August 18, 2011

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 embraces its anonymous commenters.

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Jeff Sonderman ( is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

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