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.

This is why Facebook comments are effective, when you install them on a site that has no community to speak of. What you do, when you do this, is bulldoze the existing ecology of your comment section in favour of using Facebook’s instead. It’s a double-edged sword. The fact that Facebook comments are also posted on people’s profiles means that you are relying on the rules of their self-created space on Facebook to keep them civil, pleasant and on-topic. That’s fine, if the rules of your own space don’t already do that, and if you’re happy handing over the social side of your site to a competitor.

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.

Chasing pageviews

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.

Gamified comments

That’s something that seems to be forgotten in many new, gamified systems of news commenting. I had a rant last week about a Nieman Lab article on this subject; since then, Mathew Ingram at GigaOm published a piece on gamification as a solution to anonymity, which prompted me (in part) to write this post. The main issue I see with these particular systems is that they are mistaking the map for the field.

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.

16 thoughts on “If you don’t want to talk to people, turn your comments off

  1. The issue is one of consequences.

    And the lack of them.

    I have what I choose to call the “Smack in the Mouth Rule”. Simply put, never say anything to anyone online that would earn you a justifiable smack in the mouth if you said it in person. To do otherwise is fundamentally cowardly – you’re just hiding behind your keyboard.

    It’s how I behave towards others online, and it’s how I expect other to behave towards me – if not, they don’t get a second chance. I also have a published Comments Policy, which is rigorously enforced http://ronsrants.wordpress.com/comments-policy/

    Rule No. 1 This is not a democracy – the only absolute right to free speech, here, is mine.

    Basically, my blog – my standards.

  2. I forgot to mention that I also have an extensive keyword filter, and every term of abuse from my comments goes into it, along with the contact details and name of every abusive commenter – it keeps most of the psychos at bay.

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  4. +1. Particularly enjoyed the hotel analogy. The question is, of course, how does one communicate all this to one’s superiors?

  5. Great post which also proves the point that not all long blog posts are overwritten. A couple of things stand out for me, the main one being the issue of anonymity. I think you’ve understated the impact the ability to be anonymous has on a community. If you remove anonymity, you are much less likely to have people making the sort of comments which others find offensive, or unacceptable. Insisting on real names doesn’t make a good community on its own, but it is a massive part of it. Insisting on real names empowers others in a community to help create the community they want to be part of, because they feel they are dealing with, or complaining about, real people.

    I also think it is important as many articles/stories/events are made open for comment as possible. The Daily Mail does this, as do many regional publishers. This empowers the reader to decide what they want to comment/interact with. The Guardian has, as you say, been successful in the areas where it allows commenting on its sites, yet as a user of its sports section I do find it a little frustrating that so few articles allow comments. I don’t like the idea that we, as journalists, decide what parts of our websites we open up for comments, and leave the rest to effectively shout ‘here’s what we’re saying, but your opinion on this isn’t important.’

    Finally (for fear of writing a comment longer than your post!) I think there’s a difference between the comments generated for a liveblog or set-piece event and the comments which are generated under articles – the former are pro-active (we encourage people to get involved because we think they can add something to what we are doing), the latter are reactive – we should welcome them, create the environment for them, and empower the reader to feel safe, influential and valued.

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  7. @davidhiggerson Thanks, David. I want to make a distinction between pure anonymity, of the kind you find on 4chan or on blogs where people don’t even have to log in to comment, and persistent pseudonymity, which is what most news sites practice. There are hundreds, probably thousands of examples of communities around the web where persistent pseudonymity is the norm, and as yet I’ve found no evidence to suggest that trolling, harassment and so on are raised as a result of this. Livejournal, Dreamwidth, StackOverflow, Reddit, Tumblr, Mumsnet – these places are no worse than Facebook and can be a lot better than some parts of it. Persistent identity with consequences attached is the common thread here, and I would strongly argue against a “real” names policy for news organisations for exactly the same reasons that the Google+ policy is a bad idea.

    I agree that it’s good to open articles for comment – but not if you can’t pay any attention to what’s happening in that comment thread, and not if it fragments a conversation that’s happening in one place by opening up lots of other spaces. If the main community space is on a liveblog, then it makes sense to me from both a resource and a community perspective to close comments on related articles, to avoid fragmentation. But that’s my opinion, and not necessarily the Guardian’s – and I’m sure there are a lot of other ways to approach that particular problem.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph. Recognising that different types of content will provoke readers to comment in different ways is another facet to realising that every article is its own space. Users are primed by what they see on the page, so taking those contextual cues into account when assessing comment behaviour is vital.

  8. I’m probably being a touch arrogant here, but I feel like there is something crucial we’re missing here.I’m not entirely clear on internet history, so I’m not sure if commenting was something blogs started and newspapers imitated, but I think most people would agree that the commenting format works far better in blogs than anywhere else. Why? Blogs, like forums or Facebook, are a form of community. But an asymmetric one: blogging is like an expedited form of publishing, which gives all sorts of people a voice who wouldn’t have one otherwise. It feels to me like many people comment on each others’ blogs because they expect/hope for comments in return, so blogging becomes a communal thing, where you stave off insecurity about your own writing and protect yourself from the possibility of being wrong by giving people an opportunity to provide their input.And a lot of the time you’d expect the blog poster to reply to the comment he or she receives. That’s just not the case when it comes to content available to millions of people. If you look at something like The Economist, or Krugman’s blog (via NYT) you’ll see that it’s very hard to have a dialogue with one other person, be it the original poster or just another commenter. This is discouraging. Valuable posts aren’t rewarded with attention; the avenues of instant gratification are disrupted. There is far less incentive to post your thoughts. It’s the same with youtube videos: unless you personally know the poster, you comment will be swallowed up among the millions. Even too much signal becomes mere noise.

    Trolls are a special case. You wouldn’t expect to find a persistent one on a small, personal blog, because comment moderating means they’d quickly lose their ability to speak. Plus the exposure is tiny — trolls, I guess, want to be heard. I got referred here by the guardian article on their motivations and I can’t say I’ve figured it out, but it’s clear that they are not interested in value-adding communities that build upwards.This comment is a bit directionless, but what I’m trying to get at, I guess, is that I can’t see any newspaper having a really good commenting section. Intelligent discussion of articles is important, but I think this format is flawed. The facebook approach might work, depending on what sort of communities people interact with on facebook, but again, you’re basically tapping into *those* communities. If I post a comment on an article on facebook, I’d expect my friends to see it and reply, not strangers.I mean, I feel like a lot of the time, technological changes on the web are implemented simply as a matter of keeping up with the competition. *Everyone* has comments, now. But maybe we need to step back and think about how and where they work best. How do we really expect people to interact with online content, and in particular, journalistic content? This is really very complex!

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