Dispatches from the living amongst journalism's walking dead

No winners in online comment debate

From the time newspapers took a cue from blogs and added comments to online stories, we’ve been embroiled in debate.

I’ve been in the thick of it at Cincinnati.Com, where a big part of my job is in monitoring our site’s comments, maintaining our moderation policy and fielding lots of angry correspondence from staff and readers regarding those comments.

Everyone wants to debate whether the comments have any value (they do to those who comment), who’s responsible for their content (the law says the commenter is responsible, not the institution, but that doesn’t stop people from insisting otherwise).¬†They question if removing comments is stifling discussion on a topic – and if that’s such a bad thing.

Online comments are a gigantic albatross for our sites, but I believe we need them. While the amount of racist remarks, predictable political attacks and name calling on our stories could fill a book – they are worth it for the ones that really reflect a community’s mindset.

Newspapers are supposed to be a community hub – and we can’t fill that role without giving our readers a way to respond to the news the same way they do other places online.

At Cincinnati.Com, we do after-the-fact moderation (where users can report comments) on our 10,000+ comments each week in accordance with discussion guidelines we set up in May 2008. It’s an imperfect system – stuff stays on the site that shouldn’t because it isn’t found or reported – but people get to have their say.

When the comments really start flying off-base, sometimes we have to make the choice to remove them altogether. WaPo Ombudsman Andrew Alexander recently wrote about that paper’s recent struggle with such a choice. They use the same system as the Enquirer and it failed on them when a subject of their story was vilified by his family in the comments….

Regardless of his opinion – I say there wasn’t going to be a “right” decision in the case. There never is. No matter what we try to do, newspapers are never going to be able to please everyone when it comes to online comments.¬†Every time we remove comment abilities on a story, I get an angry influx of email. Every time we leave comments on a controversial story, I get an equally large batch of angry email.

Case in point, after months of clamoring from our readers, we moved the story comments to be off the articles and onto a separate page (like the New York Times). While we got a lot of thanks for it, we’ve also gotten tons of complaints from people who see this as a crackdown on their views due to some sort of bias on our part.

There’s a huge generation of readers out there who don’t like the idea of comments at all unless we magically make them all positive. There’s a whole other group who embrace comments and know how to act like a human being online. There are an equal amount who see the anonymity of the internet as an excuse to be an asshat.

There isn’t a fix for that aspect of things. There’s no way to force everyone to go by their full legal name online (even though people suggest that as an option all of the time). There’s no way to force some people to learn how to talk like grownups on the internets. There’s no surefire way to kick people off ours or any website for life.

At the 2008 ROFLCon, I had the chance to hear from several successful community managers (Fark, Reddit, etc.) and they all said the same thing: We can’t (and shouldn’t) control the discussion, we can only gently guide the community into moderating itself. We need to be (visible!) leaders in these discussions, but we also need to let the community judge what’s right and wrong. To some extent, everyone in our business is learning that right now.

I have my own theory that the majority of the problem commenters are newbies. Newspaper site commenters, in particular, aren’t the kind who have been members of online message boards or blogs before. They’re like kids with a loud new toy – testing the boundaries of what’s decent. Eventually, they’ll get tired of being shouted down or removed from the sites and either stop commenting or learn to fit with their online community.

I wholeheartedly believe we’ll all get better at interacting online in the coming years. As the novelty of commenting on stories wears off and a more online-savvy generation comes of age – people will come to value good discussions online. All of this, of course, with the help of great community managers.

For now, we hang on tight.

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5 Comments

  1. I think it’s worth noting that Fark, Reddit, Digg et al aren’t the same thing as newspaper websites, and that they’re designed pretty specifically to house community debate, comments, and so on.

    For me, the jury’s still out on whether comments on newspaper websites are useful in the first place. Having a comment feature attached to a newspaper story can change the dynamic of a specific story pretty significantly, and I don’t know that that’s what a newspaper wants.

    Not that I have any say, or expect to–but most of the time, I don’t read ’em, and I can’t say that I miss them if they, you know, magically disappeared.

  2. Brian

    I love to post comments on blogs, but after reading some of the stuff on Cincinnati.com as well as WCPO, WLWT, and WKRC.com it really makes me question the people in this community.

    Some of the stuff is so hateful to the poor, democrats, blacks, whites etc.

    I Read a horrible story about a family who’s house burnt and a couple of kids die, and all anyone can say is what kind of mother doesn’t die in the house with her kids? What a horrible thought to have in the wake of a tragedy. I just don’t get it.

    • I know – definitely, I know. So much of what goes into successful comments is about the community creating its own standards and policing itself to some extent – and from what I can tell that just doesn’t seem to be happening. Lots of horrible stuff never gets replies in opposition or gets reported as abusive…maybe the other commenters don’t see what’s wrong with expressing views like that? I don’t know.

  3. Chris

    Facebook Connect is one way to ensure that commenters use “real” identities. It’s a big step, but it’s an option.

    • Is it, though? I know quite a few people with fake Facebook identities (myself included). It certainly isn’t foolproof, either. Short of entering your banking or credit card info, I don’t see a surefire way to make people be honest about who they are online.

      We have been working on Facebook Connect on our site for awhile now – as have most sites. It’ll be nice if/when we get it up, but I don’t think it will be a cure for this particular issue.

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