October 15, 2013

In a recent WAN-IFRA report, New York Times Community Manager Bassey Etim said his organization has banned commenters “maybe once or twice in our history.” Reached by phone, Etim said the number has gone up since he gave an interview to the report’s authors, but not by much: “It’s very, very rare for us,” he said. “It’s fewer than 10 nonspammers.”

Yes, the Times will ban spammers, but real people need to seriously misbehave to get the hook, Etim said. One early stop for someone violating the site’s commenting rules is a “low reputation” list that gets his or her comments reviewed by one of the Times’ 13 moderators. (The Times has “essentially had the same team of moderators for years and years,” Etim said, giving the Times’ decisions, which it acknowledges are subjective, some continuity and institutional knowledge.)

“Threats of violence are the only thing I’ll ban for, really,” Etim said. The “vast majority of that handful” of people the Times has banned has made “really racist statements combined with a death threat against a whole race.”

The Times would refer a specific death threat to the police, but “we’ve never had a specific, actionable death threat against a reporter.”

Etim will sometimes email a commenter who seems “sincerely confused” by rules. For instance, he said, he might reach out to someone who refers to Republicans as “Resucklicans” or “Repugnicans” and remind them the Times does not allow name-calling, and that they can improve their commenting reputation if they make their points in other ways.

Few straight-up trolls get that courtesy: “If you really get into a one-on-one communication with the most intense people, then a lot of time you just open yourself to getting back an email full of curses,” he said. “You always have to consider: is my time better spent spending these 10 minutes individually interacting with one person or going in and reducing moderation wait time for a larger number of people?”

The Times gets trolled less than other outlets, Etim said. He thinks that’s because “we’ve set a standard that’s well known among people in the Internet commenting community, that we premoderate everything. So nobody’s going to see your trolling ever. So it’s just a waste of time.”

“We don’t get a flood of crap,” he said. Once your commenters know “you’re listening to their comments and they’re important to you and you’re devoting resources to making sure they’re not getting trolled into oblivion, they’ll open up to you.”

I mentioned that much of what I read about comments — yep, like this blog post — focused on how sites deal with people behaving badly rather than how they react to the people who are trying to have good discussions.

“You take care of the good ones, and if they’re the majority of your people, if you take care of them and protect them, their power just increases to the point where they can take care of themselves,” Etim said. “The best communities are always microcosms of the site they’re on itself.”

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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