How To Improve Online Comments: Test Whether People Have Read The Article Before Allowing Them To Respond
from the probably-asking-too-much dept
For a while now, Techdirt has been writing about the decision by some sites to stop allowing readers to make comments on articles. We've pointed out that's pretty regrettable, especially when it's couched in insulting terms of "valuing conversations" or building "better relationships." Dropping comments is a lazy response to a real and challenging problem: how to encourage readers to engage in meaningful ways.
As well as a natural tendency for people to write hurtful or insultings things that they probably wouldn't say to each other face-to-face, there's another problem: the rise of Internet troll factories whose entire purpose is to flood sites with propaganda in the form of comments that espouse a particular viewpoint. As we noted recently, Google is looking to use machine learning technology to help identify and then deal with toxic comments:
a publisher could flag comments for its own moderators to review and decide whether to include them in a conversation. Or a publisher could provide tools to help their community understand the impact of what they are writing -- by, for example, letting the commenter see the potential toxicity of their comment as they write it. Publishers could even just allow readers to sort comments by toxicity themselves, making it easier to find great discussions hidden under toxic ones.
As Google itself admits, the issue is "about more than just improving comments. We hope we can help improve conversations online." A rather clever way to do that has been devised by NRKbeta, the technology site of the Norwegian government-owned radio and television public broadcasting company, NRK. Here's the basic idea (via Google Translate):
a small [on-screen] module is presented to you as a reader with three questions from the article that you must answer in order to be able to contribute to the discussion.
Actually reading the article before you comment on it -- pretty revolutionary, no? NRKbeta realizes that it's not a perfect solution:
We know of course that it is possible to "cheat" with these questions by searching the text above [the on-screen module], and that using this approach it cannot be guaranteed that everyone actually read the article, but we still think it's worth the experiment.
It's hard not to agree, because it tries to tackle one of the root causes of comments that add nothing to the conversation -- a failure to read what the article said -- by making it a pre-requisite before you can add your own thoughts. It also has the virtue of being extensible in various ways. For example, there could be more than three questions in the pop-up box, and your comment's place and prominence in the conversation could be determined by how many you get right. This might allow the thoughts of more engaged readers to bubble naturally to the top of the conversation. The fact that the code for the feature has been released as free software makes experimentation even easier. NRKbeta's idea certainly seems a better approach than simply giving up and removing comments altogether.