The other day Bob Garfield had a good kvetch about dumb comments on newspaper websites on his show, On The Media, and I posted my two cents, but I still don’t feel better. I think that’s because Bob’s partly right: comments do suck sometimes.
So, instead of just poking him for sounding like Grandpa Simpson,
I’d like to help fix the problem. Here are ten things newspapers
could do, right now, to improve the quality of the comments on their
sites. (There are lots more, but you know how newspaper editors
can’t resist a top ten list.)
Anonymity is important in journalism, but not for comments.
There are a lot of good reasons to allow anonymity, especially in
the news. Sometimes a source needs to speak out against an employer or
the government without being named. Fine. But there is no reason,
really no reason at all, to allow people to post comments without
having to first sign up for an account.
Simply requiring an account will remove 80% of your comment
problems. If allowing anonymity is important, you can allow the user to
remove their name on a specific comment, while still requiring them to
be logged in. (In other words, the user must log in so the system knows
who they are, but they can opt to leave a comment as
“Anonymous” if they choose. Anonymous comments could then
be held in a special moderation queue for approval to guard against any
Set and Enforce Rules
Nobody likes finding out about a rule after they’ve broken it. Write a human-readable set of community guidelines (Flickr’s are excellent).
Make all new members agree to it when they sign up, and link to it
prominently from every comment form. This way, if you have to take
action later, you can say “We warned you.”
Then enforce the rules. Delete bad comments and publicly promote the
ones that are great. There’s a common misconception that
moderating comments makes you more liable. This is not true. Managing
your community does not have any baring on your DMCA compliance, safe
harbor standing, or any other legal issue.
Employ a Community Manager
If you can’t name your community manager, it’s probably you.
You wouldn’t let a writer put their work in the paper without
having someone check it, so why let commenters do so? If you’re
going to have people posting comments to your site, it should be
someone’s job to moderate them. Think of them as the editor of
the Comment Desk.
You don’t have to read every comment before it goes online,
but it should be somebody’s responsibility to remove any comment
that runs afoul of the posted community guidelines. Like graffiti in an
urban space, bad comments lead to more bad comments. But the Community
Manager should be more than a cop – they should be a vital connection
between the staff and the community. They should lead the community by
example, participating in the discussion and being helpful, and also do
a daily “community weather report” for the staff, feeding
the community’s input back into the newsroom.
Sculpt the Input
Just because your users can post comments doesn’t mean you can’t help them shape them.
Back in the day, when we had people posting comments to Fray,
we were constantly tweaking the form’s automated responses. If
you tried to post something too short, it asked you to expand on it a
bit. If you posted something too long, it asked you to edit yourself
down. If you posted in ALLCAPS, we de-capitalized it (Flickr does this
now). These are easy things for computers to do, and they make a huge
Empower the Community to Help
If you think bad comments bug you, they bug the good commenters twice as much.
Yes, you should be paying someone on staff to be the Community
Manager. In addition, you can also enable the community to help. Give
every post a “This is Bad” button. Then give the community
manager a private page where they can see the comments with the most
bad votes and take appropriate action.
For bonus points, give each post a “This is Good”
button, too, so they can also tell you about the good ones. Remember
that your members are not the enemy: they want to help you keep the
place clean, too.
Link Stories to Comments
The worst thing you can do is separate the “community
section” away from your content. That creates a backchannel,
where people feel safe being inappropriate because, why not?
They’re at the kids table, anyway.
So link stories to community conversations as closely as possible. This will give the conversation a central topic.
Enable Private Communication
The internet didn’t create the angry letter to the editor, but
it definitely put it into overdrive. And that’s okay – sometimes
people need to vent. Your job is to direct the venting.
Some papers’ comments are so crazy because there’s no
other way for the reader to respond. People will gladly communicate
with you privately if you gave them a way to do so.
So create a form people can use to email the editors, and link to it
from the comment form. Say: “If you’d like to say this
privately, go over here.” (Props to Vox, where there’s a “Send private message instead” link on every comment form.)
You may get some angry email this way, but it’s better in your
inbox than on the website where it will just start, or add to, a fight.
Get your writers involved in the conversation. People chill out a
lot when they know they’re being listened to by the writer (and
they act out a lot more when they think no one’s listening). I
know, writers can find this an onerous addition to their workload, and
have probably already decided that they hate their comments. Too bad.
This is part of journalism’s evolution, and you’re either
on the boat or you’re not.
One great way to get writers on board is to give them the ability to
moderate comments on their own stories. They can do this on their
blogs, they should be able to do it on their stories, too. (With
supervision by the Community Manager, naturally.)
… But Don’t Feed the Trolls
Members participating with good intentions are generally pleased
when the authority figures are participating. Unfortunately, that can
also bring out the trolls – bad users who are playing a game called “suck up as much of your time as possible.”
School your writers in the ways of online community. If someone is
trying to get a rise out of you, don’t fight back, no matter how
tempting. A good Community Manager can help train writers on how, and
when, to join the fray.
Give Up Control
Newsrooms are top-down places, but the internet is not. Get used to
the fact that people online won’t do things just because you told
them to. In fact, the only thing you can absolutely count on is that
something will happen that you didn’t expect. When it does,
you’ll be defined by what you do next. Be ready to be surprised.
As you can see, embracing community tools on your site takes work.
If you just turn on comments with open-ended tools and no oversight, of
course the result won’t be pretty. That’s because you
haven’t done the job of an editor – to lead by example, direct
the conversation, and sculpt the results.
The real reason comments on newspaper sites suck isn’t that
internet commenters suck, it’s that the editors aren’t
doing their jobs. If more newspapers implemented these 10 things, I
guarantee the quality of their comments would go up. And this is just
the basic stuff, mostly unchanged since I wrote Design for Community seven years ago.
Imagine what we could do if we could get past the easy stuff.