Do Read Those Comments, Part 2: Moderation in All Things

Did you know code can be social commentary, or even satire?

Last week, a great example of this popped up: echochamber.js. Here’s what the creator, Tessa Thornton, has to say about it:

Echochamber.js is a third-party script you can install to add a simple comment form to your blog post or website.

why not just use disqus?

Because then there’d be a chance that someone would read the comments. You might have to read those comments. You don’t want that.

Install echochamber.js, and visitors to your site will see the familiar comments box, but if they enter a comment, no one else but them will ever see it. In Thornton’s words, it’s “all of the commenting, none of the comments.”

This is actually an old moderation technique. As news sites began to feature comments under articles, a number of sites implemented what came to be known as a “bozo filter.”  Combative users who posted offensive comments would continue to be able to comment, but no one could see their comments. The bozo filter was a way to automate the old web axiom “don’t feed the trolls.” Other users wouldn’t feed the trolls they couldn’t see; disruptive commenters would get bored and wander off.

In essence, echochamber.js puts a bozo filter on the entire Internet.

This seems radical, but is it really all that different than what happens today on many news sites?

A few weeks ago, a Providence television station posted an article on their site about reports of racist flyers being distributed in a Rhode Island town in the wake of the shootings in Charleston. Sadly but perhaps unsurprisingly, the comments on the story were pretty ugly. Damon Kiesow, head of mobile strategy at the McClatchy newspaper chain, and Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, had a brief exchange about it:

Storify

See full Storify here.

Although the twitter exchange included the TV station’s handle, little seemed to happen; commenters continued to pour out the kind of commentary that is pretty much sure to drive away more moderate members of the community.

A comment section that is ignored while it turns into a mud pit isn’t really different or better than echochamber.js, is it? But few organizations with high traffic have chosen to commit to moderating comments with the goal of creating a space for substantive discussions of public issues to take place. In their defense, the tools available for such moderation are fairly limited today.

Many news sites respond to the ugly squabbles in their comment sections by implementing new designs that don’t get rid of comments, but hide them by default; a user who wants to read them has to go looking for something to click, and then wait for them to load. So standard news sites are creeping closer and closer to echochamber.js all the time — in fact, The Verge shut off comments altogether, “for a super chill summer.”

Perhaps some sites should shut off comments, but others, including INN members, want to grow community, not ignore it, and then hide it or make it disappear when that strategy yields bad results. Take a look at VTDigger’s comment policy, for example:

VTDigger.org requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible. The purpose of this policy is to encourage a civil discourse among neighbors who are willing to stand behind their identities and their comments.
As a result of our comment policy, VTDigger.org has created a safe zone for readers who wish to engage in a thoughtful discussion on a range of subjects, regardless of where they stand. We hope you join the conversation.

Or take a look at ProPublica’s Get Involved feature:

Screenshot of ProPublica's Get Involved page

These invite constructive discussion, which isn’t just good policy — it’s good for the long-term health of these news organizations. A news organization that can’t develop a loyal following isn’t going to be around for long. Giving audience members a chance to participate is one way to keep them coming back.