Newspaper comments: Forget anonymity! The problem is management

This New York Times piece Monday reflects a growing chorus of resentment among newspaper website managers against the “barroom brawl” atmosphere so many of them have ended up with in the comments sections on their sites.

They blame anonymity. If only they could make people “sign their real names,” surely the atmosphere would improve!

This wish is a pipe dream. They are misdiagnosing their problem, which has little to do with anonymity and everything to do with a failure to understand how online communities work.

It is one of the great tragedies of the past decade that so many media institutions have failed to learn from the now considerable historical record of success and failure in the creation of online conversation spaces. This stuff isn’t new any more. (Hell, this conversation itself isn’t new either — see this Kevin Marks post for a previous iteration.) There are people who have been hosting and running this sort of operation for decades now. They know a thing or two about how to do it right. (To name just a few off the top of my head — there are many more: Gail Williams of the Well. Derek Powazek of Fray.com. Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon’s Table Talk. Caterina Fake and her (ex-)Flickr gang.)

The great mistake so many newspapers and media outlets made was to turn on the comments software and then walk out of the room. They seemed to believe that the discussions would magically take care of themselves.

If you opened a public cafe or a bar in the downtown of a city, failed to staff it, and left it untended for months on end, would you be surprised if it ended up as a rat-infested hellhole?

Comment spaces need supervision — call them hosts or moderators or tummlers or New Insect Overlords or whatever you want, but don’t neglect to hire them! These moderators need to be actual people with a presence in the conversation, not faceless wielders of the “delete” button. They welcome newcomers, enforce the local rules, and break up the occasional brawl — enlisting help from the more civic-minded regulars as needed.

Show me a newspaper website without a comments host or moderation plan and I’ll show you a nasty flamepit that no unenforceable “use your real name” policy can save. Telling Web users “Use your real name” isn’t bad in itself, but it won’t get you very far if your site has already degenerated into nasty mayhem. The Web has no identity system, and though the FBI can track you down if the provocation is dire enough, and if you get editors mad enough they can track you down, too, most media companies aren’t going to waste the time and money. So you’ll stand there demanding “real names,” and your trolls will ignore you or make up names, and your more thoughtful potential contributors will survey your site and think, “You want me to use my real name in this cesspool? No thanks.”

No, anonymity isn’t the problem. (Wikipedia seems to have managed pretty well without requiring real names, because it has an effective system of persistent identity.) The problem is that once an online discussion space gets off to a bad start it’s very hard to change the tone. The early days of any online community are formative. The tone set by early participants provides cues for each new arrival. Your site will attract newcomers based on what they find already in place: people chatting amiably about their lives will draw others like themselves; similarly, people engaging in competitive displays of bile will entice other putdown artists to join the fun.

So turning things around isn’t easy. In fact, it’s often smarter to just shut down a comments space that’s gone bad, wait a while, and then reopen it when you’ve got a moderation plan ready and have hand-picked some early contributors to set the tone you want. If I were running a newspaper with a comments problem, that’s how I’d proceed. Don’t waste your time trying to force people to use their real names in hope that this will improve the tenor of your discussion area; build a discussion area that’s so appealing from the start that it makes people want to use their real names.

Why didn’t newspapers do this to begin with? I think part of the problem is that a lot of them had only the vaguest rationale for opening up comments in the first place. Maybe some consultant told them it was a good idea. Or it looked like the right thing to do to the young members of the Web team, and the front office said “Go ahead and play, kids, just don’t spend any money.” And the comments got turned on with no one minding the store and no clear goal in mind, either on the business side or in the newsroom.

So, media website operators, I suggest that you ask yourselves:

When you opened up comments, was it really about having a conversation with the readers? Then have that conversation! Get the editors and reporters in there mixing it up with the public. Sure, there will be problems and awkward moments; there will also be breakthroughs in understanding.

Maybe, though, no one was ever really serious about that conversation. Maybe the idea was to boost ad impressions with an abundance of verbiage supplied gratis by the readership. In that case, stop complaining about the flame wars and accept that the more abusive your commenters wax, the more your crass strategy will succeed.

Whatever you do, remember that as long as you’re thinking “What’s wrong with those people?” and “What did we do to deserve this?” you’re not taking responsibility for a problem that, I’m sorry to say, you created yourselves.

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Comments

  1. Peter Cohen

    This is exactly what’s happened with our local daily, the Cape Cod Times (www.capecodonline.com), where constant fisticuffs in the forums led the admins to shutting it down with the promise that within a few months, a new system would replace the old. Of course, that hasn’t happened, and nary a word has been spoken by the management, either.

    Of course, moderation has its pitfalls, too. Moderate too heavily and you’ll stifle conversation; potentially active participants will raise the spectre of censorship, etc. And if you depend on volunteer moderators, you often get what you pay for; they’ll either sleep on the job or tend to cultivate their own pet issues while letting others lie fallow or get overgrown with weeds.

    Establishing a happy medium can seem to be more trouble than it’s worth for publishers still stuck in dead tree space with the expectation that feedback should be limited specifically to the people who want to write or e-mail letters to the editor, who don’t understand the benefit of having an active and vibrant reader community.

  2. Scott Rosenberg

    Very true. Anonymity is an art. But it’s one that we now actually have a lot of experienced practitioners in — unlike 15 years ago…

  3. Yes, yes, yes, yes. Thank you so much for writing this. It’s not just newspapers, by the way, it’s any well-read news site (and probably some not-so-well-read ones).

    I have said this over and over again, in places from Twitter to the ethics presentation I reprised at an SPJ regional conference here in Seattle last weekend – it is site owner/managers’ responsibility to keep their comment sections from becoming a sewer, UNLESS they INTEND to have a free-for-all, in which case they better make sure that anyone who wanders into the room is well aware that’s what they’re getting into. Otherwise, it’s not only your right but your responsibility to draw some lines and enforce them. We don’t pre-moderate all comments but we do delete rule-breaking comments, and we don’t tolerate a variety of lines of offensive discussion including not just racism and sexism but even sizism. We also have a line to describe our personal-insult policy: You can say somebody’s comment is idiotic, but you can’t call them an idiot.

    Some have railed at us in turn for daring to have and enforce a policy (and also for the fact it’s an art, not a science, and some ugliness gets through on occasion) – but while our comment sections, even with all this, are NOT happy lands of sunshine and rainbows and briliant philosophical discourse, they at least are not the “You! No, you! Neener-neener! F-You, jerk! No, you!” etc. garbage heaps that you might find on the sites of those who, as you put it, turn comments on and “walk out of the room” (see no evil, hear no evil, delete no evil). Again, the owners of those sites have the right to tolerate that if they so choose – but don’t blame anonymity. I don’t have to announce my name if I stand up in a public meeting and make a comment, and I don’t intend to force those who visit our site and choose to share opinions/information in the comment section to do that, either.

  4. excellent post! i hope our local papers would do this. it is nauseating what locals have said in comments, even if fatal accident announcements. and being on a small island, even “nicknames” after awhile are not anonymous but yet, they still keep writing nasties.

  5. elle

    “Maybe, though, no one was ever really serious about that conversation. Maybe the idea was to boost ad impressions with an abundance of verbiage supplied gratis by the readership.”

    I see you’ve spoken to someone from Gannett.

  6. You sure were punchy enough in this posting to give the intended impression that you know something the newspaper industry doesn’t. But your advice still won’t solve the problem. We have nearly a decade of direct empirical evidence that comments generally do not work on Web sites and never work on hard-news stories. Perhaps they work on op-ed pieces, though indeed ante-facto moderation is necessary.

    The cure for the comments problem in newspapers is to permanently eliminate most comments, which simply do not work. Of course any number of consultants will insist otherwise. We want the pill, not the rhythm method.

  7. Heidi

    I’m going to have to disagree. As an online content producer at a local newspaper, we started with total immersion. I was picked to head up forum moderation and interaction because I had successfully managed three other (larger-than-the-newspaper’s) online communities in my career.

    None even came close to the vileness of the newspaper commenters. Many people who join a Web site do so because they have a common interest and that fosters a sense of community. In a newspaper forum, these things don’t exist. If the newspaper cover a large area (like ours did), people from one city will disparage people from another “hick” city. If the newspaper is in a swing state (like ours is), the political rhetoric has no middle ground. We covered multiple-body murders where the commenting populace would laugh and mock the parents or children of the dead.

    There are two problems here:
    1. Local news is not enough to bring a community together.
    2. Unlike other online communities where people ENJOY the Web site they’re a member of, many people don’t like their local newspaper. Perhaps they’ve been ingrained to distrust the mainstream (or is it “lamestream”?) media or they don’t feel there’s enough accountability. We know that people have stopped trusting the news more and more, so it’s natural that the Web sites get inundated with haters. And while Mashable may have haters or Reddit may have haters, those haters don’t feel like they don’t have another choice when it comes to getting the information they want. They don’t have a vested interest.

    Vile forums have very little to do with proper moderation and interaction and more to do with the motivation of the people on them.

  8. Jeff Bonty

    Mr. Rosenberg is right.

    I have said in the past as Web editor that making a person sign their name would bring civility and credibility to the commenting. Nope. It doesn’t Those that sign are brave and I admire them.

    What needs to be done is patrol the comment boards. Keep them in line and on subject. Toss the ones that need to be tossed. Calm down the ones that have a good comment, but let the knuckleheads get under their skin. And get involved.

    You would be surprised through the barbs the moderator receives of the kudos for taking the time to patrol and be a part of the community.

    Mr. Rosenberg changed my mind about online commenting. I was reluctantly for it, but now understand even better the role of the commenting.

    Thanks

    Jeff Bonty
    Web editor
    The Daily Journal
    Kankakee, IL

  9. As you suggest, most newspapers offer wide-open commenting because they get millions of pageviews at little expense. I would challenge any editor justifying comments as a source of insight to list all the stories they developed from news tips they found in their reader comments.

    Newspapers are now addicted to the ad revenue they get from comments. Until they find a better source of income — such as online subscriptions via pay walls — they’ve made a pact with digital’s devil.

  10. Scott Rosenberg

    Elle: Nope, didn’t talk to Gannett! :-) But the idea is pretty widespread.

    Heidi: Your points are significant, I think. Here’s where they take me:

    (1) I don’t think I agree that “local news is not enough to bring a community together.” It may not be as easy as gathering all the gadget freaks or all the poltiical true believers of a particular stripe, but I think it can be done. Maybe you need to start in a specific area, like sports or the arts, or a particular issue, and build the community out from there.

    (2) “Many people don’t like their local newspaper.” You can see the circular problem here in suggesting that comments, which offer at least one form of accountability, are going to be filled with people who are angry about a media outlet’s lack of accountability.

    I guess I’d suggest, humbly, that if a newspaper know that “many people don’t like it,” then that is a problem far bigger than unruly comment boards. And it might behoove the newspaper’s leaders to view the comments as a place where they can begin to turn the tide of that dislike, rather than just accept its inevitability and sink slowly into bankruptcy and irrelevance. But of course making that effort requires care and tact and some subtle understanding of how the online milieu functions — which was what my post attempted to say.

  11. John Reinan

    Scott, when you said newspapers should hire moderators, did you mean actually pay them? I can only assume you did, even though some of the commenters started making points involving volunteer moderators.

    But you certainly must realize how unlikely it is that any modern newspaper would spend what it would take to hire enough moderators to keep up with the hundreds and thousands of daily comments a large newspaper can generate.

  12. Curtis McCussin

    Well, ***k me ****ways! Auto****ingmatic comment ****-filters don’t ****ing work. And never mind the ****ing cussing. What about ****ing inflammatory themes, defamatory accusations or other slurs that some fancy ****ing filtering software won’t pick up. Online moderation is a real ****ing job for real ****ing people.

  13. John Reinan

    P.S. And not only “keep up” with the flow of comments, but — to your larger point — actually tend them, direct them, be a vital part of the conversation.

    That would take more than a couple volunteers with their fingers on the delete button, or a handful of retired newsies hoping to contribute.

  14. I think everyone should look at metafilter.com and ask.metafilter.com sites as paragons of what it means to run an online community. The sites generate enough ad revenue to pay 4 moderators who actually participate and guide the discussion as well as shut down anti-social behavior. Another key factor is that the site charges a $5 lifetime membership fee which keeps out many of the trolls and because accounts are limited, your comments build up a history which seems to keep a lot of people honest (despite being anonymous).

  15. Ron

    Scott’s arguments are all well-grounded. Especially the end point that newspapers and other sites are swimming in a cesspool of their own making. But when it comes to solutions, alas, Heidi is correct.

    Local news sites, in my experience, generate mobs, not community. Comment sections for general news pieces, most with anonymous, unmoderated laxity, are magnets for every loud mouth with an ax to grind — and with an irresistible urge to take their disdain for the publication out on people and processes that should have nothing to do with it. Anonymity adds fuel to that fire.

    Scott’s points about the need to address the sources of dislike and distrust of the publication are well taken. But it’s really not that simple. You’re never going to win over people who hate you for irrational reasons. In many cases, it really feels like the distrust of mainstream media outlets grows exponentially with how well they do their job. People expecting partisan hackery that supports their own half-baked belief system (which is, alas, what many people now are trained to expect) are never going to respect or even show tolerance for a publication that tells them the truth — or at least a version of it they don’t like. Hence, comment sections for stories that cover a bewilderingly broad array of topics and interests are never likely to develop the “community” and civility of more special-interest sites. In fact, the only community they seem to engender are klatches of like-minded haters, who proceed to present a tremendously warped view of what the “public” thinks about a subject.

    Sadly, most of us in journalism have indeed been fed the line that it’s all about establishing a “community discussion.” But the first thing we hear when we suggest a fresh look at the practice is statistics about the grand number of page hits it produces.

    Call me an elitist, but I didn’t devote 30 years of my life to be in a a business where I spend hours or weeks on a piece demonstrating that fire is hot, only to see my own publication give what amounts to equal time and space to an anonymous, often perjorative assertion that it’s cold. As reporters, we not only are expected, but required to sort BS from defensible fact before we put our name on it and send it out for consumption. It would be nice if our own publications would hold themselves to the same standard when it comes to public comment sections.

  16. No you’re wrong. Anonymity is every reason to say something one wouldn’t. I’d probably be a bit more insulting and funny about this if I wasn’t using my name.

  17. FHSchecker

    It’s absolutely true that newspapers’ failure to properly moderate message boards is a bigger contributor to the “barroom brawl” nature of many online “communities” than anonymity.

    But that doesn’t mean anonymity isn’t a factor.

    Many of us started with listserv technology, where members were often vetted by a moderator or moderators and real names were the norm. Those listservs were always far more civil and useful that the typical message board community of today.

    It all comes back to “how online communities work.” Many forms of an online community are possible and they all work one way if you allow anonymity and another if you don’t. I guarantee that your moderators will be much more active when you decide that your online community will allow anonymity.

    I have no problem with forming communities of anonymous users, unless you put them close to your professional journalism. That’s when you risk the possibility of blurring the lines between your work and readers’ opinions.

  18. I think that moderation is the main problem — you’re right there, Scott — but we also need persistent identities for moderation to work on. That’s why metafilter’s payment model is something the papers should imitate: because it means that being barred feels like a real sanction. And we should be far readier to delete users, and not just comments. If it cost a user $5 every time their identity was deleted for being an asshole, there would be a lot fewer assholes online.

    But the underlying question you hint at is the one that newspapers are very reluctant to answer: why do we have comments at all? There are, I think, good answers possible. But so long as comments are seen as something free — free “content” for the paper, and an untramelled opportunity to vent for the readers — they will be worthless or worse.

    Only if they become a game in which both parties have a stake will they produce valuable results.

  19. Paul Bass

    Our experience publishing a daily news website in New Haven the past five years has proved Scott’s point.

    From the beginning we pre-screened all comments but allowed anonymity. We focused on the results, not the anonymity. (We figured clever jerks could fool us about the name anyway.) We put together rules of the road — no libel, nastiness, personal attacks, swearing, hate speech. Here are the rules: http://newhavenindependent.org/index.php/site_policies/

    Lately we’ve gotten even stricter about the tone, and the debate keeps getting more diverse and less idiotic as a result.

    Often the comments add lots of information and perspective our original stories lacked. And I’ve never worked anywhere before where such a wide group of people — across all age, demographic, and racial and ethnic lines — participate.

    We find that the Klan types and other obnoxious haters whose comments we ban migrate to the print daily’s website, where comments are unmoderated, and are unbelievably foul and racist. Our rules of the road.

  20. This post is a great call for conversation, and it goes a long way to explain why in my area, the hyperlocal news blog produced by people who in the old days we would not have considered as news professionals has far more intelligent conversations than those sponsored by the local newspaper. However, there’s no question anonymity is a problem as was best illustrated by the famous (and just to warn you, obscene) Penny Arcade cartoon: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19/

  21. John Hill

    This is an issue we’ve wrestled with at The Columbian, and I have to say I’m somewhat torn.

    I do agree with Scott that newspapers have generally failed and/or failing to genuinely converse with their online communities. Moderation and honest conversations are critical, and we the media definitely need to engage in some PR. The problem is that moderation takes a lot of time, energy and is costly in that time spent there is time not spent reporting and editing. Some would say that can be resolved by hiring a community manager to tend the comments garden, and some corporations have certainly done that. I’d argue that we could certainly benefit from that, but it’s still important for journalists to do as much of the interacting as possible simply because they told the stories and should be accountable.

    So here come’s the flipside: If journalists are held accountable online, why aren’t the people who comment on the stories? What is so wrong with making people use their name?

    I am not deluding myself into thinking it would be easy or that it would solve our problems and I would still argue that we should moderate and have conversations online, but we should also require real names on comments. Tell me why we shouldn’t? The only argument I’ve heard against it that has any legs is that some people might divulge truths they wouldn’t ordinarily share if everyone know who they were. Maybe so, but is that price worth paying for the headaches we now suffer from? Also, perhaps a whistleblower form on the site for anonymous tips and comments that could be vetted and preapproved could fill that void?

    And don’t tell me that moderation will fix things. We actively employ our bozo filter to ban users and we weed poor comments on our site as much as we can (now we just need to do more moderating, which seems to scare the reporters for the obvious reasons). The flame-wars, off-topic rants (ie, Obama and liberals get blamed for everything under the sun) and other inane commentary just keeps a comin’. You can moderate all you want and things will improve, but it’s slightly delusional to think the garden pests are ever going to leave your crops alone, especially if they’re allowed to continue to camouflage their identities. Aren’t we supposed to be in the business of unmasking things anyway?

    Thanks, Scott, for encouraging this conversation.

  22. Scott Rosenberg

    Thanks to all of you — I’m learning a lot here.

    John Hill: I think it’s really important not to think that moderation is simply a matter of weeding. It’s also, to extend that metaphor, about planting and feeding the desired crops. The moderator not only boots the flames and trolls; he/she models good behavior, encourages the kind of discussion that’s desirable, and generally lets people know that someone is home.

    I have no problem with the general notion that commenters should be accountable. I just don’t see it as a panacea. And given how hard it is to “require real names” on the Internet as we know it, for all sorts of technical reasons, I’m suggesting that the limited resources media companies have might better be devoted to moderation.

    To John Reinan: yeah, you’re right, it’s hard to imagine newspapers paying moderators. But if they believe their future is on the web then it’s a good investment. (If they don’t believe their future is on the web, then what are they doing here?) My argument is that it would be a better investment than spending money to pay people to verify the names of commenters. And if the papers aren’t planning to spend money on that, then their “use your real name” policy is an idle threat, because anyone can still sign up with any name they want.

  23. Anonymous

    I agree that anonymity is not the problem. There are plenty of reasons to be anonymous (like posting a relevant opinion or item about where you work, which would get you fired).

    Newspapers are going after “real names” when they need to just make sure that the comments posted are not just personal attacks in the first place.

    I have seen people post items about their competitors, neighbors, etc. that were simply totally not true on a newspaper site that let readers run amok, and then of course, the newspaper was “shocked” and surprised when they got a call from an attorney or two regarding libelous postings.

    If you don’t maintain it, then don’t have it.

  24. John Hill

    You’re so right, Scott, about moderation being more than weeding and that’s probably why we’re having so much trouble at times on our site. We need to do more fertilizing and composting.

    That said, I don’t know that I buy the argument that verifying real names is too time-consuming. We somehow manage to find the time to verify names for the Op-Ed pages.

    I’m thinking a hybrid approach is best with newspapers becoming more active in the comments threads but also finding some means to require or at least strongly encourage the use of real names. Reporters can’t hide their identity, so why should the public get to?

    On that note, there’s another Nieman link one can find from the link posted just above:
    http://www.niemanlab.org/2010/04/tough-love-gawker-finds-making-it-harder-for-comments-to-be-seen-leads-to-more-and-better-comments/

  25. Mark Baard

    Absolutely brilliant explanation of the nature of this beast.

    I am afraid that the answer to your question, anywhere, “When you opened up comments, was it really about having a conversation with the readers?” is, “No.”

    Someone, however, is convinced that comments are making their sites, “sticky.”

  26. imran14826

    Lately we’ve gotten even stricter about the tone, and the debate keeps getting more diverse and less idiotic as a result.

    Often the comments add lots of information and perspective our original stories lacked. And I’ve never worked anywhere before where such a wide group of people — across all age, demographic, and racial and ethnic lines — participate.

    We find that the Klan types and other obnoxious haters whose comments we ban migrate to the print daily’s website, where comments are unmoderated, and are unbelievably foul and racist. Our rules of the road.

    imran14826
    http://www.livetv.pk

  27. /They blame anonymity. If only they could make people “sign their real names,” surely the atmosphere would improve!/

    It is they decide, but will be good if to forecast use Openid.

  28. Scott, your article was spot on to me! I really agree with all of your points. It is so important to set the tone for your comments and then be able to enforce them. When we launched Fastnote.com, we laid out pretty strict rules about civility. It has worked well for us. Occasionally we get a “graffiti artist”, but our users quickly report them and the get moderated off the site. We have addressed this issue in our blog on the site which you might be interested in reading! Thanks!

  29. Robert Smith

    Readers comments are a very important part of supplying the citizens with the news in today’s day and age. Journalist’s and the press are on such limited time and budgets the proper news needs all the help it can get. So much more to each story can be gained by readers comments. They may be a victim, a family member, a CEO , an assistant, an intern, a rescue worker, someone who knows what wasn’t legal to grasp and ect. There is always going to be true facts and untrue facts. But even the untrue facts tell certain facts that need to be thought about. Most are easily distinguishable. Others may not be so easily. but as news and readers comments progress so won’t sophistication needed to sort them out and think about who, why and what for. Which is very important news information. Even online “Brawls” if you wish, will tell so much about the “Heartbeat” of this nation and the world. And do bring the truth out in one way or another. So many that really pay attention to the news count on readers comments to complete the circle of staying up on the news. A limit on characters or words may help in keeping some of the not worthwhile comments out. Readers comments could be the difference between success or failure for news sites. Don’t disregard what maybe so valuable to you and yours.

Trackbacks

  1. […] getting into the Spam folder, so wordpress must be doing something right — but there was an excellent post on newspaper websites & commenting by Scott Rosenberg that I cannot recommend enough.  Really, read it, and the article that inspired it.  Some of the […]

  2. […] Many newspapers and media sites have also struggled with this tension between real-world identity and anonymity, with many deciding to require real identities in order to cut down on malicious comments (although verifying identity on a large scale can be very difficult). Other media observers, however, argue that anonymity is a red herring, and that the real determining factors when it comes to a healthy online community are engagement and management. […]

  3. […] Many newspapers and media sites have also struggled with this tension between real-world identity and anonymity, with many deciding to require real identities in order to cut down on malicious comments (although verifying identity on a large scale can be very difficult). Other media observers, however, argue that anonymity is a red herring, and that the real determining factors when it comes to a healthy online community are engagement and management. […]

  4. […] When you read a newspaper article online and are inspired to add a comment, would you rather be in a sea of anachronistic anonymity or conventional names? Do you care if comments are hidden by screen names or do you think the ugly truth lies less in comments and more in mismanagement of newspaper websites? […]

  5. 22 weigh in on Web site comments…

    Maybe it started with a weekend Twitter discussion by Howard Owens and Mathew Ingram a few weeks ago, but however it began, there’s a lively new debate ongoing about Web site comments, particularly on news sites, a topic we’ve written……

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