New York Times Public Editor Margaregt Sullivan on their workflow and editorial collaboration on the question of comments: Questions and Answers on How The Times Handles Online Comments From Readers
If your interaction with Reddit is anything like mine, you’re a 9-percenter.
Remember the 90-9-1 rule of online community interaction? Well, on Reddit, I rarely say a word, and I’ve probably never started a thread, but I do so enjoy their magical little UI for upvoting posts and comments, especially on my phone, often in the middle of the night while trying to get a child back to sleep.
That places me somewhere between a lurker (90 percent) who never logs in, just reads and scans, and at best, might link to a thread from elsewhere, and an active participant (1 percent) who posts daily, optimizes their headlines to be more likely to garner enough upvotes to land on the homepage (please note the title of this blog post), and/or creates “novelty accounts” — usernames designed to be part of the joke themselves.
It’s a fascinating community, with Reddiquette that has evolved over the years, and a language of acronyms as described by David Weinberger in a blog post this weekend that acts as the beginning of a set of open questions along the lines of “Is Reddit Journalism?” But those quotation marks are my own. David’s questions are much better than that.
His questions revolve around the idea of “Reddit and community journalism” (the actual title of his post, clearly not optimized for upvotes at the time of this writing.) Several key Reddit acronyms are covered, including TIL (Today I Learned) and AMA (Ask Me Anything).
Open up a daily newspaper, and find what in no uncertain terms we’d call “community journalism” in the form of interviews with and profiles of local personalities, unsung heroes, hidden gems, people in your neighborhood, etc.
That’s an AMA.
Admittedly, the request queue for print coverage in this vein could be considered a little less democratic than on Reddit, where a search for “IAMA request” strongly resembles the early days of the Help A Reporter Out mailing list.
And of course, we’ve all read columnists elaborate on some interesting tidbit of information or history of their community, sharing a discovery with their readers, who often write back in the form of letters (and now, comments, naturally) and share their own point of view, rebuttals, or even memories of the factoid in question.
That’s a TIL.
Now, go upvote this on Reddit.
If it makes it to the homepage, I’ll write a sequel titled “10 ways Reddit is like a newspaper in the 1980s.”
Cleaning up the comment cesspool: Ventura County Star editor Joe Howry has penned what is either the most eloquent column a newspaper has ever published on the problem of comment threads and trolls — or the most cliché-laden — or possibly, both.
If you can get past that, it’s an interesting approach they’re taking: They know how to keep a comment thread interesting and useful, but they only have the resources to do it on a few stories a day.
(via Jack Lail)
Beyond Comment Threads: A Mozilla journalism challenge on building better community conversations around the news. So far, nothing terrifyingly new. Paragraph-level commenting, Slashdot-style threading, collapsing, and moderation. And if I could figure out how to register for the site, with or without OpenID, I might be able to comment on the entries.
(via PBS IdeaLab)
Striking, isn’t it, how Moot appears to be some sort of anti-matter to Mark Zuckerberg’s matter? How Facebook and 4chan can simultaneously be ubiquitous, but you’re much more likely to admit to an account on one than the other?
In the throes of my constant and ongoing research and curiosity about comments and commenting systems, I couldn’t help but quietly raise an eyebrow as Facebook launched a sort of Facebook Anywhere commenting system in recent weeks. It’s a little bit like a Disqus with nothing but Facebook for authentication, if that helps compress the explanation for you.
Now there’s places where this — “this” being mandatory use of a Facebook account to leave a comment (whether the account uses a “real” name or not is a bit of an identity-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder problem, eh?) — might work, and places where it might not, but I wasn’t especially surprised to find out that at TechCrunch, using the Facebook commenting system quickly cleaned up discourse, right up to the brink of boring:
“But the other interesting thing we’re seeing is that whereas trollish garbage used to infest the comment section, now we’re seeing almost the opposite. Many people are now leaving comments that gush about the subject of the article in an overly sycophantic way. It’s quite odd. The cold pricklies have turned to warm fuzzies.”
That said, they seem to be happy with the quality of discourse, even if the quantity has decreased:
“With the Facebook system, the most popular posts are only touching around 100 or so comments (obviously, the ones about the commenting system have more). But of those 50 to 100 comments, many of them are actually coherent thoughts in response to the post itself — you know, what a comment is supposed to be.“
The emphasis on that last clause is mine.
“What a comment is supposed to be.”
Well, we certainly have high hopes about that, don’t we?
Look at the universe we’ve just discussed, where users with a real identity say nice things about products they like and contribute meaningful bits of commentary on the issues.
Now look at 4chan. [I’m linking to the Wikipedia entry so you can make the call on whether to actually, physically, look at 4chan.]
Before we go any further, let me admit that I fudged a bit in the title of this post. 4chan a social network? Not exactly. With all its users anonymous, no real history of what a user has said or posted, and memes that are carried on into the future more by abstract institutional knowledge than permalink, it is remarkably easy to label 4chan “the antisocial network.”
And even that would be a stretch. Network? It’s a message board. But more like a giant jellyfish, its tentacles spreading over the Internet and getting all tangled with the Reddit octopus and the Tumblr school of anchovies.
So what does Moot (neé Christopher Poole) have to say about the new Facebook Comments system, and the idea of real identity on the Web?
“I think that’s totally wrong.”
The quote is from this VentureBeat story on his talk at SXSW.
“Poole argued that anonymity allows users to reveal themselves in a ‘completely unvarnished, unfiltered, raw way.’
‘The cost of failure is really high when you’re contributing as yourself,’ Poole said.”
And so we come back to the characterization made back on TechCrunch. The one about what a comment is supposed to be.
And yes, I’m going to make this about your news site. What is a comment thread supposed to be, on your news site?
A watercooler by which to carouse and argue and shout and laugh and snort?
A serious space for questions and answers about important issues in the community?
A suggestion box?
A tip line?
All of those? Really? You’re expecting users to stick with the same (real, perhaps) identity and the same interface for all of those functions?
A comment thread, parsed as data and visualized to highlight trolls and their behavioral patterns: A close look at troll comments versus real ones.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been on one side (or quite possibly the other) of an exchange that goes something like this:
PERSON AT NEWSPAPER WITH WEB-RELATED JOB: Sentinel, this is Ryan, how can I help you?
USER: Your website’s all wrong.
PANWWRJ: Really? What’s wrong?
USER: You don’t use XMLT 4.1. It’s still on 4.05. And your feeds are all gunked up with UTF-7. And your reporters talk too much about the city council. They should be writing stories about what the county commission is doing to the street in front of my house! And why can’t I read your forums on my jailbroken Palm Pilot? I can read the [LARGE NEWSPAPER LOCATED ON A DIFFERENT CONTINENT]’s blogs on it just fine.
Fun, right? Right? Guys?
OK, so maybe it isn’t that much fun to take that call.
But why do we get them? Do print readers give us as much input? What’s the ratio of letters-to-the-editor sent by mail to the number of website comments expressing an opinion on an issue?
Paul Ford, who you might vaguely remember as the guy responsible for scanning and cataloging the archives of Harper’s a few years back, has given the phenomenon illustrated in the above call transcript a name:
Why Wasn’t I Consulted?
Read his piece on the Web as a customer service medium. Now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
To loosely paraphrase, summarize, and otherwise interpret his thesis, for those of you that insisted on continuing to scan this post without pause:
Funny thing about instant gratification, however, is that it’s the perfect way to set the expectation that my swooshing e-mail, my dinging text message, and my refreshing little thumbs-up have an effect, a value, an importance. When my vote is added to the poll results, I feel I have been consulted on the issue.
Here’s Paul Ford on “Why Wasn’t I Consulted”:
It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.
Let’s go back to our call transcript, and see what our news website user is trying to express, exactly.
USER: I am important, and my opinion matters.
PERSON AT NEWSPAPER WITH WEB-RELATED JOB: Of course you are, and it does. Honest.
USER: So next time you decide to upgrade your webserver to Venus 5.89 instead of Mars 4.12, you should ask me about it first. Why Wasn’t I Consulted? I probably know more than you about it, anyway.
“My readers know more than I do.” — Dan Gillmor
So if we’ve established that the Web is the best medium ever to feed the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted?” need, and we’ve established that in the broad, overarching sense of the relationship of a single reporter to the public at large connected by the Web, that our readers know more than we do, what are we doing to tap into that need and that knowledge?
Well, there’s an obvious spot on news sites where we can tap in, but we don’t always.
A few ideas:
- At the bare minimum, it’s easy to recommend that reporters pay some amount of attention to comment threads on the stories they report.
- Giving users an up and down voting mechanism on individual comments is probably also a prerequisite to doing this efficiently.
- From there, your reporters should now have a way to sort comments based on the thumbing-up users have taken care of for you. (Wasn’t that nice of them?)
- Now, rather than jumping in to rehash, argue, or troll-feed the problem users (whose comments have now been voted down, and in an ideal world of commenting systems, you’ve collapsed and made all but invisible in the thread), your reporters can evaluate the best comments in the thread and participate, clarify, answer questions, or even just say “Hey, thanks, that’s a great idea and we’ll look into it.”
- That’s that kind of feedback that meets a user’s WWIC need at a much higher level. Even if you’re just engaging users to say “thank you,” they’re now participating in a conversation instead of a one-way rant/complaint/critique, and are likely to behave accordingly.
If you’re a social media manager, or a community manager, or an online editor, or a web producer, or bear the weight of some other title that involves this sort of work, you’re probably already doing this, right?
More to think about
Metafilter founder Matt Haughey — and if you know anything about Metafilter, you know they do WWIC right — tells a story about spending a few hours in an airport with Craig Newmark:
“He was literally chasing down forum spammers one by one, sometimes taking five minutes per problem, sometimes it seemed to take half an hour to get spammers dealt with. He was totally engrossed in his work, looking up IP addresses, answering questions best he could, and doing the kind of thankless work I’d never seen anyone else do with so much enthusiasm.”
Is that how you handle customer service?
If not, what sort of software and systems would make the job easier?
Jack Lail’s May 2009 list of links about news site comments and policies.
A note to readers authored by Rob Curley about advances in the Sun’s commenting policy, including tiered access and display based on whether or not the user’s real identity has been verified.
And so begins an interesting legal battle over the balance between online privacy policies and newsworthiness.