about quality. Frankly, I call bullshit on the whole thing. The way that we form relationships through blogging is a complex and nuanced process, just like the way that we form friendships offline. We get to know people over time. We decide whether we agree with their points of view, whether we like the way they present themselves, how they interact with others and we build a picture of them that is either attractive or not.

That this study should get headlines in The Telegraph and BusinessWeek shows how poorly social media is still being covered by the mainstream press and how little understanding or critical thinking they do.

We do need a lot more research into the use of social media and particularly its use in the UK. Studies like Jamison-Powell’s, however, do not advance the debate in any useful way.