If you don’t want to talk to people, turn your comments off
Advance warning: long post is long, and opinionated. Please, if you disagree, help me improve my thinking on this subject. And if you have more good examples or resources to share, please do.
News websites have a problem.
Well, OK, they have a lot of problems. The one I want to talk about is the comments. Generally, the standard of discourse on news websites is pretty low. It’s become almost an industry standard to have all manner of unpleasantness below the line on news stories.
Really, this isn’t limited to news comments. All over the web, people are discovering a new ability to speak without constraints, with far fewer consequences than speech acts offline, and to explore and colonise new spaces in which to converse.
Anonymity isn’t the issue
It’s sometimes argued that many of the problems in overly aggressive commenting spaces stem from the anonymity of the participants. But (despite what Google would like you to believe) anonymity is not the root cause. People are anonymous constantly offline – on the train, for instance – but don’t resort to offensive behaviour. The issue is one of consequences.
Speech without consequences is easily regarded as inconsequential. And in many news comment spaces, there are no consequences for the types of speech we want to prevent – and no positive reinforcement or leading examples of “good” speech either. The issues are tone, civility, subject matter.
These issues don’t disappear when someone uses their offline name as an identity marker. People stop being rude:
when they care about the people they are speaking to and about
when there is an expectation for them not to be rude
when there are clear, accepted, enforced rules about what is acceptable
when there are strong examples of positive behaviour to follow
and when someone respects the space they are in.
Community is in individual comment threads
Every comment thread on every news site is an individual space. Every page on a website is a front page; every article is a landing page; every comment thread is its own individual conversation. It’s like booths in a restaurant, or rooms in a hotel – separate spaces, separate conversations, but linked by virtue of proximity, similar furniture and a shared environment.
This means that if your commenting policy is hosted away from your comment threads, it will not be read by most people who want to comment. If your pages do not provide your users with guidance, with cues to the standards of behaviour expected of them, then your users will not behave in the ways you would like. They will speak however they see fit.
Online, in your comment threads, they will have opinions messily, misphrase things, start fights, goad each other, show kindness, express joy, share stories, ask questions. The same way they would in spaces without rules offline. If you don’t set examples of good behaviour, or reward them, or empower the regular visitors to police their community by telling them the rules, your community will make its own rules, and chances are you won’t like them.
Set good examples
On guardian.co.uk there is an incredible team of community maintainers (not the same as the moderators), who spend time speaking with readers below the line. There are many reporters, contributors and long-time commenters who do the same – leading the conversation and demonstrating the rules of the space. They turn our live blogs and comment pieces into rooms with rules. They lead by example. They coordinate and communicate.
The system isn’t perfect. No system on this scale, right now, is perfect. They can’t be everywhere – time is finite, and the approach is still evolving – but they do a great deal. When users point out typos or ask tricky questions, they reply. When users contribute something valuable, they say thank you. And they are the voice of our readers inside the building too – commenter advocates who share moments of wonderful serendipity and fantastic human kindness from our threads. (I used to do something similar, clumsily, at Citywire, which is where many of these opinions come from.)
Listen to your users
A lot of news organisations don’t have these people, or they have far too few, or they don’t give these people the power or the technology they need. Without these people, comment threads are a little like throwing open the doors to your hotel and then not having any staff. There’s no room service, no bar staff and no cleaning, but there’s also no security and no penalty for misbehaviour. No wonder comments on news articles are often unpleasant to read – sadly, in a space without rules or consequences, groups of human beings tend not to be terribly nice.
In a space where no one in authority is listening, there will be a lot of attention-seeking behaviour. People like to test boundaries. If your user is genuinely trying to help – asking questions, pointing out problems, offering something of value – and you ignore them, because no one is even bothering to read the comments on your stories or because no one has the power to respond, then you are insulting their efforts to add something to your community.
Let people make friends
Interlude: go look at MoneySavingExpert’s forums. They’re not pretty, or particularly user-friendly, but they’re driven by community, and they are huge. They don’t just focus on saving money, though it is a key part of the conversation – they also discuss news, debate issues, and chat – generally pretty pleasantly. The space they are in has rules, which are enforced by real people, who are mostly unpaid community moderators. Their work trickles down to other community members so that the wider community polices itself. And they are allowed – encouraged – by the technology of the site to create and maintain relationships with other real people. They make friends.
Facebook comments also provide a simple, clear way for people who meet on your site to maintain a relationship and build a friendship. They can make persistent connections, something that comment systems as a rule often don’t allow but which can be vital to forming a stable community. And although different people have different rules when it comes to what they will or won’t say on Facebook, the general result is a space which now has boundaries, where actions have consequences. Of course the standard of debate is raised, if you had no standards at all beforehand.
But by doing this, you miss out on the wonderful things that are already happening on your site, and you push out the people who are already commenting there – people who care enough about your news to want to talk about it. If you’ve got open comments, chances are that somewhere within them, people are being nice to each other in ways you want to encourage. People as a group might often be quite unpleasant – but individual people are often very lovely.
If you want to bulldoze that rather than nurturing it, that’s fine – and for some sites that may well make sense, because of the sheer scale of the job. But it is a little like laying Astroturf over an unkempt, unmaintained garden because you don’t like the colour of the wildflowers.
In its simplest form: more comments => more pageviews => more ad impressions. But community is more complex than that – a thriving community where people feel welcome, where they have ties to others, where they have friends, is a place they will return to unbidden.That’s the allure of Facebook and Twitter.
A community with a strong group identity, where people feel part of something larger, is a place they will come to for more than just news. Look at Reddit, Digg in the old days, even 4chan. The strongest, most coherent, most successful communities online have elements of both – Mumsnet is a perfect example.
The temptation for news organisations is to chase pageviews at the expense of everything else – but a close, tight-knit community of loyal users might well bring more revenue, long term, than a free-for-all rabble, even if the rabble is making more noise. These are human beings at the other end of the internet, not just mouse clicks.
In successful games and communities, points and badges and leaderboards are not themselves valuable. They are feedback; they are measurements. Having many points is not success, unless those points represent something real.
Trust, helpfulness to the community, insight and so on are not measurable, but gamified systems provide a way of estimating those qualities – as long as those qualities exist. If gamified systems are built on top of existing communities, geared around encouraging the sorts of behaviour that the community values, then yes, they can work – Reddit and Stackoverflow are great examples of this. The incentive, though, is not to get points for the sake of getting points – it’s to gain the trust, respect and sense of belonging to the community that points represent.
Points are extrinsic rewards, not intrinsic motivators, and need to be tied to intrinsic value. Without an existing community, gamified comment systems are empty signifiers. Feedback systems that measure nothing mean nothing.
Talk to your users
The answer is not automation. The news industry can’t simply automate away its duty to respond to users. Small publishers and bloggers for the most part understand this, and – more crucially – so do our users. These are human beings at the other end of the internet, talking in our spaces, and we need to start treating them that way.
As an industry, we are terrible at this. We want people to comment but we don’t want them to say anything we don’t like. We don’t offer sensible commenting guidelines, and we don’t lead by example. Rather than stepping in and talking to people when they harass or abuse other users, we try to automate their behaviour away. We mistake attention-seeking behaviour for abuse; we mistake problems of civility for problems of identity. We don’t listen to readers when they try to talk to us. And then we complain that they won’t behave.
If you don’t want to talk to people, turn your comments off.
Important to note: this is my personal blog, and these views do not represent the Guardian’s organisational views. At least, as far as I know. Though I hope they agree with me about the brilliant work of our community team.
Here, in no particular order, are some of the resources that this thinking is based on.
I'm a journalist-type tech-ish geek person, working in that interesting ambiguous place where reporting the news meets all sorts of peripheral skills. In my spare time I herd zombies, design games and write stuff.
View all posts by Mary Hamilton