By Steve Outing
Civility (and lack thereof) on many news websites, the topic of my previous blog post, is clearly worth more discussion. A bit of brow-beating of me by Josh Young, social news editor for HuffingtonPost.com, today on Twitter gives me the opportunity to continue the conversation … and fight back:
@jny2 Seriously, @steveouting, what do you know about news sites handling tens of thousands of comments a day?
@jny2 I led huffpo’s comments operations for a year, till recently, and I can say that Steve’s piece is thin and unoriginal.
@jny2: @umairh what did you like so much about this unoriginal and, frankly, tepid “fix” for commenting at news sites?
Josh, I’ve been operating and reporting on online communities since 1994. Much has changed over the years, obviously. When I started my first forum (an e-mail discussion list for online-news professionals), we didn’t even have spam to deal with for a couple years. Some of our members preferred to remain anonymous; they let their words and their intellect speak for themselves. I don’t see that as much anymore, and on a professional forum someone not using his/her real name is less likely now to be taken seriously.
True, I have not run a site that handles tens of thousands of user comments a day.
HuffPost does better than most news sites at handling comments, which is hardly surprising. Unlike legacy news brands, HuffPost is an online pure-play where user participation is understood to be critical, and the site utilizes many features to make the comment experience better: Commenters can have “fans”; commenters can get “badges” to gain social status; community moderators watch over things; users can click “flag as abusive”; viewers of comments can select to read all comments, HuffPost editor picks comments, comments from the user’s social stream, etc. But the site still has trolls, and it’s far from perfect.
My suggestion was aimed at the news websites that don’t have the resources (or cultural imperative) to do a good job with controlling user comments, and where trolls run wild and the level of discussion is, for the most part, lame. That would describe many newspaper websites. They have a problem in need of solutions.
What might solve their problems would not be appropriate for other types of websites. Niche and professional sites, in general, have less of a problem with abusive commenters and trolls; there’s more agreement among the user base, whether it be rock climbers or elementary-school teachers. Even HuffPost has more homogeneity (left-leaning audience) than your average newspaper, which draws people across the spectrum of controversial topics who can get heated up quickly.
So, Josh, while you may find my suggestion “tepid,” it may be for you and HuffPost, but not for news sites that serve the broad political spectrum and lack the resources (or knowledge of solutions) that you do to devote to commenting.
I will admit to being idealistic when it comes to online community and discussion. You’ll find evidence of that in an old blog post of mine: “Ender’s Game and the intelligent ‘nets’.” Perhaps, in time, discussion forums will become what Orson Scott Card envisioned: valuable to society.
You could argue that some of the more prominent news brands have created user commenting that is of high quality and value: The Economist, NYTimes.com, etc. For most news sites, and certainly the dominant one in my town, no way; the troll population and the lack of civility keeps out many of those who have something of value to contribute.
Josh: With your experience at HuffPost, what would you suggest as solutions for the type of news sites that I’m talking about?