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APRIL 13, 2010 9:00AM

Newspaper comments: Forget anonymity! The problem is management

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This New York Times piece Monday reflects a growing chorus of resentment among newspaper website managers against the “barroom brawl” atmosphere so many of them have ended up with in the comments sections on their sites.

They blame anonymity. If only they could make people “sign their real names,” surely the atmosphere would improve!

This wish is a pipe dream. They are misdiagnosing their problem, which has little to do with anonymity and everything to do with a failure to understand how online communities work.

It is one of the great tragedies of the past decade that so many media institutions have failed to learn from the now considerable historical record of success and failure in the creation of online conversation spaces. This stuff isn’t new any more. (Hell, this conversation itself isn’t new either — see this Kevin Marks post for a previous iteration.) There are people who have been hosting and running this sort of operation for decades now. They know a thing or two about how to do it right. (To name just a few off the top of my head — there are many more: Gail Williams of the Well. Derek Powazek of Fray.com. Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon’s Table Talk. Caterina Fake and her (ex-)Flickr gang.)

The great mistake so many newspapers and media outlets made was to turn on the comments software and then walk out of the room. They seemed to believe that the discussions would magically take care of themselves.

If you opened a public cafe or a bar in the downtown of a city, failed to staff it, and left it untended for months on end, would you be surprised if it ended up as a rat-infested hellhole?

Comment spaces need supervision — call them hosts or moderators or tummlers or New Insect Overlords or whatever you want, but don’t neglect to hire them! These moderators need to be actual people with a presence in the conversation, not faceless wielders of the “delete” button. They welcome newcomers, enforce the local rules, and break up the occasional brawl — enlisting help from the more civic-minded regulars as needed.

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. Telling Web users “Use your real name” isn’t bad in itself, but it won’t get you very far if your site has already degenerated into nasty mayhem. The Web has no identity system, and though the FBI can track you down if the provocation is dire enough, and if you get editors mad enough they can track you down, too, most media companies aren’t going to waste the time and money. So you’ll stand there demanding “real names,” and your trolls will ignore you or make up names, and your more thoughtful potential contributors will survey your site and think, “You want me to use my real name in this cesspool? No thanks.”

No, anonymity isn’t the problem. (Wikipedia seems to have managed pretty well without requiring real names, because it has an effective system of persistent identity.) The problem is that once an online discussion space gets off to a bad start it’s very hard to change the tone. The early days of any online community are formative. The tone set by early participants provides cues for each new arrival. Your site will attract newcomers based on what they find already in place: people chatting amiably about their lives will draw others like themselves; similarly, people engaging in competitive displays of bile will entice other putdown artists to join the fun.

So turning things around isn’t easy. In fact, it’s often smarter to just shut down a comments space that’s gone bad, wait a while, and then reopen it when you’ve got a moderation plan ready and have hand-picked some early contributors to set the tone you want. If I were running a newspaper with a comments problem, that’s how I’d proceed. Don’t waste your time trying to force people to use their real names in hope that this will improve the tenor of your discussion area; build a discussion area that’s so appealing from the start that it makes people want to use their real names.

Why didn’t newspapers do this to begin with? I think part of the problem is that a lot of them had only the vaguest rationale for opening up comments in the first place. Maybe some consultant told them it was a good idea. Or it looked like the right thing to do to the young members of the Web team, and the front office said “Go ahead and play, kids, just don’t spend any money.” And the comments got turned on with no one minding the store and no clear goal in mind, either on the business side or in the newsroom.

So, media website operators, I suggest that you ask yourselves:

When you opened up comments, was it really about having a conversation with the readers? Then have that conversation! Get the editors and reporters in there mixing it up with the public. Sure, there will be problems and awkward moments; there will also be breakthroughs in understanding.

Maybe, though, no one was ever really serious about that conversation. Maybe the idea was to boost ad impressions with an abundance of verbiage supplied gratis by the readership. In that case, stop complaining about the flame wars and accept that the more abusive your commenters wax, the more your crass strategy will succeed.

Whatever you do, remember that as long as you’re thinking “What’s wrong with those people?” and “What did we do to deserve this?” you’re not taking responsibility for a problem that, I’m sorry to say, you created yourselves.

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Comments

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I think you've covered it all very concisely. It took local dailies a very long time to warm up to the internet -- and when they did, they lukewarmed. They are paying for that strategy now, in every way, not just with online comments.
Interesting. I have had difficulty with the whole comments section of OS. Sometimes I have wanted to simply walk away from my own comment section on various posts, and rarely respond to the negatives, but because of the nastiness that some people engage in, I have changed my mind about posting certain things, and the ideas and thoughts then get pushed aside, just because I don't want to face the flame wars. Sometimes that is exhausting. The civility is missing, and now I wonder if that isn't partly my fault for being unwilling to enter the fray. I supposed it's okay to simply cut off comments should the stuff get too nasty or to delete the truly unhelpful or the name-callers. Hmmmm.
I have to admit I sort of think I agree with you today. I didn't six weeks ago but I think I mostly do today. Still, I wish there was a way to get over the anonymity issue. While the lack of editor and reporter engagement in conversations may be the larger issue, I think anonymity is a negative thing. It seems to me that legitimate newspapers could require it. People say stupid things when they are hiding behind a pseudonym. It dumbs down conversations, I think. -- also leads to more sensational, angry comments.
Scott, excellent and true. Comments need to be moderated. Without moderation you are right, it all becomes a barroom brawl. It takes time and I must say, people who participate in moderated discussions, are much better commenters.