Mac Slocum

Whether intentional or not, Bob Garfield from NPR’s “On the Media” reopened an old wound when he questioned the need for user comments on newspaper Web sites.

The “comments issue” is polarizing. Die-hard community advocates
believe comments are an integral part of the online experience.
Detractors draw a straight line between user comments and the
apocalypse. It’s a contentious topic with very little middle ground.

For our purposes, there’s no point in looking at all the arguments
and counter-arguments. The comments debate has been going on for at
least 10 years (much longer, if you count Usenet), and it will persist as long as trolls continue to lower the conversational bar. That’s just the way it is.

However, this latest flare up offers an opportunity to redirect the
focus to some of the time-tested best practices for managing Web
communities. Derek Powazek (whom we recently interviewed for an unrelated piece) offers an excellent starting point with “10 Ways Newspapers Can Improve Comments,” and Cory Doctorow’s “How To Keep Hostile Jerks From Taking Over Your Online Community” is also recommended reading.

I’ve also picked up a few bits of wisdom from my own experiences as a community manager:

  1. Nurture the Good — The majority of people want to do the
    right thing. They want to engage in fruitful and fulfilling
    conversations. They want to build and protect special communities. These are the people you focus on.
  2. Push Trolls to the Margins — All popular communities will
    eventually suffer through a troll infestation. The trick is the
    minimize a troll’s impact by not taking the bait. Moderators should
    never engage in a public argument, and key community members should be
    encouraged via private messages and back channels to ignore troll
    attacks. A marginalized troll is a useless troll, and they know it.
  3. Share Ownership — I focused on inclusiveness in my first
    community because I was unsure about my own voice and opinions. In a
    serendipitous twist, the “we’re all equal and we’re all in this
    together” perspective led to a shared sense of ownership. It took a
    while for folks to buy what I was selling, but a consistent focus on
    collaboration and equality eventually led to individual responsibility
    and effective self-policing. I’ve used this same technique on
    subsequent communities and the results have always been positive.
  4. Calm by Example — Experienced community managers know that
    the Web is a fickle place; today’s egregious opinion often evaporates
    within a matter of days. A measured community manager allows fiery
    debates to run their course without spilling out of control, and on
    those rare occasions when guidance is required, a calm force is far
    more powerful.