Stop Worrying and Learn To Love Online Comments

One of my favorite portions of a recent Poynter Summit on user participation was a discussion around comment sections on news websites, which, in many cases, have devolved into a barrage of extremists and abuse.

A number of major news organizations – Reuters, Recode, Mic, Popular Science, The Week, the Chicago Sun-Times, and NPR – have removed their comment sections entirely. As Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg wrote on Recode’s decision: “We believe that social media is the new arena for commenting, replacing the old onsite approach that dates back many years.”

As nonprofits pursue their own user generated campaigns, they would be wise to note these trends. Jennifer Brandel is the Co-founder and CEO of Hearken, which helps journalists partner with the public on stories. I chatted with her about how online comments can facilitate that process.

the New York Times recently asked if comment sections on news websites have failed. Where do you come down on that question?

I think there’s lot of hope to be had. Initially, there wasn’t a lot of strategic thinking. There was just a promise that if people commented, news organizations would pay attention and get something valuable. Perhaps that was overly ambitious.

Turns out, moderating comments requires a lot of resources, if you want to do it well. That doesn’t mean we should just throw out comments and say “they didn’t work.” That was just experiment #1. We need to tweak this empty box format.

What about the prompts used to solicit comments? When a comment field is labeled with the instruction to “sound off!'” it’s not surprising that commenters would do exactly that. How did these become the norm?

I wish I knew! There’s so much that gets adopted in this world just because other people do it – by happenstance. Then everyone realizes that a space has become really unproductive. No one wants to defend online comments, as they’re currently designed. But before we give up on them, we need better proof of how they really work.

What organizations have the best commenting policies out there?

There’s a group called Civil Comments with software that requires users to moderate each other’s comments. They also ask people to rate their own comment on helpfulness before posting.*

The Seattle Times also published a series called Under Our Skin where they debut a unique commenting system to collect readers’ thoughts on race. I also love prompts that promote reflection, like: “What else do you need to know?” or “Who else should we talk to?”

What’s been your personal experience working with newsroom on community management?

We’re trying to create a safe highway between the newsroom and its audiences. For us, there’s incredible power in going beyond the transactional relationship of “the news organization puts something out; our audience consumes it.” There’s not a lot of promise there for an audience to bring something back. We want to reposition people’s mental models of who their audience is.

I Recently read your blog post about how “The culture of journalism breeds disdain for the people we’re meant to be serving.” What evidence do you see of that? And how has this affected comment policies?

I’ve experienced the disdain firsthand as a reporter in newsroom. Having spoken to 300 newsrooms in the past year, a journalist in the room will inevitably say something like, “Our audience sucks, we don’t want to bring them closer.” They don’t care about comments. We’re trying to prove that assumption wrong – by making the audience shine, and work in concert with the newsroom.

Why should organizations have their own comment sections in the first place? Can’t we just leave that to social media?

Social media isn’t highly moderated. Just look at comments on Facebook, and you’ll see how quickly they can become toxic. Social media companies also might not have organizations’ best interests in mind.

Through Hearken, we collect email addresses so news organizations can get in touch directly, if there’s a particularly valuable comment. To us, there’s a value to owning the relationship with users, owning their data, and using it to support your business model.


*N.B.: From Civil Comments’ philosophy: “Internet comments can be a place for spirited, meaningful debate about all kinds of topics. All too often, though, they turn into a festering garbage fire of harassment, abuse, and spam. Computer algorithms aren’t yet good enough to accurately determine meaning from free text, but human beings are great at it! To help keep your community civil and respectful (and free of annoying spam), we ask that commenters pitch in by helping with moderation. Over time, with proven civility and trust, this rating system becomes opt-in, as a reward for qualified commenters.”