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More news organizations try civilizing online comments with the help of social media

ESPN this week becomes the latest major news organization to rely upon social media to help civilize its online comments.

Starting Wednesday, ESPN.com’s 25 million active users will have to log in through a Facebook account if they want to participate in online conversations on ESPN.com stories.

Patrick Stiegman, editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, said by phone that three factors drove the company’s decision to switch to Facebook for commenting: “a tremendously smooth transition for fans,” many of whom already have Facebook accounts; increased visibility for ESPN content beyond the walls of ESPN.com; and a desire to “emphasize quality of comments over the quantity of comments.”

The daily comment count on ESPN.com averaged 230,000 posts in June, according to ESPN’s Kevin Ota. That’s 6.9 million comments just last month. But while the level of public discourse on ESPN.com is enviably robust by any news organization’s standards, it isn’t necessarily always civil or thoughtful.

“We want the conversation section of our stories to be a marketplace of ideas,” said Stiegman, indicating that “healthy disruption” can be a good thing for conversations.

“We want people to be candid — actively engage in strong and thorough debate, but do it in a way without anonymity,” he said. “Agree or disagree, but do it in a way that is as productive and civil as possible.”

GateHouse Media is another large news organization that recently layered third-party social media authentication over its online commenting system in an attempt to make comments less anonymous.

As of June 27, anyone interested in leaving a comment on one of GateHouse’s 405 locally-focused news websites, must now register and sign in through a Facebook or LinkedIn account, “which we hope will make readers think twice about posting inflammatory, hateful or objectionable content,” according to a release posted on GateHouse news sites.

“We hope the tendency for readers to use their real names on their Facebook and LinkedIn accounts will help to elevate the debate,” wrote Therese D. Hayt, executive editor of GateHouse Ohio Newspapers.

David Arkin, GateHouse Media’s vice president of content & audience, explained in a blog post that his news organization’s move to social authentication through a system by Viafoura is not meant to squelch anyone’s free speech rights.

“We simply want a better online conversation,” Arkin said. “We want a more thoughtful conversation. We want accountability. We believe these are things most of our readers want as well.”

In a follow-up email interview, he said:

We were previously using our content management system’s commenting platform. CMS’s really offer the bare bones when it comes to commenting systems and as we developed a view that we wanted our commenting platform to be a more engaging and participatory platform, we knew that we needed to find a different solution. Simply, we needed a platform with more tools: Social log ins, ability to post photos and videos in a comment, ranking comments and getting social badges cheap jordans from china. It had become pretty clear that readers wanted to do more than just comment on a story and we had a unique opportunity to make our commenting platform more of a social and participatory experience by going in a different direction.

With anonymity and pseudonymity existing as a constant in the equation of online comments since news publishing blossomed on the Internet, wrangling user posts has caused huge headaches for news organizations. It’s not easy for stressed newsrooms to gather and produce the news and act as the “civility police” at the same time. Cultivating online community takes effort and attention.

Ideally, the comments section of a news site should provide relevant and valuable context for stories by encouraging users to pose unanswered questions or well-informed counterpoints. Too often, however, poorly designed comment systems allow anonymous trolls to hijack conversation streams. Fake names usually give way to nasty comments, leaving overwhelmed newsrooms responsible for comment moderation.

Insidious incivility in the comments can deter the more levelheaded members of an online community from participating, and can inflict damage on a news organization’s reputation. (I’ve heard anecdotes from reporters whose sources refused to go on the record specifically because they didn’t want to be skewered in the anonymous online comments below the story.)

Most news organizations would prefer if members of their online communities could police themselves. But users need effective tools to enforce civility — ones that can both flag offensive content and highlight the most thoughtful contributions. Facebook’s semi-enforced “real names” requirement seems to be the suitable compromise for many news sites since it makes commenters a bit more accountable. Plus, Facebook’s social commenting plug-in is free for anyone to use, even ESPN.

ESPN’s decision to route comments through Facebook follows that of many other news sites, including USAToday.com, miamiherald.com and chicagotribune.com

Testing Facebook commenting

Stiegman said ESPN.com chose to switch to Facebook social commenting after testing it successfully with select audiences.

Facebook commenting has been used for some time on the popular ESPN-affiliated blog Grantland.com and on the women-centric site ESPNW, Stiegman said.

Last November, the sports network added Facebook commenting to the Major League Baseball section of its website to track fans’ reaction. Initially, ESPN.com online producers noticed a 25 percent reduction in the volume of comments posted on MLB pages, Stiegman said.

But there was an noticeable upside, too. The civility of the comments greatly improved, Stiegman said, in part because of “a lack of anonymity helped bring about stronger quality of conversations.” Fewer comments were flagged as inappropriate. ESPN.com also saw growth in the numbers of users extending the conversation into Facebook, creating “a halo effect of bringing traffic back to our site,” he said.

Online commenting has been a major part of ESPN.com’s online strategy since 2007, Stiegman said. Fans are passionate about their teams and are going to talk about them, and ESPN wants fans to be able to engage in conversation right on its pages in “a comfortable, safe environment.”

Stiegman said the sports network does not pre-moderate comments before they are posted on the site. “We do not moderate a particular point of view,” Stiegman said. No one from Facebook will be moderating the comments posted on ESPN.com either, Stiegman assured. Producers at ESPN.com and the third-party comment monitoring company ESPN works with will continue to be responsible for dealing with comment issues as they arise.

Stiegman said he understands not all current ESPN users are happy about the change to Facebook comments and can respect their reasons for not wanting to use it. ESPN doesn’t want to alienate fans who don’t use Facebook, but said “quality and engagement are factors on our side,” he said.

The trade-off

One of the arguments against Facebook commenting is that the social media giant gains coveted access and exposure to a trusted news organization’s established audience for very little investment. Meanwhile, news organizations end up sacrificing the direct control they’ve held over their audiences and become somewhat “subordinate in status compared to the social media giants.” And there’s the fact that not everyone has a Facebook account.

The trade-off right now seems to be worth it though. Busy newsrooms get to hand Facebook most of the responsibility for comment accountability. In return, the journalists get more breathing room to focus on their core business – reporting and producing news stories.

The Hartford Courant (my former employer) switched to Facebook commenting on its website in early 2012 after “commenting had gotten to place on our site that was not productive,” Christine Wolfram Taylor, the Courant’s acting digital platform manager, said by phone.

Taylor said Facebook commenting tied more accountability to the comments, which was a big improvement over Tribune Interactive’s pseudonymous commenting system.

“The volume of comments has decreased, but the quality of the comments has definitely increased,” Taylor said. “Yes, we still have trolls. They will always exist, but they get called out more because of Facebook. The public does a good job of policing the comments.”

Facebook provides moderation tools for online producers, the ability to ban repeat offenders and blacklist bad words. But it’s not a perfect system. There are privacy issues with comments appearing online in places users did not expect, Taylor said. She added that the Courant is actively researching other commenting solutions.

“We’re always looking to improve the discourse on the site, and ways to include more people in the conversation,” Taylor said.

Stiegman also said ESPN’s move to Facebook commenting makes sense for the company right now, but it isn’t a panacea for ESPN.com. He said the company is continuing to look at other commenting systems as well.

The Dallas Morning News changed to a Facebook-only approach for comments on its website in February 2012. After a year, the news organization converted to a third-party social media integration system provided by Gigya. Gigya offers six ways for users to sign in to leave a comment: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Google or WindowsLive.

“It has reduced the number of trolls noticeably,” Michael Landauer, digital communities manager at The Dallas Morning News, said in an email interview. “There’s a lot more work you have to do to create a fake account and come in and throw verbal grenades. I think it just isn’t worth it for most people.”

When the Dallasnews.com commenting system was more open and anonymous, a total of 18 people in the newsroom were assigned to take turns moderating comments, Landauer said. The change to Facebook comments and social authentication drastically reduced the number of comments – about a 40 percent drop.

“Now I do it myself once or twice a day, responding to about 20-40 flagged comments each day,” Landauer said. “Of those, about 20 percent merit being taken down.”

News organizations that choose to add to social media authentication could further follow the lead of dallasnews.com and direct unhappy users to an old-school alternative. This disclaimer is posted above all dallasnews.com online comment boxes:

“If you do not want to comment with a social network, please consider writing a letter to the editor.”

Here’s a chart I created that outlines some more specifics:

Online news commenting systems, July 2013 by Marie Shanahan

Marie K. Shanahan is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut who tracks trends in online news commenting as part of her research. She spent 12 years as an online editor at The Hartford Courant, where anonymous online comments caused her many headaches. Read more


Early comments on stories affect what later readers believe, and what they say

A recent scientific experiment demonstrated the importance of intervening in comment sections to cultivate constructive discussion, particularly just after publication.

Scientific American Blog Editor Bora Zivkovic writes about the results, which showed that the tone of pre-existing comments on a story affected subsequent readers.

An article about nanotechnology, a topic most people know very little about and usually have no a priori biases for or against, was presented to the test subjects. Half the people saw the article with (invented) polite, civil and constructive comments. The other half was given the same article but with uncivil comments – essentially a flame-war in the fake commenting thread. The result is that readers of the second version quickly developed affinity for one side of the argument and strongly took that side, which affected the way they understood and trusted the original article (text of which was unaltered). The nasty comment thread polarized the opinion of readers, leading them to misunderstand the original article.

The Guardian saw a similar lesson when it tried two commenting systems simultaneously — Facebook comments within its Facebook app, and traditional comments on Web pages. Former user experience chief Martin Belam writes:

I had rather hoped that by opening two commenting threads underneath each article — one on Facebook, and one on the Guardian site — we’d be able to prove once and for all whether one or [the] other led to better interaction. In the end, it appeared that actually the tone set early on in a comment thread looked like it influenced comments much more than anything intrinsic about the format or identity system used.

Journalists who have written off comment sections as forsaken wastelands should still be concerned with this problem — because rancid comments also spoil the perception and potential impact of your content.

So how do you get the kinds of comments necessary to seed good discussions and avoid meltdowns cheap jordans from china?

That seems more difficult than ever, unfortunately.

Technology is not enough

The act of publishing is now so democratized and social media so pervasive that most everyone whose musings are worth hearing probably has found their own personal avenues of expression.

Smart people with something constructive to say about your article may be posting their thoughts to their Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr. Your comments section could be left as a second-class wasteland suitable only for logical fallacies and trolling.

Major publishers like Politico and TechCrunch recently announced they were dropping Facebook-powered comments and switching to other platforms (Disqus and Livefyre). That renewed debates about which platform produces better discussions.

But most people with experience in the field seem to believe, as Belam says, that “software design and features do influence community behaviours, but not as much as decent community management and personal engagement from journalists does.”

Dan Gillmor recently shared some thoughts about how that might work:

If I could design a comment system, it would put all anonymous comments at the thread’s end, and give the site owner an easy way to move good comments higher. I’d also give users a way to make anonymous comments invisible. Most sites, at this point, require a working email address and let users post under pseudonyms. This, too, can be abused by a troll, but it injects an element of accountability.

In the end, accountability is up to the site owner. Whether you are a lone blogger or a big news organization, comment threads are a platform you make available to others. The thread is your living room, where you’re hosting a conversation. You invite people into your home, and you make the rules on how they should behave.

Maybe “better comments” is the wrong goal. Maybe we need something “better than comments.”

Fresh approaches

The Huffington Post — which received well over 70 million comments last year — is launching a new comment-highlighting tool called “Conversations.”

It plucks discrete discussion threads out of the sea of comments and elevates them to their own Web pages. PaidContent’s Jeff John Roberts has the details:

The new set-up should make it easier to jump in on a given debate about the story that’s of interest. In the Benghazi story, for example, groups of people can find each other to discuss specific facets of the story — whether the US should be in Libya; whether the incident was Hillary’s fault; whether Hillary is actually a Muslim agent sent from Mars to destroy America and so on.

The fact that the “Conversations” will now have their own URL also makes it easier for people to share them and invite others into the discussion.

Gawker has been pushing its comments in a new direction too, with a focus on creating distinct, focused conversations and giving the person who started each conversation control over the responses.

Others are arguing that new systems of “social annotation” will replace commenting forms. One startup to watch is Hypothes.is — an open-source platform for annotating content across the Web. It will act as an overlay that participating users see on top of content as they browse, so individual website owners will have no control over it. But the notion is intriguing.

Reuters’ Felix Salmon looks at another annotations system used by the Rap Genius website to crowdsource understanding of rap music lyrics. The site’s users annotate each line of song lyrics with explanations.

Salmon is enthusiastic about the idea’s potential to spread:

If this takes off, it could be a significant evolution in the way that we talk about Web content. Right now, for instance, if I want to link to something somebody said on a Web page, I’ll normally just end up linking from Twitter to an undifferentiated page, rather than to the specific thing being said. And more generally, the conversation around things like blog posts tends to happen mostly on Twitter and Facebook, where it’s easy to miss and almost impossible to archive.

It would be amazing if annotation could change all that, helping to make comments more on-point and also providing a centralized archive of the conversation around any given story. … Internet comments are more of a bug than a feature these days, and I do think that annotation is a very promising way of potentially addressing the problems they have.

Related: Ben Smith: “It’s crazy that people still read, much less write about, blog comments” | Monday was Community Manager Appreciation Day Read more


NPR, other news orgs tighten comment moderation to improve conversation

NPR.org | MinnPost | Charleston Gazette | Vancouver Sun | MarketWatch
NPR switched its user commenting to the Disqus platform this week, and is increasing its moderation efforts in response to user demand.

It took the unusual step of sending readers an email survey in advance, asking for ideas and feedback about how to improve the commenting system. More than 6,000 responded. The big surprise, social media product manager Kate Myers writes, is that readers called for more comment moderation.

We asked this question in our recent NPR audience survey:

Read more
1 Comment

New study: Real names improve quality of website comments


A study of South Korean website commenters adds to the debate over whether requiring real names improves online discourse. Gregory Ferenstein writes:

For 4 years, Koreans enacted increasingly stiff real-name commenting laws, first for political websites in 2003, then for all websites receiving more than 300,000 viewers in 2007, and was finally tightened to 100,000 viewers a year later after online slander was cited in the suicide of a national figure. The policy, however, was ditched shortly after a Korean Communications Commission study found that it only decreased malicious comments by 0.9%. Korean sites were also inundated by hackers, presumably after valuable identities.

The study, he writes, provides some real data to combat the theorizing that using real names fosters better online discourse. His conclusion: “The presence of some phantom judgmental audience doesn’t seem to make us better versions of ourselves.” Read more


People using pseudonyms post the highest-quality comments, Disqus says

Disqus Product Blog | Infographic
One of the most popular commenting services for news websites and blogs says its data shows that commenters using pseudonyms are “the most important contributors to online communities.”

The service gives each user the option of commenting with a Disqus account, a social media identity or anonymously. It says 61 percent of commenters use pseudonyms, 35 percent choose to be anonymous and 4 percent use their “real identity” verified by Facebook. It also says those with pseudonyms post the best comments, while anonymous comments are lower quality. One theory: People don’t mind being accountable online, but they don’t want it to blow back on their work or personal lives by using a real identity. A pseudonym protects them while providing a measure of accountability. Read more


Journalist: I’m obsessed with reading the awful comments on Philly.com

Philadelphia Weekly
Not all Philly.com commenters are racist, “but most are,” says Tara Murtha. “Calling black people animals, references to monkeys, phrases like ‘welcome to the jungle, baby’ and ‘That’s how it go in da hood’ are all standard comments beneath crime stories on Philly.com when the perp is black.” But Murtha can’t stop reading the atrocious remarks. “Averting my eyes is not my style. I read grand jury reports and listen to police radio.”

Philly.com editor Wendy Warren tells Murtha that the anonymous comments problem is enough to drive her “completely insane,” and that she’s working on it. A new moderation system will require commenters to sign in through Facebook. Murtha’s reaction: “I have to admit part of me is disappointed, even though this is probably a great step for the 99 percent — the would-be commenters scared off by the elite 1 percent hogging up the bandwidth.” | Earlier: News sites using Facebook Comments see higher quality discussions. Read more


Continuing the discussion on Facebook Comments: Not a perfect solution

GigaOm, Zombie Journalism

Picking up on my post about how Facebook Comments are benefiting some news sites, others have added valuable thoughts. Mathew Ingram notes that forcing commenters to use real names is a double-edged sword: “Although removing anonymity (or pseudonymity) can remove some of the trolling and flame-wars that consume comment threads, it also risks removing opinions and viewpoints that would never be expressed if the commenter had to put their name on it.”

He also notes Reynolds Journalism Fellow Joy Mayer’s research on engagement, which encourages journalists to get more involved in their own reader comments rather than “outsourcing” the conversation.

In another post, Huffington Post social media editor Mandy Jenkins reminds us that there are ways for Facebook users to operate under fake names and act just as trollish as anyone else, if they are so motivated. She suggests newsrooms still need moderators and whole-staff involvement to maintain good comments.

For more thoughtful feedback, see the comments left on my original story. Read more


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. Read more


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