Dispatches from the living amongst journalism's walking dead

Anonymity isn’t to blame for bad site comments, it’s a lack of staff interaction

A Twitter discussion I glimpsed Sunday – and follow-up blog post and discussion about it from Steve Buttry – has had me thinking a lot about anonymous commenting on news sites yesterday. Of course, a lot of that also comes from the fact that I returned from a week-long furlough to moderate comments on the morning after the health care reform bill passed (I don’t know what the mood is like where you are, dear reader, but it’s pretty heated here in Southwest Ohio).

As I’ve written here before, it is part of my job to navigate the waters of Cincinnati.Com’s article and blog comments to determine what should stay and what gets removed as per our terms of service. Back in 2008, I helped set up the site’s comment system, wrote our discussion guidelines and laid the groundwork for how comments would be moderated. The process has evolved and grown to keep up with what we’ve learned from interacting with and watching our community members – and it’s given me a unique perspective on anonymity and commenting.

Of all the comments I’ve removed and all the users I’ve had to block from our sites, I’ve learned a few things that have led me to believe that anonymity doesn’t really matter at all. Here’s why:

1. Most users who have had comments removed do not believe their comment was racist/homophobic/libelous/spam – and they would see no problem posting that comment again (and again) under their real names.

2. Most users who have comments removed or are kicked off the site have no problem contacting staff by phone or email to complain, thus dropping their anonymity in most cases. Aside: The tops is when they use a work email address to defend their statements about how “X race is too lazy to work”. Hilarity.

3. Banned or unverified users will find a way to post what they want to post. Whether it is creating a fake Facebook/OpenID identity, a new IP address, dozens of Hotmail addresses, cleaned cookies – they’ll do it to get around a login system. There are about five users I have kicked off our site dozens of times – and there’s seemingly nothing I can do to get them to go away permanently. One even went so far as to tell me, “Do what you want. I have nothing but time on my hands – and you don’t.”

On the flip side, I am a longtime member of a message board that has very few of these problems. The site’s thousands of users know and respect one another for the most part, conversations stay on-topic and free of hate speech and I rarely see users or comments removed. What’s their secret? Constant moderator interaction.

A moderator is always online -and there is an indication of this that shows up on the forum. The moderator regularly participates in discussion, responds to questions and, most importantly, will give warnings publicly when they are needed. It’s not uncommon to see a gentle “Hey guys let’s try to get this back on topic” or “I had to remove a few posts that got pretty heated, try to keep it civil, folks”. Sometimes the moderators don’t even have to do this. Other members will band together to fight off a troll – or defend a friend they feel was wronged. This sense of community derives from the understanding that there’s safety and support supplied by that moderator presence.

Contrast this with the moderator involvement on most news sites. Most users don’t even know a staffer was reading their comments until they are removed. Chances are most users don’t know a site’s moderators until they get a warning. We all know what the solution is, but our paper – and most other sites like ours – is not able to put that amount of manpower into moderation. Community interaction is not a top-level priority to most news outlets – and that’s the real problem.

We as an industry like to collectively wring our hands about the toxicity of online comment boards, but if we really want to improve the quality of on-site discussion we need to be willing to get involved in our sites in a hands-on manner. No amount of word filters, comment-detecting robots and user-end moderation will replace the presence of a dutiful moderator (and that, unfortunately, requires money).


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  1. I think this is the most important point: “A moderator is always online -and there’s is an indication of this that shows up on the forum. The moderator regularly participates in discussion, responds to questions and, most importantly, will give warnings publicly when they are needed.”

    If a moderator is only around to give out hand slaps, he or she isn't going to be seen as having a hell of a lot of authority (that, or he or she will be seen as having too much authority, 1984-style). People don't want to be disciplined by some invisible heavy hand, but if they're asked politely by someone they know to consider their tone, they usually respond much more positively.

    • As much sense as there is in what you say, Paul, the quality by which “moderation” occurs is a distant second to the existence of any moderation at all.

      I value highly whatever brand mojo I've created as Frymaster, and I'm damn sure not going to comment on my local fishwrap with the low-quality knee-jerkers that seem to congregate around newspaper sites.

      Yes, the site pre-screens all the comments. But that's not what “moderation” is about. Communities should be largely self-policing and the tone of respect should be more-or-less consistent among the users. Think 'standards of behavior' instead of 'rules'. That's how the best communities regulate themselves.

      I guess I'm saying that some anonymous flunkee cherry-picking comments to post (and I'm lookin' at you, Projo) is not in any way the same as a community with an acknowledged leader (moderator), many user-leaders and a general sense that substance and style are the rule.

      Until newspapers start to recognize the qualities of a robust user community, their commenting will continue to be as @dbrauer describes it: a cesspool.

      • Oh, I totally agree. All I'm saying is, a lot of newspaper reporters seem to hang on to the “set it and forget it” mentality when it comes to their reporting—that is, they post a story and it's done. Let the masses do whatever in the comment thread.

        I think comment threads would be a lot cleaner and more valuable if the people who produced the content that led to the comment thread would stick around to clarify and provide further insight (re: “interact”). And, like I said, I think doing so would give them more cachet on those occasions when they have to moderate.

    • Indeed. I know from being the hand-slapper that you never get off on a good foot with a community member if the first time you're ever talking to them is when they're in trouble.

      (Weird, I put this in yesterday and just noticed it never posted via Disqus)

  2. I've often wondered about the degree to which scale plays a role in NPs problems with commenting. Like, is there any value to having 1,700 comments on an article? I see precious little discussion, so what is there to moderate? It seems to me more like a human search term function. There's some research somewhere about the ideal size of a social network being around 50 close contacts and then a rapid deterioration where the network becomes too big to hold itself together and it starts to break apart.

    Mandy, have you ever heard of anybody creating some kind of invitation-only group, an 'inner sanctum' where a select but representative group of high-quality commenters can talk without the mouth-breathers dragging them down? The same way ESPN does the fantasy leagues, discussion pools would fill up as users registered.

    In my mind, there could be a series of concentric circles that draw the best commenters into the center and push the worst outside altogether. Comment enough, get enough 'approves' and you move up to the next level. Repeat until you're basically on the editorial board.

    I know. Madness.

    • There's been all sorts of discussion at the Gannett corporate level about a tiered commenter system like you suggest. I don't know if anything will come of it, but we thought of having the comments of both verified (via Facebook) and highly-recommended users displayed in a more prominent position than that of anonymous or new/flagged users.

      I know a lot of sites have certain elements of that, but nothing is perfect. You can vote up and down comments on a site like Digg, for instance, but we've all seen how that also leads to unpopular opinions getting buried by their opposition. A quantity of posts and a lot of “likes” from a core group of like-minded friends can raise ranks on message boards, but that doesn't mean the person in question is necessarily offering any discussion of merit.

      It's tough to make a system that is fair – and I think that's an issue a lot of developers will face in the coming years.

      • Newspaper websites, take note. Use the above as an example of direct user / author interaction to the good. In fact, hire Mandy to consult and train your soon-to-be-hired moderators. Let the journos play, too.

        Mandy, I think the short answer is to have a moderators panel define clear criteria for what a 'good post' consists of: relevance to topic or thread, cites specific point of discussion, uses supporting data, good grammar, absence (or presence) of LOLcat-speak, etc. That makes it easier to assess contentious discussions without taking a side or appearing to take a side.

        Over time, the community develops an ethos of respect and quality contribution. Let the heavies pummel a couple of the wankers so they know you mean business. 😉

        • Hey, thanks!

          You touch here on a theory I've had about news site commenters. I've noted from some of my interactions with our site's users that many of them are older or not particularly web-savvy. For some, this is the first website they've ever joined to comment on anything.

          My theory is that a great deal of those who comment on news sites simply do not know what an online community is even supposed to be like. They've never been members of message boards or Facebook or written in Livejournals. They don't know about online etiquette, about moderating oneself before posting, about what a good comment even is (hence why so many commenters still type in ALL CAPS!!!!!).

          It's a whole new element of responsibility to take on, but maybe we should be doing more to educate our members.

  3. Oh, what's this here? Looks like WaPo is going with tiers.

    • Yeah, I saw that too. It’s tough to really evaluate it until we can see what it looks like. You can bet everyone in the industry will be watching this…

  4. Yeah, I saw that too. It's tough to really evaluate it until we can see what it looks like. You can bet everyone in the industry will be watching this…

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