Comments: Messy and flawed, but valuable

by Mathew on November 20, 2008 · 13 comments

I’m cross-posting this from my blog at the Globe and Mail, as part of my ongoing attempt to talk about what we’re trying to do at the newspaper when it comes to comments, blogs, forums and other ways that we interact with readers. Feel free to respond here or at the Globe blog — where (naturally) I encourage you to read the comments :-)

In my new role as the Globe’s “communities editor” (you can find more details on that in this post), I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about comments — that is, reader comments on news stories, columns, blog posts, etc. The Globe and Mail was the first major newspaper in North America to allow comments on every news story when it launched the feature in 2005, and judging by the ever-increasing numbers of people who use them, they are hugely popular. On some major news stories, we can sometimes get as many as 500 comments.

Comments aren’t popular with everyone, however. Some readers (and even some Globe and Mail staffers, to be honest) complain that too often our comment threads are filled with what might charitably be called “noise” — everything from bad spelling and grammar all the way up to partisan political in-fighting, ad hominem attacks and all-around rude and boorish behaviour. Some say they don’t really care what most people think about a topic, and don’t see the value in having public comments on stories at all.

This view isn’t confined to Globe readers, by any means: in a column in the National Post, author George Jonas said that the Web is like “an elegant restaurant with garbage on the menu,” and that “a huge blackboard on which anyone can write anything doesn’t mean much for those with nothing to say, i.e., most people.” Similar feelings have been expressed by various writers about comments on blogs, and some prominent Web writers have turned theirs off completely. Even the director of BBC News said in a recent speech that while she values comments, they are the work of a “vocal minority” and therefore shouldn’t carry too much weight.

Just for the record, my view — one that I believe the Globe shares — is that the ability to comment on a news story or a column or a blog is a fundamental requirement of any modern media entity. In the past, reader feedback was limited to a handful of letters to the editor or perhaps a phone call or a comment to an editor or writer at a cocktail party or coffee shop. The Web allows us to open that ability up to virtually anyone, and I believe that doing so, on balance, has a lot more positive results than negative ones — not just for us, but for society in general. Yes, we get nasty comments; but we also get many others that are smart, insightful, touching and useful.

In that sense, comments are a little like democracy: messy and often flawed in practice, but still important in principle. As Winston Churchill said, it’s the worst possible means of government — except for all the others.

Do comments on stories sometimes degenerate into name-calling and schoolyard insults? Sure they do. And we do our best to remove any that cross the boundaries described in our comment policy, and occasionally even block commenters outright if they misbehave. We don’t want a free-for-all or a zoo — we want as many thoughtful (if passionate) responses as possible. And we need you to help, by flagging comments that cross the line; the volume of comments we receive on an average day is far too high for us to be able to monitor them all individually.

We are working on some new comment enhancements that should make it easier to highlight comments that add something to the conversation, and smother those that detract from it, including a recommendation system. We’d like to find ways to give commenters who consistently add something to the debate a higher profile on our site, as some other newspapers have. How we are going to do all of that remains to be seen. But I want you to know that we are working on it, and that we value your input — not just about comments, but about every other aspect of what we do.

Update:

Joshua Benton, writing at the Nieman Journalism Lab blog, makes a similar point in a piece about ProPublica’s response to a critical post by Portfolio finance blogger Felix Salmon. As Josh puts it, media outlets have to engage with readers whether they want to or not:

“The audience has the power to talk back in a way it never had before. And news organizations will, increasingly, have to become part of that conversation if they want to be successful. There was a time, not that long ago, when a news organization’s credibility was boosted by its voice-of-God tone, the sense of solidity in its stories and the distance it kept from its audience. All that played into its status as a Respected Institution. Those days, I think, are over. Now you gain credibility through transparency, openness, and a willingness to engage with smart people who have questions.”

As Darren Barefoot notes in the comments here, The Tyee — an independently published online magazine based in Vancouver — has had similar issues with comments, and revamped its policies. A discussion of that is here (and Darren also wrote about it on his blog). Slate has dealt with the topic as well, and the Washington Post had a much-publicized incident in which it decided to close comments on a public blog altogether because of the number of personal attacks. The paper described its response here.

Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing wrote about “trolls” and how to deal with them at InformationWeek. And Chuq Von Raspach has some thoughts about what a half-decent reputation system would look like for blogs or any other Web service.

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