Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote an excellent piece about abusive online comments, pointing out some surprising consequences. According to Alexander, trollish comments are actually having a chilling effect on news sources. He cites a number of stories whose subjects say that the vicious comments gave them pause about participating in future interviews.
Alexander also gives an astute defense of the value of the anonymous comment, and explains a fairly complicated new comment system that the Post is working on. A lot of these problems could be solved, though, and the online conversation could be enriched, by incorporating Twitter into online commenting.
Alexander outlines the problem, differentiating between the kinds of disgraceful comments that crop up in high-profile stories like the death of Robert Novak or Ted Kennedy, and those directed at lower profile news sources:
But for average folks who are out of the public eye and agree to be featured in The Post, brutal online comments can be unexpected and devastating. Post reporters say increasing numbers are expressing regret they cooperated for stories that resulted in vicious anonymous attacks.
“I think it’s a major issue at The Post,” said reporter Ian Shapira. “We just totally throw them to the wolves” if comments aren’t moderated.
Alexander also defends against the notion that anonymous commenting should be prohibited:
For every noxious comment, many more are astute and stimulating. Anonymity provides necessary protection for serious commenters whose jobs or personal circumstances preclude identifying themselves. And even belligerent anonymous comments often reflect genuine passion that should be heard.
He then goes on to explain a new, multi-tiered comment system that would reward those with a good track record, promoting the responsible comments above others. The system relies on moderation techniques that are already in use, but the added wrinkle is the promotion of the various tiers of comments:
Those with a track record of staying within the guidelines, and those providing their real names, will likely be considered “trusted commenters.” Repeat violators or discourteous agitators will be grouped elsewhere or blocked outright. Comments of first-timers will be screened by a human being.
When visitors click to read story comments, only those from the “trusted” group will appear. If they want to see inflammatory or off-topic comments from “trolls,” they’ll need to click to access a different “tier.”
It’s a Solomonic attempt at a solution, to be sure, but it naturally narrows the conversation, rather than expanding it. I think that you could accomplish what the Post is looking for, while making those comments sections more vibrant, and providing a ton of extra promotion, by using Twitter.
Here at Mediaite, we’re pretty fortunate to have a low-maintenance bunch of commenters. While the conversations aren’t always polite, there’s not a lot that needs to be deleted. There are a number of factors that contribute to this, such as the fact that our writers engage the readers to a fairly high degree, higher than is probably possible when you’re talking about the enormous amount of content that a newspaper puts up.
We’ve also got a relatively low volume of comments, as compared to our traffic. I think that has a lot to do, though, with the fact that we get a lot of traffic from Twitter. The conversations are taking place there, not in our comments section. The Post‘s problem presents an opportunity to cross-pollinate these arenas.
Twits.ws, a website I co-founded with Caleb Howe, is a good example of what I’m talking about. Commenters to the site can check a box that tweets their comment, plus a link back to the story. The ideal setup would be to make this feature mandatory for all commenters.
One of the best things about Twitter is its self-policing nature, and the key to that is the value of an individual’s Twitter identity. If nobody follows you, you might as well not exist on Twitter, so there’s an incentive to behave yourself, to have at least some boundary. Some are slower to learn this than others. CNN’s Erick Erickson is still getting blowback from some incendiary tweets he sent during his early Twitter life.
Even anonymous tweeters don’t want to have to start fresh with a new account, giving up the followers they have accumulated.
A system like this, complete with moderation rules that filter out spam accounts and moderates new ones, would bring more people to Twitter, and more tweeters to the comments section, plus every comment would send out a link. The website enjoys promotion, and the person writing the comment also enjoys a wider platform. You could even add a “follow” button to every comment, as an extra incentive to draw Twitter users to the site.
Something like this is an especially good fit for a print site like the Washington Post, which has a vested interest in integrating more fully with the brave new media world. It’s a good fit for us, too. Although we already use Facebook, Twitter is a much more comment-friendly platform, with a much more politically engaged audience built right in.
It’s not perfect, and would still need to be combined with current moderation strategies, but integrating Twitter into blog comments offers a unique opportunity to expand the conversation while moderating, rather than simply restricting it.
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