Can The Tyee save online commenting? Here's hoping.Effective online commenting for media sites

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Things are changing at The Tyee, a Vancouver-based news and commentary site. Home to some of the best alternative coverage of issues and ideas in Canada, The Tyee's discussion threads were also becoming home to something a lot less welcome: vicious grudge matches among a handful of participants.

Readers were growing used to seeing interminable bouts of tit-for-tat insults, and would-be commenters were losing their appetite for taking jumping into the fray. It wasn't affecting every thread, but politicial discussions in particular had become dominated by a few angry belligerents.

The site's staff embarked on an intensive project to pull online discussion out of its toxic swamp. They consulted their readers, worked with technologists and contractors (I was one of them, and was overwhelmed at just how thoughtful and committed to productive, open discussion the site's staff and leadership are), tweaked the interface and then, today, launched a brand new commenting system.

Starting today, there is more than one way to read comments on The Tyee.

The first is the All Comments tab, which looks and acts similar to the commenting thread you're used to. Your post automatically goes to this thread along with those from other readers. If you want to read everything people are saying about a Tyee story, just click this tab. New to this thread are buttons to tell us when you think a comment is especially good. And to alert us to offensive remarks that violate our guidelines.

The second is the Best Comments tab, which displays by default at the bottom of every story and includes comments we have selected from the All Comments thread.

How does a comment become one of the 'best'? By being on topic, presenting fresh insights or arguments, no matter what position taken. Who decides? Tyee editors do. Certainly, we will be guided by your recommendations. That is why we gave you the power to make them. But the decision ultimately falls to us.

It's an interesting take on the dilemma facing those of us who animate online communities: how can you promote positive participation, discourage the bile and avoid the accusation of censorship? The Tyee's approach is elegant: you can always wade back in by clicking the "All Comments" tab, but I'm guessing most readers will be voting with their mice for the more positive stream.

By the way, this doesn't mean the death of vigorous debate, criticism or passion in The Tyee's threads. Used judiciously, the "Best Comments"/"All Comments" division will allow genuine discussion to rise to the top. But it does mean that users who can't seem to rise above the personal insult and verbal battery will find it a much lonelier venue for peddling their wares.

That may cost The Tyee some of their more prolific commenters. But just as most rivers wouldn't miss the effluent from the local sewage plant, I expect The Tyee's community ecosystem will rebound quickly – and be a lot stronger for the change.

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