Editors & Publishers: Do read those comments!

It didn’t seem very web-like.

For a time, the “Don’t Read the Comments’” twitter account, @AvoidComments, had amassed something of a following. Indeed, even though that account shut down last December, it inspired a slew of apps and plugins that let users hide their comments, as well as Don’t Read the Comments T-shirts, prints and other accessories.

From the Twitter account @AvoidComments

From the Twitter account @AvoidComments

True, a large number of comments on the web have proven to be not just infantile but a breeding ground for trolling. But it isn’t necessary to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Comments are an engine of relevancy. You cannot have engagement without relevance. Comments, good, bad, and indifferent, reveal what’s relevant to the people viewing that page. Notably, people comment even when they haven’t read a story. Why? Because they want to express themselves about something relevant and important to them.

Second, a community is not “people come to talk to us about stuff we produce.” A community is when people come to your site to talk to each other.

And third (more of a personal belief), we cannot have a better world without a better journalism. And we cannot have a better journalism without better engagement. Disconnected journalism, marked by mutual contempt between journalists and the public, is journalism headed for the scrap-heap.

To this end, there are a number of interesting projects already out there, or underway, that attempt to make sense of — and provide better tools for — online community and discussion.

Here are just a few of new tools that can manage comments on your site:

  • The Coral Project: “Right now, most sites struggle with finding meaningful engagement and controlling abuse,” says project lead Andrew Losowski. “We’re going to build open-source tools to empower both readers and publishers to reshape the conversation.” Read the full project announcement.
  • Geiger: Francis Tseng describes this as: “Get a sense of the comments from a safe distance: Here I propose an automated system for grouping similar comments and then identifying the best representative from each group. These selections can be used to identify the popular themes being discussed and construct a high-level summary of the discussion in the comments. Proposal/Repository on Github
  • Discourse: Jeff Atwood describes his motivations: “One of the reasons I launched the Discourse project was due to the utter lack of understanding of how you build software to help online discussion communities moderate themselves. Their survival depends on it.”

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Porter Haney, creator of polling tool Wedgies, weighed in on the issue of reader comments and their importance while presenting at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Philadelphia earlier this month.

Haney sees polling as a “more structured” way to collect user feedback — more structured (and, in his opinion, higher quality) than typical comment sections. To get the highest response, he suggests, “you should solicit that response where your readers are — in particular, on social media,” he said.

“Not every reader has a comment, but every reader has an opinion. Polls give you a way to express themselves back to your organization, but they can often stay anonymous, and you end up with structured data you can read later.”

I do think of clicking as a “gateway drug” to commenting, and I agree with Haney’s assessment that there are a lot of readers who don’t feel entitled or motivated to comment. Engaging them may do much to balance online communities that have gravitated toward extreme places.

Haney gave a few valuable examples of how Wedgies was used:

  1. The Las Vegas Review Journal used it to ask two questions: “Who would you rather drive with: a taxi, or Uber?” and, “Should lawmakers pass bills to allow Uber and other ride-sharing services to operate in Nevada?” Haney said 1 in 5 of their readers voted, and 1 in 6 shared their vote out to their own social-media presence, boosting readership.
  2. The Wall Street Journal wanted to know how its telephone polling results corresponded with its online channel votes. They asked, “Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Hobby Lobby case?” Online response was 10 times that of the telephone, but the responses themselves did closely align, with only two points difference.

“We work with a lot of publications that just have trolls in their comments, people who don’t add anything,” Haney said. “So to make comments look good, they have to strictly moderate them — and they don’t have the resources. So the default has been to not moderate them or take them off. We have a lot of customers who end up using the product just so they don’t have to have comments on every article.”

We live in the real world where the best option we have available is clearly communicating the rules of commenting. Here’s how others do it:

  • Crooked Timber’s policy on sockpuppets.
  • Comments policy for NPR’s StateImpact project.
  • “Why We’re Changing Our Comments Policy,” National Journal, November 2014. They closed comments on most public stories and left comments open only to National Journal members: “We’re going to start by leaving the comment sections open and visible to National Journal’s members, a group that’s highly unlikely to live by Godwin’s Law.”
  • The Verge’s Community Guidelines “We love comments” (!)
  • Scriblio says: “We LOVE to hear from you, and we think of this blog as a big dinner party. Y’all are our invited guests, but if you’re being rude and obnoxious we’ll let the bouncer toss you.”
  • NPR’s Discussion Rules

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Got any suggestions on how to make the comments work in your favor? Chime in below or Tweet us at @Journo_biz with your comments.