News sites using Facebook Comments see higher quality discussion, more referrals

News organizations that have turned to Facebook to power their website comments say they are seeing a higher quality of discussion and a significant increase in referral traffic.

How does Facebook Comments reduce the endemic name-calling and invective of unrestrained online forums? By tying a real name to every comment.

“Trolls don’t like their friends to know that they’re trolls,” explained Jimmy Orr, online managing editor of the Los Angeles Times. “By using Facebook, it has made a difference.”

The LA Times has an interesting testing environment. This spring it installed Facebook Comments on its blogs, but continued to use a traditional commenting system, which allows pseudonyms, on its news articles. That provided a side-by-side comparison to see which approach produced the best results, Orr said.

The LA Times’ old article commenting system, which allows pseudonyms, enables comments such as this.

For an example, look at an article from Saturday about a local city council hiring a watchdog to oversee a troubled police department. An anonymous commenter who names himself “I-HATE-LASD-DAM-PIGS” addresses previous commenters as “morons,” shouts in all caps and calls an uninvolved county official an “UGLY FAT LYING B**ch.”

A similar post on the Times’ LA Now breaking news blog, which uses Facebook Comments, drew out some disagreements, but the commenters were generally well-mannered and stayed on the topic of the post cheap jordans from china.

Facebook Comments on an LA Now blog post are comparatively well-mannered.

Another stark contrast emerged from April through June, during coverage of a visiting baseball fan who was beaten outside of Dodger Stadium, Orr said. The Times published posts on LA Now as well as regular news articles taken from the print edition.

“The level of discourse — the difference — was pretty stunning,” Orr said. The people posting through Facebook Comments displayed anger, but it didn’t have to be heavily moderated. “On the articles, it immediately plunged into the lowest common denominator — racism, threats, vulgarity. It was night-and-day.”

The Business Journals, a network of sites covering business in 41 local markets, also added Facebook Comments in June after successfully testing it on a couple of sites.

The change significantly improved the quality and quantity of overall commenting, said Jason Silverstein, senior vice president of product development. He declined to reveal specific numbers but said the change was great enough that the sites wouldn’t switch back.

The drawbacks

Of course, Facebook Comments isn’t a panacea. Some people, though fewer, still behave poorly even with their friends looking over their shoulder. So the LA Times assigns Web staff to clean up comments.

But the improvement from using Facebook makes that task much more manageable than it used to be, Orr said. That means the Times didn’t have to hire full-time moderators.

Some people object to requiring real names. Danah Boyd, a senior researcher for Microsoft who specializes in social media and privacy issues, labeled that practice “an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people” because it pressures or excludes those who are wary of making public statements due to professional or personal concerns. I’m not unsympathetic to that, but I think it affects a small fraction of the total audience.

It’s also possible to build a respectful online community without requiring real names, if you have enough staff moderation, loyal users and self-policing mechanisms. But most news sites seem to struggle with making that happen.

Another potential problem with outsourcing comments to Facebook is that your comments are stored in Facebook’s system. If, like The New York Times or Mashable, you tie comments to an integrated, site-wide identity system that functions as a mini social network, then Facebook Comments may not be for you. But for the traditional goal of fostering responsible, useful discussion around your stories, it works.

Referrals and other benefits

In addition to raising the quality of discourse, Facebook Comments helps sites attract more visitors.

Each time a reader leaves a comment, it can be cross-posted to her Facebook news feed, with a link to your story. Any replies posted on the user’s Facebook wall also are synced to the article page.

That brings “a lot more life to a story that we may not [have] otherwise,” Orr said. “We have a lot of content here at the LA Times. Not every story, not every blog post is going to be above the fold on the homepage. So how do we get it out there? … This helps distribute our stories in another way.”

The Times has increased Facebook referrals by four and a half times from a year ago, Orr said, and he attributes much of that to the new commenting system.

Facebook referrals improved for The Business Journals as well, Silverstein said. And he noted another, less-talked-about benefit: faster page loading.

The Business Journals activated comments by plugging into the Facebook API that it was using already for other site features. After removing JavaScript code from an old commenting system, pages loaded almost 2 seconds faster.

That’s a noticeable improvement that makes the whole site feel snappier and more pleasant to browse, Silverstein said. He recommended that news publishers try the system on their own sites and see what it does for them.

“At this point there’s no cost to publishers,” Silverstein said. “You have an opportunity here to try things out with very little expense.”

Related: Facebook Comments are not a perfect solution, others note, and Cleveland.com embraces its anonymous commenters.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dimitri-Lloyd/100002947355071 Dimitri Lloyd

    But what happens when a site completely eliminates commenting, unless done through Facebook? If you haven’t noticed, sometimes Facebook comments don’t show up at all, if you don’t have a Facebook account.  What kind of shenanigans are these?  Is this an attempt to put a voluntary crimp in freedom of speech?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dimitri-Lloyd/100002947355071 Dimitri Lloyd

    Whatever happened to, “this is the Internet” – information flows freely and without restrictions like Facebook is obviously trying to implement?  It is helping foster a sort of fakeness that we saw in print media, except now they are trying to literally force and herd people into it online.  This is the Internet, not print media.  

  • http://nefariousnewt.blogspot.com NefariousNewt

    There are plenty of drawbacks to allowing comments at all; so what if you want to add Facebook users! More voices, means more chances for dialogue, and yes, more chances for asshattery. Sometimes we must take the bad with the good.

  • Anonymous

    I much prefer the Disgus format.
    Commenting with Facebook is more like a bunch of personal ads by folks looking for others to visit their facebook page.
    The process of censorship by a news organization is the most telling thing to me.
    Using staff to “clean up” comments is just another form of tailoring the overall message.

  • Anonymous

    Big brother doesn’t like to be criticized.

  • Anonymous

    I believe Facebook comments will create underground networks of people with extreme opinions. That can’t be good.

  • http://twitter.com/thecolumbian The Columbian

    This has definitely been the experience here at our mid-sized daily The Columbian. We went to Facebook comments on June 1 and are very happy with the decision. The number of comments fell off at first but we’re almost back to normal now and the quality and tenor of the conversation is much improved. Facebook referrals and likes on our FB page are also up. I agree that the system isn’t perfect, though. It’s still easy for fake profiles to sneak through and the moderation tools are adequate but not great. We do have a full-time community moderator/ social media coordinator, though, and those problems are very manageable. ~Libby Tucker, Web Editor

  • Anonymous

    The problem is Search.  If you use Facebook comments or even comment on a Facebook public page, suddenly your Facebook presence has been exposed to the world.  I google myself once in a while, and was shocked to see a comment I had left on a Facebook company’s page had popped up on search.  It showed that I was on Facebook and my picture.  Luckily I was able to delete my comment and this item has disappeared from Search.  Frankly, the  “polite well mannered” people leaving FB comments at the LA Times aren’t that smart.  Even if what you said was uncontroversial, it is the equivalent of leaving your comment on a poster in the public square of every single town and city in the entire world.  That is too much for newspapers to ask of people.  I never use FB commenting (or FB Connect) and would advise no one else to either.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cayce-Pollard/100002186052296 Cayce Pollard

    The idea that people are only polite when using their “real names” is ridiculous. Just read the newspapers. The issue here is reputation – if people value their rep (as I do) then they will behave.

  • http://www.affenstunde.com James Barnes

    Like many ‘users’ when Facebook Comments is the only available means of discussion I simply don’t join in. I am far from alone. There’s nothing new and insightful in this statement but it needs to be made again, and again, and again.

  • http://www.blackflycomic.com Motmaitre

    What exactly is wrong with a free-for-all commenting system, name-calling and all. ‘Quality’ is subjective. Yes, people tend to moderate their behavior when others are watching. So you get nice, polite discourse. It is also as bland as dishwater, because people don;t display their true thoughts and feelings. With anonymity, people let their passion through, warts and all. It is often uglier, however it is also more authentic, raw and ultimately, interesting.

    A raucuous argument amongst opinionated drunks is more interesting to me anyday than the boring, platitudinous chirpings that passes for conversation at a polite soiree.

  • http://ducknetweb.blogspot.com/ Medicalquack

    If you are like me and want privacy and not want your profile data sold, I just don’t comment anymore on sites that use Facebook only.  Glad you have Disqus here:)  I’m a big privacy advocate anyway though and write about it frequently and had to laugh when HHS started a contest for a Facebook app that people could use in the case of a disaster and if you read the news of late, riots would not be one disaster where this application would function well.  It just goes t show that we need folks in executive positions with some IT background so they don’t do things like this.  The link below has a few links to my other posts on privacy and the selling of your data too and how it can affect you when the profiling gets it wrong too. 

    http://ducknetweb.blogspot.com/2011/08/hhs-study-on-hipaa-and-medical-record.html

    I think by using Facebook, companies may lose some quality commenters too as I shut off Facebook about 3 months ago as it became a monster that took too much of my time; however Twitter on the other hand “gives” me time.  There’s a lot to be said for 141 characters:)

  • http://twitter.com/AndrewBrackin Andrew Brackin

    It isn’t just News sites, I run a software marketplace (basically) and all of our listings have Facebook comments to be an open reviews system and a way for our customers to communicate with us, developers and possible clients without any barriers. 

  • http://www.sltrib.com/justice Scott Sherman

    After reading both streams in their entirety, I don’t think the Facebook one is any better than the anonymous one. It seems to me this comment on the Facebook-specific stream is just as bad as the one on the anonymous comment stream.

    Tom Reynolds · Works at Proud to be a stay at home dadAs I kept reading these stories on this subject , my mind starts to wander. What would I do if it were one of my sons ? Here it goes ,1 plan the way i could kill the most cops in Fullerton, 2 start getting the needed weapons together [get most of them in florida easy to get auto machine guns ], 3 grenades lots and lots of genades , 4 fax war notice to news media for residents who don t want to be involved to get out [72 hour notice] 5 start the payback ……………………………………….what no cops in the city to kill , thoses Fullerton Coward Cops were the first ones out of the city…….Cops and Cowards both begin with C !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Anonymous

    I have heard anecdotes about quantity declining at some sites, Bob. But it hasn’t been universal. Some sites see comments stay the same or increase, so I didn’t cite it as a trend either way.

  • Anonymous

    Those are helpful points. Thanks, Chris.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrisboutet Chris Boutet

    We have been using Facebook Comments on the business side of our site, http://www.financialpost.com, since the feature’s launch. While the assertions made in the headline here are fair to an extent, we have seen some drawbacks.
    Firstly, feedback has shown our readers as highly resistant to the idea of being forced to use Facebook to leave a comment, mostly due to privacy concerns. Despite the steps that FB has taken to explain what happens when you leave a comment on their system, readers are still baffled to see their comment show up in their FB profile. In our experience, a comment meant for one environment automatically display in another, context-free environment is confusing and not all that valuable. Oh yeah, and then there’s this: http://techcrunch.com/2011/08/16/jeremy-and-his-mom/

    Also, no discussion of Facebook Comments is complete without a mention of the confoundingly unintuitive and feature-free moderation back end. Compare the absence of basic features like thread view, bulk moderation and analytics to, say, Disqus’s offering (which we use on the rest of our site, http://www.nationalpost.com) and it’s just not even close. FB’s rudimentary moderation panel makes it pretty unwieldy for a major news site to use as a primary commenting platform, IMO.

    Interested to hear from others who use FB on their sites.

  • Anonymous

    I’m going to quote wiki for the sake of brevity: “The theory asserts that a person is less likely to voice an opinion on a topic if one feels that one is in the minority for fear of reprisal or isolation from the majority.[1] “In the case of using Facebook comments, those comments appear on a social news feed that then appears where co-workers, friends, family members, etc. can see them. The point is that the spiral of silence would be especially applicable in the case of FB comments as opposed to just any internet board.I don’t have any problem with LAT or whoever requiring registration for comments, or using the FB system. That’s their decision. And as your source clearly stated, it’s not really a question of just creating a more respectful community, but really doing so without actually paying staff people to do so. But it’s also well-known that FB can be gamed just like any system by pseudonymous actors. Google+ is struggling with this issue right now.As to your point about anonymous letters to the editor, yes, there is a good reason for no anonymous letters to the editor. But online comments aren’t letters to the editor, and are covered under CDA section 230 with regard to fault in defamation.Anyway, thanks for the reply.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-Payne/1302940631 Bob Payne

    It’s interesting that no one in this article talks about the *quantity* of comments declining after switching to Facebook. I’ve definitely seen that happen on a couple of sites. No doubt that helps make the moderation easier, though. But I’d venture to say some threads never really get into discussion mode because only two or three people comment vs. the 20 who might have commented using the earlier system.  That lost discussion is not insignificant, in my opinion.

  • Anonymous

    I know of one study that just came out that provides some numbers on companies monitoring social media. I can’t really vouch for its accuracy though. It’s described as an “informal” survey of global companies, and there’s no methodology.

    Someone who feels a strong need to be anonymous online is still free to do so, by choosing many other forums or by setting up their own site. Short of that, each site has the right to set its own community standards and each reader has to decide whether to comment there, or not.There are journalistic concerns here too. Newspapers don’t allow sources to make anonymous claims in their columns unless they know who they are and there is a compelling reason for anonymity. And most don’t run anonymous letters to the editor under any circumstances. There are good reasons for those standards, and many news outlets would like to keep it that way in their online forums.On your final question, I’m not sure I see a way that “spiral of silence” applies here, any more than it does in any group forum. But feel free to elaborate on that.

  • Anonymous

    I’m curious about this statement: ” ‘… those who are wary of making public statements due to
    professional or personal concerns.’ I’m not unsympathetic to that, but I
    think it affects a small fraction of the total audience.”

    You *think* it affects a small fraction of the total audience, but you don’t *know* what fraction of the audience that is? And this is an argument against anonymous comments?

    Is there any research on the numbers of people who feel constrained against commenting for fear of personal or professional retribution? Ever heard of the spiral of silence theory?

  • http://www.facebook.com/tjatkinson Tom Atkinson

    Very interesting manifestation of Facebook in the rapidly evolving social media world.

  • Anonymous

    “… those who are wary of making public statements due to professional or personal concerns. I’m not unsympathetic to that, but I think it affects a small fraction of the total audience.”

    A small but significant fraction for the reasons stated. I’m all for reducing the number of trolls but relying on a private company with known security problems to police identities doesn’t strike me the as the best solution.