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Stronger communities, better comments

The Halifax Chronicle Herald signalled today it’s going to beef up its commenting system to improve the level of discourse on its site. Good to hear. Much of what passes for comment on news websites continues to be the lowest possible level of name-calling and uninformed bravado.

The Herald’s director of news content Dan Leger states:

“So we’re working on ways to end abuse, partly through registration and software to encourage use of real names and identify abuse. It won’t be perfect, but perhaps we can temper the over-the-top attacks.”

The issue of weak commenting systems was highlighted nationally last Wednesday when Halifax weekly The Coast said it would surrender the IP addresses of commenters following a Nova Scotia Supreme Court order. It’s the first time a news site has done that in Canada. Two senior fire officials at the Halifax Regional Municipality had sought to unmask the identities of these commenters, alleging they defamed them by painting their behaviour as racist and incompetent.

The move resulted in many people online and on local radio imploring news organizations to adopt a policy requiring real names for commenters as a means of raising the quality of online conversation.

They wanted to hear from someone like Howard Owens, who argues a real names policy is practical and enforceable at his New York State news site The Batavian.

I check public databases for names that match in the zip code provided. If no match, the user is asked to provide either by fax, e-mail or in person a copy of a picture ID.

Owens, himself, calls his policy “a ‘best effort’ practice,” siding with the news executives Richard Pérez-Peña cited in his New York Times article last week who “say that merely making the demand for a name and an e-mail address would weed out much of the most offensive commentary.” He may be right.

But while this may work at smaller news organizations, it is likely to be unworkable at sites that get tens or hundreds of new registrations a day. Pérez-Peña says as much in the Times story, which details the growing unease of news organizations with anonymous comments.

Real names strikes me as an offline solution to an online problem.

I argued in an interview on CBC Radio’s Mainstreet Nova Scotia last week that the big problem with the comments areas on most news stories is they seem to be abandoned by the news site itself. The result is the so-called “broken windows” problem — it becomes a wasteland vacated by moderates who have been long-since shouted down by blow-hards.

Author/blogger Scott Rosenberg states: “Show me a newspaper website without a comments host or moderation plan and I’ll show you a nasty flamepit that no unenforceable ‘use your real name’ policy can save.”

I’m much more intrigued by Gawker’s approach. It implemented a more robust software system last year that gave its staff and community a way to promote the “funniest, thoughtful, intelligent, well-argued” comments. It divided its community into two tiers:

  • a small community of “starred” commenters “who have proven themselves to be engaged, intelligent, humorous, fair-minded, thoughtful, rational.” These people can promote “well-written, thought out, intelligent and/or otherwise notable comment” below stories.
  • The rest, whose comments will be obscured behind a “Show all comments” link

A key aspect is that the discussion is guided by an engaged community with an interest in creating a place people want to be. In addition, the community is fluid, with new commenters rising to become stars, and people who abuse their star power falling to become relative nobodies.

Gawker Media CTO Tom Plunkett suggested in this graph last week, that the site recovered — and thrived —  from an initial drop in comments that resulted from stripping people’s status based on the number of followers they had — and making many comments more difficult to view. He concludes: “purging commenter accounts is not a solution for the out-of-control commenter community. Nor is a large moderation staff.”

Will this completely stop defamatory comments? Probably not. Editor moderation is likely the only way to do that. But it’s a bottom-up — not top-down— prescription that seems a better fit with the medium.

Comments

Great article Tim. I too like Gawkers approach and I suspect that much like YouTube and the rating systems, it will be “users” who will determine the junk and can push it to obscurity. That doesn’t solve the anonymity issue but helps control the junk.

Thanks for the mention and link.

Call me arrogant, but I’m confident I could make the policy and enforcement scale to any size site. A bigger site would require a bigger investment, but it could be done, and it wouldn’t cost that much, relatively speaking.

Tim, thanks. I would add that even with registration and filters, the Herald will likely continue comment moderation. We are also very interested in this notion of “trusted users” or “starred commenters” who should be able to interact with little or no supervision while the trolls are shunted aside to abuse and bully each other in peace.

The “broken windows” in the Comments clearly devalue the online neighbourhood created by news organizations. Maritime Noon callers have mentioned (on the 2 occasions we’ve explored this topic)that the Comments on CBC sites rarely add to civil public discourse and are much more likely to range from the inane to the offensive – in sharp contrast with the other editorial content. Dan Leger’s article today alludes to the staffing issue (i.e.with skeleton crews for newsgathering & editing, can you afford a full-time Comments Editor ?). Question: would people stop reading online sites if they couldn’t post Comments ?

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