"In my day, we had to walk three miles uphill through the snow to post a comment."Just complaining about online comments isn't enough

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Visit most news sites, and you'll find some of the web's most pointless, thoughtless and mean-spirited conversations unfolding in the comment threads. Angry, bitter, hateful people seem drawn to the comment form at the bottom of news stories like flies to a landfill.

That's been the case now for years, but the industry is finally waking up to it... in fits and starts. Exhibit A: Sunday's column by Jack Knox of the Victoria Times-Colonist:

[A]t least the letters page insists on accountability, and doesn't allow anonymous sniping by those who hide behind pseudonyms. At least the letters page, while encouraging a broad range of opinion, demands writers demonstrate at least a passing acquaintance with fact. At least the letters page demands that we add more to the debate than "Bummer."

...Having swallowed an electronic laxative, the world has become afflicted with digital diarrhea.

Lovely.

The column goes on to level charges familiar to anyone with a copy of the Official Curmudgeon's List of Complaints about the Internet, 2008 Edition (Now With Facebook and Twitter!): people post whatever comes to mind without thinking about it, blogs are inane, it's just a stream of drivel... (And at that point the column pretty much vanishes into territory already richly mined by people who haven't noticed - or would rather not acknowledge - there's both quality and crap to be found in social media, just like in journalism.)

But Knox isn't wrong about the low quality of online comments on news sites, even if he does seem to confuse them with social media more generally. They're often godawful, and his example, drawn from a CBC news story's comments, is near to my heart. From a post I wrote last year:

Drop by any CBC News story on, say, a crime, and by far the most common comments are people who have nothing to add except anger and demands for vengeance. Oh, and off-the-cuff diagnoses like "he's clearly a sociopath."

Where Knox goes wrong is thinking that thoughtlessness necessarily goes hand-in-hand with online comments... and in writing them off as a lost cause. Yes, the culture of user comments on news stories is often poisonous - but that doesn't put them beyond hope.

Instead of throwing up their hands, several news outlets are rolling up their sleeves and grappling with the challenge.

The Tyee, for example, made a series of changes last year that improved the tone and quality of comments there. And The Globe and Mail's community editor, Matthew Ingram, has been very public in sharing his thoughts and ideas on upgrading the conversation on their site. Check out, for example, this blog post on the role of anonymity and accountability.

One big reason sites like The Globe and Mail and The Tyee are making progress? They actually devote resources - not just technological features, but people's time - to making commenting work. And people, of course, are the crucial ingredient in a successful online community: setting the tone, drawing out positive contributions, redirecting negative behaviour and spurring productive conversation.

That's not to say either the Globe's or the Tyee's community is without its challenges. But diving in and experimenting, innovating and animating is getting them further down the road to healthy conversations than all the complaining in the world.

Which is a point I would have made on the Times-Colonist article... if it allowed comments.

Comments

Sue says

April 9, 2009 - 4:18am

CBC's comments are particularly painful because the rest of the site is so good, in both content and technological prowess.  They've added a downvote feature, but they haven't quite figured it out: A comment with 15 agrees and 500 disagrees is ranked higher than one with 14 agrees and no disagreement.  D'oh!

Reddit has the best comment voting system I've seen.  It's based on karma points -- if you make a mean, stupid comment anywhere on the site and get downvotes, your future comments will be given a lower priority on the page.  If you make a smart, well-thought-out comment, future comments will be higher on the page. Accountability, brilliant!

Rob Cottingham says

April 14, 2009 - 9:20am

Points systems are tricky, but I agree with you on Reddit's - it's clever, and more nuanced than some of the more brute-force systems.

I especially like systems that let you rate a comment for more than just "agree" or "disagree" (which is the worst reason I can think of for burying comments - it's anti-discussion). "Funny", "informative", "useful" or "interesting" tags allow me to recognize a comment's contribution to the conversation without necessarily agreeing with it.

Bill says

April 9, 2009 - 6:22am

Somewhere in my computer I have a related blog post I've yet to put online. In it, I refer to the words of sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon: "90 percent of everything is crud." I don't know the context for his comment but I've always taken from it that if 90 percent of everything is crud (which I think is true in a general way), 10 percent is good and the Internet is no different than newspapers, TV, shopping, or people that way.

Comments, however, appear to be a bit different. I almost always despair when I see the quality of them. It's one place where that 90/10 notion seems way out of whack. But as you've suggested, it may due to inaction in terms of filtering them (no, not suggesting censorship). I think many places allow comments because "you're suppose to - that's how this community thing people talk about works" - without allowing for accountability, consequence etc. They allowed comments without including something like the Reddit system that the comment above mentions. We just get noise, often mean-spirited noise.

I don't know what the answer would be but I do know that as many news stories appear online now, comments are next to useless. But like everything on the Internet, especially when you look at social media, passivity is death. (I wonder if, from lack of a system to manage comments, the demographics in a comment area are skewed because people who would have made thoughtful comments stay away. So comments become like a snowball rolling downhill, meaning more and more thoughtless, mean comments as they only attract one kind of person.)

Rob Cottingham says

April 14, 2009 - 10:12am

"Passivity is death" is one of the better insights I've heard in the last while, Bill. Alex often says the default condition of an online community is failure - by which she means it takes a lot of work and a certain amount of ingenuity to make one fly.

And you're right: people are tacking on commenting as a kind of spray-on I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Social-Media! product. Without adding on active engagement, it's a recipe for that mean-spirited noise to dominate.

The good news is a well-thought-out program of engagement can drive that noise down, because it sets the tone and expectations for participation on a site. You still need a way of dealing with the most inappropriate contributors, but you'll have a lot less to contend with if you make that initial effort.

Mark says

April 13, 2009 - 8:02am

And it's for this reason that my favourite Firefox extension is the YouTube comment snob:

http://www.chrisfinke.com/addons/youtube-comment-snob/

 

But for me the really worrying thought is that filtering out the bitter, hateful, mindless, bigot-ed comments hasn't stopped the person from thinking it in the first place. Just to know there are so many people out there whose first response is "WTF! that's so gay, you retard" - and that I'm sharing an online 'community' with them - really makes me feel ill.

Rob Cottingham says

April 15, 2009 - 9:27pm

I'll definitely check that extension out... although I hope it lets you catch a glimpse now and again of just how ugly the unfiltered world really is. Just to remind me that the rose-coloured glasses aren't giving me the full spectrum. :)

Any time at all in the comment cesspools is enough to sap your will to live (or at least to ever venture into the company of another human being again). I'm not sure if this makes it better or worse, but that predates social media by a long time; phone-in shows have been with us for decades, with a lot of the same thuggish behaviour (often by host and caller alike).

Still, just when I'm losing hope, I come across another of the places where people are spending a little more time and investing a little more of themselves. And it reminds me why I'm in this business.

Bill says

April 22, 2009 - 6:23am

I came back to this because I was following a related discussion elsewhere. I just wanted to point out that I can be as guilty as the next guy: "I can be as stupid as anyone."

Rob Cottingham says

April 22, 2009 - 9:04am

I have my lapses, too. I need a sensor implanted in my skull that recognizes when the Righteous Outrage centre of my brain is being stimulated, and freezes access to my typing skills for five minutes while I calm down.

That said, your comment in that conversation might not have persuaded the other side, but for people who feel the same way but haven't felt they could speak out, or thought they were alone, it might well have been a tonic.

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