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Stopping nasty commenters

January 30, 2011

Here’s a good article about a journalist tracking down some people who left nasty comments on his articles. It brings up some interesting reasons why there are so many online meanies, including:


* Trying to get a rise

* Not thinking anyone was reading the comments anyway

* Lack of negative consequences for being nasty – In real life, you might offend someone and they’ll respond (challenging you, shouting, crying, etc). Online you don’t have to see or deal with it.

That last one is worrying if you’re an optimist about human nature. Basically a lot of people will be jerks if they can get away with it. Which, if you’ve ever driven, you’ll know is true.

(None of the above or below applies to the commenters so far on this blog, who have all been polite, insightful, and – to the best of my knowledge – remarkably good-looking as well.)

I’ll add a few more:

* Immediacy – People can post a comment in a few seconds. Most don’t take the time to reason out what they’re writing, they just react and often shoot their mouths off. So online comments are more reactions to how people read the article, rather than how people actually think about what’s being said. A newspaper’s letter to the editor is, I suspect, more likely to have been mulled over (or at least read over).

* First impressions – If you write a post someone thinks is stupid, they’ll look to it and say “Look at this idiot”, so some readers will be biased before you begin.

* Personal vs public – People sometimes write comments which are fine from their perspective and that of their friends, but offensive to the wider public. Young men are a great example of this. We (I include myself in spirit at least) say all kinds of vulgar, horrible things to each other for a laugh. We wouldn’t say it to a stranger’s face, but when you’re posting a comment it’s easy to forget you’re in a public place, instead of alone in front of your computer.

* Online readers don’t read as closely as offline readers. I think that’s to do with the technology being harder on your eyes, so it’s harder to read than a printed page. So less careful reading = more misreading = more readers strawmanning an article’s argument in their heads, and posting angry comments about how stupid the author is for believing something the author never said in the first place.

* No natural selection. Coming from a biological background (well, we all do I guess, but you know what I mean), I see a classic case of the downside of having no selectivepressure. In the wild this leads to animals who are unfit (genetically I mean), because if the environment provides easy living then even the stupid, ugly and unfit (physically I mean) can survive and breed.

But if the environment is harsh, the fit (genetically) survive preferentially and the beautiful mate preferentially. That leads to fitter and more attractive offspring in the long-term.

The same applies to a newspaper vs the internet as far as comments go. In a newspaper, only a handful of letters to the editor get published each day. Online, a site could publish hundreds or thousands of them. The average quality will therefore get worse for online comments, because the bad online ones would never make it near the paper. But it’s more than that – online comments don’t have to try as hard to get their comment published. They don’t have to research or check their logic or accuracy or even spellcheck. It’s much, much harder to get away with that in a respectable newspaper.

So what to do? Destroy the parts of the equation that lead to nastiness. Some of the above we can’t solve, and some people are just jerks for the fun of it, and there’s nothing we can do about them. But here are some approaches:

1. Moderate the comments to remove the nastiness. Lots of other news orgs do this, like the New York Times. It’s expensive but the only way to ensure no bad stuff gets through. You can do this before comments get posted (pre-moderation), like does, or afterward (post-moderation).

2. Crowdsource comment moderation – YouTube does this. Basically it lets the community police comments by voting on them. Good ones get ranked up, bad ones get ranked down, and really bad ones get hidden or flagged for a moderater (reactive moderation). The Guardian mostly relies on this last one (with some post-moderation too) to remove bad comments.

The Huffpost takes a hybrid approach that combines these two, while the BBC sometimes pre-moderates, sometimes post-moderates, sometimes reactively moderates.

3. Require commenters to give up their anonymity. A newspaper prints (and verifies) full names when it publishes letters to the editor, so why not do the same online?

This can be via email address, though that’s probably not enough. But just asking for a phone number and postal code will deter a lot of people by reminding them that they’re in a public forum.

But some news orgs go even further. I like the approach of the Las Vegas Sun, which requires commenters to either connect via a Facebook account or give their details and have the newsroom call to verify their identity. Anonymous comments are put on another page and deleted after 72 hours. First and last names appear next to a comment.

Another nice approach is from the Sun Chronicle, in Massachussets, USA. The website asks you to sign up and pay $1 for the privilege of commenting on stories. I can’t imagine they make much money off it, so I’d change it to 1 cent, but it’s really just to make sure the commenter is who they say they are. The commenter’s full name appears on their comments.

Do nasty online comments deter you posting your own thoughts? How would/do you run comments on your site? Comment (nicely) below.


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