The Globe And Mail Tries Something Revolutionary: Actually Giving A Damn About User Comments & Conversation

from the actually-giving-a-damn dept

For some time now the trend du jour among many media outlets has been to ban news comments — then insult reader intelligence by proclaiming this is being done out of a deep-rooted love of “conversation” and “relationships.” You see, these websites aren’t banning comments because they’re too lazy or cheap to weed out spam and trolls, but because they love you. These sites aren’t outsourcing all human interactivity to Facebook because bean counters can’t monetize quality on-site discourse in a pie chart, they’re doing it because they care so very deeply about their community.

Why, oh, why can’t you people understand that giving the middle finger and a shiny new muzzle to your entire readership is an act of love?

With this being the intellectually-stunted direction of the entire online media sector, it’s kind of refreshing to see websites that actually try to solve problems and give a flying damn about quality on-site community. Case in point: albeit overshadowed by some notable downsizing at the outlet, Canada’s The Globe and Mail this week announced that the website will be trying something new: acknowledging that ye olde, maligned news comment section is worth saving, while building a new system that leans on the community itself to keep discourse spam-free and relatively civil:

“Our new platform asks users to review other comments made on the site before posting their own. Each comment is reviewed by the community for quality and civility. This peer-to-peer moderation process incentivizes users to be more respectful to each other regardless of how different their opinions may be.

The decision to adopt Civil Comments was made after an eight-week trial that ran on the Politics section of our website. We noticed that the number of comments for that section remained stable during the test period while the percentage of comments that were either rejected or flagged dropped significantly, pointing to an overall uplift in the quality of conversations.”

Shockingly, during the Globe and Mail’s trial, they found that the very same communities most of these sites claim are utterly irredeemable and untameable, actually participated in working to make the comment section better:

“We understand how passionate our users are and we welcome different views and opinions. But we also recognize that sometimes things can get out of hand.

We also believe that the vast majority of our community knows how to play fair. In fact, our trial showed that, with a few exceptions, our readers were willing to adopt this new approach in order to elevate the tone of the debate within comments. We were thrilled to see that.”

That shouldn’t really be surprising. We’ve noted time and time again that it doesn’t really take much effort to improve comment discourse, and that the real problem was that websites weren’t even god-damned trying. In fact, one study showed that just having someone from the website occasionally show up and treat commenters like human beings had a profound impact on the quality of the comment section. Imagine what you could actually accomplish if you threw even a modest amount of time and money at the issue?

But then again, many websites aren’t giving up on comments because it’s really all that hard to save them, they’re giving up because it’s just easier and cheaper to ignore these users completely, even if on-site conversation increases impressions and time spent on-site. The reality is that many editors and websites just really like the idea of returning to the bygone era of letters to the editor where they get to control the direction of public discourse, even if that ignores the very bidirectional nature of the internet itself. They also can’t admit they like having corrections to story errors in not quite such a conspicuous location.

In reality, the push to kill news comments is largely thanks to laziness and a desire for less public transparency. Editors can’t admit this, so instead we get obnoxious missives claiming that entire user bases are being gagged out of a deep-rooted love of engagement. Hopefully more sites will follow The Globe and Mail’s lead and try a little something called actually giving a damn.

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Comments on “The Globe And Mail Tries Something Revolutionary: Actually Giving A Damn About User Comments & Conversation”

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30 Comments
Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Fun Fact

EFF Deeplinks blog still doesn’t have ANY comment section. But of course you won’t write about THAT.

Um. You want us to write about every random website that doesn’t decide to turn on comments? Why?

Should EFF’s blog have comments? Sure. Maybe.

But that wasn’t the issue here that were talking about. This was about media companies who HAD comments and basically ignored them until shutting them down claiming they were doing it because they were so interested in listening to their community.

Do you not do nuance? Or were you just trying (and failing) to be snarky?

Darkhog says:

Re: Re: Fun Fact

Not every random company. But EFF as a foundation championing free and open Internet should lead by example.

And while cause may be different (disabling comments vs. not having them in the first place), the effect (silencing people) is the all the same.

I have nothing (except that thing I’m writing about) against EFF and will donate to it once I have steady income that can support both me and my donation efforts (not to mention I often buy Humble Bundles to support EFF), but yeah, they should lead by example.

Frankly I’d like to see EFF’s reasoning behind not having comments. Is that server space? Use external comment solution such as Disqus. Is that moderation? Do what hero of this article did.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Fun Fact

“EFF Deeplinks blog still doesn’t have ANY comment section. But of course you won’t write about THAT.”

Did they have comments previously, and then remove them under the guise of “serving their community” or “enabling conversation” when all they’re doing is decreasing the level of discourse or (at best) reducing moderation overhead?

Yes? that’s a good, relevant story and you should submit it using the available facilities. Techdirt can be quite good at covering a range of subject, but they won’t be keeping an eye on every random story, especially if it’s not being reported elsewhere (Techdirt’s main remit is generating conversation about existing topics, not a primary source of investigative journalism).

No? then who cares? That has nothing to do with the story at hand, which is the hypocrisy and counter-productiveness of removing comments while pretending to have the conversation you just removed. There’s millions of sites which don’t have user comments, but nobody’s saying that every site should have them. Only that removing them under these pretences is wrong. If they’re not doing that, then all you’re doing is saying “EFF don’t act the way I think they should act”, which isn’t particularly constructive, nor does it reflect badly on this site for not randomly writing about that one example.

I suspect this is partly why some sites insist on having comments removed. Even if you don’t mind the trolls and spam, there’s always someone attacking you for not writing what they want you to to write…

Page 539 - Google Books Result says:

Re: Re: Fun Fact

Well said.

The EFF Deeplinks blog is just that, a one-stop-shop that aggregates posts from around the internet that falls under their purview. A comments section there would not be appropriate. Also, I suspect that the EFF have limited resources, and managing a comments section would HAVE to be an overhead low down on their priorities.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: civility?!?

emphasis on the social pressures. G&M appears to have got this, as their new system leverages social pressure much more than rules. Sites removing their comments section don’t get this, as they’re not just outsourcing their comment management, they are removing social pressure (the pressures on the third party site aren’t going to align neatly with their readership’s own social system).

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 civility?!?

Right, user moderation, when properly deployed (as in not just a cow-clicker “like” button), is an excellent method of managing comments. Ars’s system is good but not perfect (posts with many downvotes and few upvotes get hidden; unfortunately this can devolve, as community voting often does, into a popularity contest; I try to do the right thing and upvote comments that are well-thought-out and downvote ones that are a waste of time, regardless of whether I agree with them or not); Slashdot’s is excellent but probably too complicated to roll out on most sites.

BernardoVerda says:

Re: Re: Re:3 civility?!?

Have you ever noticed how, on Ars (a.k.a. Ars Technica) forums, the “hidden” posts can still garner even more downvotes after they’ve reached the threshold for becoming “hidden” comment — often getting multiple times the number of downvotes needed to trigger the “hidden” status.

Which means that people like me generally click on the collapsed post in question anyhow (as “hidden” on Ars really just means “collapsed, because so many readers have rated it as a “poor” or otherwise deficient comment), then after reading, agreed that it was indeed substandard — and added another downvote.

Hmmmm…

KIRK: I'm not sure, but I think we've been insulte says:

Re: civility?!?

SPOCK: Indeed, gentlemen. May I point out that I had an opportunity to observe your counterparts here quite closely. They were brutal, savage, unprincipled, uncivilised, treacherous, In every way, splendid examples of homo sapiens, the very flower of humanity. I found them quite refreshing.

geddy2112 (profile) says:

civility?!?

I agree with you that there will always be a faction of society that gets off on not acting in ways that society would like them to and they will always exist. that puts the onus on the vast majority of the rest of us to extend that olive branch, much like the globe and mail are coming around to doing. acknowledge the trolls, manage them if you can, but don’t let them stop the majority of us from acting civil and engaging in debate and discussions around any story or topic.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: civility?!?

acknowledge the trolls, manage them if you can

Right, and that’s important: for the past twenty years people have been saying "Don’t feed the trolls," and for small communities that’s a fine solution. But it doesn’t scale. The bigger the community, the more trolls there are going to be. And while most trolls might go away if people ignore them, some just escalate until it becomes impossible to ignore them (like, say, filling up the comments section of every Gawker site with violent GIFs a couple of years ago). You can’t handle that kind of troll without active moderation, both from the community and from the owners.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: civility?!?

My opinion has always been this – not feeding the trolls is fine to a point. Obnoxious, swearing children or people obviously just trying to pick a fight can usually be ignored safely.

The problem is, many trolls aren’t like this. They lie more subtly, create fictions that seem almost plausible, make accusations that to the unknowing might seem true. You have to fight there. not because they will get rid of the troll, but because they will educate others to the truth. I know I’ve learned a lot about subjects over the years just from the links and explanations posted to refute the kind of pathetic human being who gets their kicks from reposting debunked lies to kill conversation.
Not feeding them means the lies might be believed instead.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: civility?!?

True, that’s a good point too. Trolls who show up and deliberately spread misinformation — those comments might survive for years, be stumbled upon in search engine results by people who aren’t part of the community and aren’t familiar with the topic, and seem reasonable to those people in that context. Refuting those posts may be a thankless task, but sometimes it’s worth the effort.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Chilling FX?

Karl, you wrote
“But then again, many websites aren’t giving up on comments because it’s really all that hard to save them, they’re giving up because it’s just easier and cheaper to ignore these users completely, “

Isn’t it also true that many websites are killing comments sections because they don’t want to bother or are afraid of legal actions, law enforcement inquiries, and brand damage of being viewed as “responsible” for all the content on their site, even if it was posted by third parties?

I know Techdirt often talks about Section 230 protection, but most people have never heard of it. It is not all-powerful, and it doesn’t stop lawsuits and attacks, even if they can be won using Section 230. An easier solution for websites is just to kill the conversation.

It’s chicken shit, and as you wrote, it sends all the community, and thus all the valuable business to Facebook. And then the news companies complain about how Facebook is making more money than them.

It won’t happen, but Section 230 needs to be its own separate law. It needs to be publicized and well-known. It might even rise to the importance of meriting a slot in the constitution. Otherwise, conversations will be killed for expedience.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: community moderation? really?

Is this better or worse than having no commenting at all, though?

Depends on the community, I suppose. The community here on Techdirt, for example. I see plenty of spam and troll posts that are hidden because they’re reported, along with a few people whining that their personal attacks on other users are being unfairly “censored”. I regularly click through and read hidden posts, and I can’t honestly remember the last time I saw a genuine post that hidden.

I dare say that’s part of the idea. Warring factions removing each others’ posts can only go on for so long, so it’s expected that they’ll learn to be civil. Whether that works or not depends on whether the community attracts intelligent mature adults or emotionally stunted children.

Anonymous Coward says:

Eternity where will you spend eternity? Death is a reality we all must face and the question you need to ask yourself is: Where am I going when I die? The bible says that when we die we either go to HEAVEN OR HELL. To get to heaven on our own merits we must be perfect. However no one is perfect. In fact, we have all sinned against God. We naturally do which is wrong: we lie, steal, lust , hate,… disrespect God, get drunk etc. Because God is good judge he must punish sin and the way he punish sin and the way God will punish us for our sins by sending us to hell for eternity. However God provided the way for you to have your sins forgiven and enter heaven when you die. Jesus Christ came to earth to die on the cross in the place of sinners and 3 days later He rose again, defeating sin and death. To be forgiven of all your sins, you must repent (turn from and forsake your sins) and trust in JESUS death and resurrection as the only means by which all your sins can be forgiven. Please do that today

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