Lately it feels like civil discourse on the Web has become an antiquated notion. It’s a relic of an earlier era, like seeing a site rendered in Wireless Markup Language. But tolerance for trolling seems to be waning. Just last week Popular Science threw down the gauntlet in its war against trolls (or gave it up, depending on your interpretation). The publisher decided to turn off comments on its news stories, citing scientific evidence (natch) that “uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itself.” The emerging backlash against web vitriol isn’t limited to those more used to peer review than peer attack. Cultural commentators and comedians ranging from Bill Maher to Louis C.K. have recently (brilliantly) cited the pernicious and dehumanizing effects of anonymous commenters, online trolls, and overwrought flame wars.
But banning comments altogether can’t be the answer. The evolution of the web in recent years has been about encouraging more participation, collaboration and discussion, not less. So how can an organization offer users a voice in a way that is constructive and manages to eschew most of the venom seen all too often on social networks, blogs and news media sites?
There are ways to encourage not only civil discourse but constructive discussion online that adds value to the community. Take Gawker and Reddit. Yes, Gawker commenters can still be snarky, but they are also (usually) reasoned, intelligent and more often than not, very funny. Likewise, Reddit has created a self-regulated content democracy for a mass audience. We would argue that this is not by accident, but the direct result of design that positively reinforced good behavior.
Gawker didn’t get there overnight but instead has taken an iterative, experimental approach in designing its commenting system, going through multiple redesigns of its homegrown platform, Kinja. Sites using other commenting systems such as Facebook Connect or Disqus often follow (at least in spirit) some of the basic principles Gawker has pioneered.
What are those principles? There are several best practices we can see emerging that are relevant to any brand with a desire to build an engaged community. They are also relevant to brands navigating those communities and networks with their own original content (read: everyone) and leery of being taken down by trolls.
For the largest publishers, full moderation is probably an unsustainable solution. Even NYTimes.com has a staff to review the 56,000 comments it receives each week but at that volume cannot open up comments on everything it publishes. With smaller communities, the presence of a moderator with a relatively light touch can have a huge impact on the conversation. Just knowing someone is reading and responding to comments is often enough to encourage better behavior. In its earlier days the threat of the “banhammer” (essentially revoking the privilege of commenting due to irrelevant or unfunny posts) helped to encourage smart, relevant, and spirited discussions. Conversely, rewarding commenters with the “Comment of the Week” early on in the sites’ existence had the same effect. Reddit has also empowered volunteer moderators, allowing them to set the parameters for a community. The moderation, combined with upvotes or downvotes on posts, has created an ecosystem that is fairly difficult to disrupt or game without swift consequences.
While Gawker has actually moved away from requiring registration to comment in order to encourage more whistleblowing, other sites are disallowing anonymous commenting to encourage greater accountability. Facebook Connect has made it much more seamless for sites that require registration to comment, eliminating unnecessary steps such as creating a user name and password, waiting for a validation email, and clicking on that to confirm the registration.
Contributors who begin discussions on Gawker sites have the power to accept or dismiss responses. This sense of efficacy – the feeling that what you say on the site actually matters – is crucial to building a lively, dedicated commenter community. Extending control to the commenters themselves enhances the idea that they are a vital part of the overall brand experience.
YouTube has recently announced plans to clean up its comments section with threaded conversations, with the order in which comments appear now determined by an algorithm rather than reverse chronological order. The algorithm is based on what users will want to see on the top, including “comments from your friends, from the video creator, and from ‘popular personalities’ (i.e. celebs of one type or another).” While it remains to be seen if that approach will work, allowing the cream to rise to the top rewards substantive comments. Gawker has long had a hierarchy of conversations, encouraging the “best” conversations to appear first. On Gawker, readers can organize the comments section by Featured Discussions, Latest and Inbox.
One of the results of greater transparency is accountability. Gawker is taking this one step further than most sites by giving commenters their own web site within the Kinja platform, similar to Tumblr, that acts as a collection of that person’s comments. The company hopes that by building more accountability (as well as control) into the system, it will stem the flow of commenters to platforms like Twitter and Facebook to discuss stories. Reddit assigns a score (the user’s “karma” that reflects how much good that user has done for the community overall.
Ridding a community of the malignant effect of trolls doesn’t happen overnight. Gawker is now ten years into building its commenter community, and it’s still not perfect. But by instituting some of these best practices organizations can create an environment that welcomes substantive discussion, multiple voices and strong engagement.