Engaged Reading Time - Issue #39
Today, I’m going to do something difficult: argue that comments sections are a good thing.
And tomorrow, I’m going to my school 30th reunion, which will be only slightly less difficult…
Come back comments. All is forgiven.
Two pretty irrefutable facts:
- Comments sections have a terrible reputation.
- The news business has a trust problem.
These two facts are deeply interrelated, but perhaps not in the way that many journalists assume.
Comments sections in most mainstream news outlets are notoriously terrible. “Don’t read the comments!” is a common refrain in a newsroom. The readers are morons, expressing their idiotic views under our sparkling prose.
Manny outlets have just closed down their comments sections and let the discussion happen elsewhere - and that has its own downsides, as we say yesterday.
Does this sound familiar, at all?
The problem with that approach is that it assumes that your audience are all a bunch of idiots. Much like this, in fact:
Funny though this is — and it is — it is, when you think about it, slightly uncomfortable to watch two well-paid, successful and Cambridge-educated comedians essentially looking down their nose at the hoi polloi.
The target of this satire is not clearly drawn. The truly culpable are those in the newsroom who have added “viewer feedback” in such a trivial, pointless way.
Bad comments are your fault
If your comment section is full of assholes, it’s your fault:
As it turns out, we have a way to prevent gangs of humans from acting like savage packs of animals. In fact, we’ve developed entire disciplines based around this goal over thousands of years. We just ignore most of the lessons that have been learned when we create our communities online. But, by simply learning from disciplines like urban planning, zoning regulations, crowd control, effective and humane policing, and the simple practices it takes to stage an effective public event, we can come up with a set of principles to prevent the overwhelming majority of the worst behaviors on the Internet.
Anil Dash, who wrote the above, was one of the earliest bloggers and blog company employees. He has written about this many times down the years, most recently three years ago:
And worse, we denigrate a form that used to be, and sometimes still is, a powerful way of making meaningful connections with the world. I met most of my closest friends in the comments on my blog, or by commenting on theirs. Most of the people who came to my wedding were people who became friends by reading the comments. Whether it’s been some of the most talented people I’ve had the chance to collaborate with, or some of the most inspiring creators who I never imagined getting to connect with, being a person who read the comments opened countless doors for me back when we used to assume reading the comments should be a good thing.
Now, in the context of journalism we’re talking about building connections with readers, not with friends. But in an age of declining trust, we need to do that. Want to minimise the effect of intentional misinformation? Build trust between you and the readers.
And that means opening our eyes again to the potential of the comments section.
A solved problem
But in the age of membership models and paywalls, you should quite reasonable expect to have intelligent, cogent commentary available to the members from the members. If your paywall subscribers are all frothing loons who TYPE LIKE THIS< LOL, then you have a deeper problem than community management can fix.
But spaces that enable conversations like that don’t just happen by accident. The have to be created and protected.
You just need to ignore, or remove, the bad actors, and reward the thoughtful, useful or witty with responses. Model the behaviour you want to see. Punish the behaviour you do not want to see.
We know how to do this.
It requires time and it requires effort. And yes, it requires money. Many industries are well aware that community management is a core discipline, and one that needs skilled practitioners. The games industry is one example - most big games companies have community management and engagement teams, because they know an engaged and loyal base is much more easy to sell the next title or expansion to.
You know what? For once, Twitter and Facebook have helped us out here. They offer so much more oxygen to the bad actors that it’s much more rewarding for them to go troll over there than it is for them to trouble us. Comments sections rarely have anywhere near the volume of comments they did a year ago.
Also: you don’t need to open comments everywhere. Just where you have a community, you have staff willing to engage, and a potentially viable topic. Perhaps steer clear of, say, Brexit or the politics of the Middle East. Start with sports, or fashion, or design. Places where people tend to be enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Make them feel part of your community, not just an ignored voice below the line.
Audience engagement starts at home.
Some links that inspired today’s email
Killing comments won't cure our toxic internet culture
There's an interesting central idea to this post: conversations around our content are going to happen wether we like it or not. It's better for us to host and steer those conversations in a place where we can learn from them, than leave it to others.
Another comment section bites the dust
Publishers that closed their comments sections made a colossal mistake | What’s New in Publishing | Digital Publishing News
Did comments sections invite trollish behavior? Yes. Did moderating that behavior require both editorial and technical resources? Also yes. But deploying these resources was worth the cost, as it would have resulted in publishers maintaining a stronger relationship with their readerships. Instead, much of the news media became commoditized, with news outlets placing more emphasis on drive-by Facebook traffic than serving loyal readers. In pursuing this strategy, publishers placed more distance between themselves and their users, and so they were ill-equipped when digital advertising models collapsed and platforms like Facebook siphoned off their traffic.