online commenting

Online Commenting: What Works and What Doesn’t?

October 20, 2009 07:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
The value of online commenting and methods of moderation are often debated. Which sites are leading the pack, and how have they distinguished themselves from less successful models? 

When Commenting Goes Horribly Wrong

The Web site Chicago Breaking News reported on a case of online commenting gone wrong, and the potential legal issues that can subsequently arise. Lisa Stone, a village trustee of Buffalo Grove, Ill., was appalled by derogatory comments directed at her 15-year-old son, which were left anonymously on the Web site of a local newspaper during the village elections she was involved in last spring.

“An adult doesn’t talk to a child like this. It’s vile,” Stone told Chicago Breaking News, without going into further detail about the comments.

Stone is now embroiled in a “legal battle to learn the identity” of the commenter that went by the name “Hipcheck16,” according to Chicago Breaking News. Stone has said she wants to “set a precedent for protecting minors” from this form of online bullying. But some feel that Stone’s case is nearing First Amendment territory, and could infringe on the right to anonymous free speech.

Background: Online commenting strategies

In light of the Stone case, it is worth considering the numerous different strategies used by Web sites and blogs to attract and perpetuate online commenting.

Some don’t moderate comments and don’t require commenters to register, which often spirals into a free-for-all of low-quality conversation. Other sites may require users to register before commenting, but comments are not moderated before appearing on the site. Many other sites require user registration and moderate comments, resulting in a mix of opinions and viewpoints that inevitably add flavor and thought-provoking insights to each article.

Models of successful online commenting invites what are known as reader "letters," and users must register to leave a letter in response to an article on the site. Salon readers can click on a letter writer’s name to read their previous letters. This strategy creates a transparent system that holds commenters responsible for each comment they make, which may encourage them to back up opinions with facts or risk being maligned.

On The New York Times Web site, commenters must be registered users, all comments are moderated before appearing on the site and comments can be “recommended” by other readers. This carefully monitored system encourages a wide range of thoughtful responses, including varying opinions, without devolving into tasteless or frivolous chatter. A recent guest op-ed on “Rebranding America” by U2 lead singer Bono, for example, drew more than 400 comments in only a few days. The responses included an entreaty to President Obama to model his administration after Canada’s, and a call for unity within America before any attempts at international unification.

Jezebel, a Gawker Media site aimed at a female audience, posts a daily “Reader Roundup” of the best comments of the day. The site plainly spells out the “[c]haracteristics of a good comment,” including, for example, “[i]nsight/additional information” and “reasoned disagreement, either with the opinions/facts presented in a post itself or with other commenters.” Jezebel also allows commenters 15 seconds to edit their comment once it has appeared on the site.

Each of these three sites calls on commenters to take responsibility for their online self-expression, and engage with other commenters in thoughtful dialogue and debate. Commenters on these sites are expected to add something to the article they are commenting on, rather than rattling off an irrelevant or unrelated opinion simply for the sake of being heard.

Opinion & Analysis: Online commenting and the news industry

In a recent column for the Chicago Tribune, Mary Schmich discussed the Buffalo Grove online commenting case, concluding that the rule permitting users to comment anonymously should change. “Anonymity lets cowardice masquerade as courage,” she writes.

Although an engaged online community “is a beautiful ideal,” Schmich says that things go wrong when conversation is “dominated by bigots, liars and assorted other louts.” The result is more “mob” than community, and more “brawl” than civilized discussion, Schmich asserts.

But commenting is still crucial to the online news experience, blogger Fred Wilson of A VC says. The real problem is unmoderated commenting, and sites “simply adding a comment thread at the end of a news story” without attending to it. In contrast, “if the author of the news story, or opinion piece, or blog post, tends to the comments, replies to the good ones, signals the bad ones, chastises the loudmouth bullies, and generally runs the comment threads like a serious discussion group, a serious discussion will result,” Wilson writes. He also argues that “tending to comment threads” has become an important part of a journalist’s job, and that doing so will help journalists gain “constructive criticism” and discover story leads.

Wilson is a proponent of Disqus, a comment system that allows publishers to “to engage in the comments wherever and whenever,” and lets readers log in easily “with various social profiles, authenticate themselves” and then express their opinions. Wilson warns sites against using comment systems “from your CMS vendor.”

The Disqus Web site explains its system for publishers and commenters, which allows them to “follow and reply to what people are talking about, on and across sites.”

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