For a couple years now, I’ve been working with editors, reporters, and commenters on news sites taking the following hypothesis as a given:
Commenters will be the most civil in the place that is the most public.
For example, I expected commenters on news stories, where more people could see their words, to be more civil than commenters on blog posts on a news site, which theoretically have a smaller audience, and I expected the worst of the lot to show up on message boards, buried deep in the bowels of the sites that haven’t flushed them from their systems yet.
I was wrong.
A quick question or two on Twitter gave me enough anecdotal evidence to justify whipping up a quick Google form as a simple survey on commenting for news site managers.
Onward to the results, based on 49 responses as of the morning of January 7, 2009:
- 23 of you said commenters are the most civil in threads on blog posts; 7 of you said they are most civil on news stories; 3 of you said they are most civil on message boards.
The following came from a respondent who said commenters are most civil on blog posts and least civil on news stories:
“News stories tend to be about controversy or negative topics: crime, scandals, politics, social issues. These get people riled up, so the discourse is automatically polarized. The blogs are less issue-based, and more stories about life where people find more common ground and tend to relate to each other as real people, not just avatars.”
- 33 of you said commenters are the least civil in threads on news stories; 5 of you said they are the least civil on blog posts; 6 of you said they are the least civil on message boards.
For the contrary view, notes from a respondent who said commenters are most civil on news stories and least civil on blog posts:
“We moderate all news story comments and only take down blog post comments if they are offensive, spam or link to another site.”
The responses regarding anonymity were pretty mixed. I asked where readers have the most and least anonymity when leaving comments on your news sites. As expected, the answers vary, depending on your registration systems or the lack thereof.
See what I mean? Hard to pull any real clean takeaway from that, but let’s look into some other “Other” responses on these questions:
- “all comments and forums require registered usernames, but we can’t track who the actual user is”
- “n/a all comments are tied into the same registration system, so none are any more anonymous than others”
Plus a few more responses along the same lines, which is probably a good thing: If that’s a trend, maybe news sites are doing a good job of integrating news, blogs, and other spaces for reader participation, so one login works everywhere on the site. That’s no small feat.
Moving on to the goldmine of the other extra notes left by respondents:
(In the survey form, I said I would keep these responses anonymous, so I’ve edited out a couple key details. I think the responses have plenty of value without those details. You’ll see my brackets where relevant.)
“We have nearly as many trolls or comments in general on blogs as stories. I wonder if there is a relationship between volume and civility rather than form and civility.”
“We think that readers at [major metro newspaper.com’s name removed] tend to be more civil on blogs because that is a “tended” space owned and overseen by a reporter, so getting out of line there would be like yelling in someone’s house. Blog comment threads stay more civil even though its the only comment space on the site where we don’t require registration.”
“Anonymity is a huge issue at our paper — many people believe it is the source of all our problems, while others believe that we need to have it or a lot of people who might provide valuable input just won’t comment at all.”
“Traditional shovelware news articles do not ask questions, they act like they contain all available information on the subject. Most of the bile is on crime stories that can flare racial tensions, and the rest of it is typical conservative vs. liberal noise.”
“We do little to “cultivate” our commenters and so the inmates have taken over the asylum. We use [commenting vendor’s name removed] for comments and there is a way for users to flag offensive comments and if enough do the comment if removed, but this does not replace having responsible people weighing in and constructively guiding the conversations — which, by the way, is verboten. Reporters are frowned upon for commenting on stories.”
“Our readers are vicious idiots who try only to out-zing the person before them. There is little meaningful discourse, and all comments tend to end up blaming minorities, Bush or liberals for the problems of the world.”
“Public comment is like an open sewer. But it keeps people coming back to our site.”
- A U.S. Air Force flowchart on how to respond to negative comments (probably message board posts in this case) in the wild. (via Tim Windsor)
- A 2007 New York Times style section piece on the high end of commenter culture. (via fimoculous)