Website comments are broken. How do we fix them?

18 February 2008

The whole Max Gogarty juggernaut rolls on, and it’s mostly the Guardian and its stablemates doing the driving. There’s this hand-wringing piece by Rafael Behr which compares it to the Cultural Revolution and fails to even consider the possibility the Guardian might have made a mistake, and a heavily biased article in The Observer, both of which fail to see the bigger picture, namely that a newspaper thought they could get away with something that went against the principles of their readership, and got caught out. Instead, the spin is one of mob rule, “hate mail” and bullying and the like.

Still, this is a recognised problem on the internet and I’m going to clarify the “UGC is better than mainstream media” tone in my last post before someone misinterprets it – not every comment on any of these pieces is a burning white-hot nugget of UGC gold, superior to anything a mainstream media outlet could ever do. A lot of the comments are fairly trite and some downright abusive. There is going to be for any comments section of any site or blog, and as doctorvee summed up in a good post last week:

Look in the comments section on any major website, and you will find loons aplenty. I used to be a big advocate of letting people comment on MSM news articles. I thought the BBC?s terrible Have Your Say was just a one-off accident due to the fact that it was among the first major attempts at allowing comments on MSM websites. Now that comments are commonplace, it is clear that it was a mistake to believe that it would enhance accountability or improve debate.

Loon commenting is such a commonplace phenomenon (obligatory link to Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory and XKCD on YouTube comments) that there are whole blogs devoted to it. But there are usually, if not always, lovely tasty grains of wheat amongst the chaff. It’s just that the system’s broken and we often can’t find them. So how to go about fixing it? Duncan says:

But that needn?t mean there should be no discussion about their stories. In its place they could ? and should ? have a system like pingbacks or a Technorati widget so that readers can see what bloggers have to say about the story. The standard of debate would surely rise.

I disagree. Blogs aren’t the only way to go about commenting on the web, Technorati is a pain in the arse to use anyway, and it’s possible to be an insightful and intelligent commenter without having the technological savvy, time or energy to have a blog. But how do we encourage better interactivity with the mainstream media without every Tom, Dick or Adolf swamping the system with idiocy.

Part of the problem is the limited definition of what “interactivity” means to MSM people. Allowing people to just “Have Your Say” (a phrase which should be not just banned but buried under a mile of concrete in my view, not least as it implicitly disregards the need to think first) is not what Web 2.0 or interactivity is about; for a community site to be interactive in a smart way it has to give users the chance to control content as well as contribute.

So what’s the answer? Sites like Digg or YouTube employ point systems to promote the best comments, and on the face of it, it has appeal. At the same time, filtering or ordering comments by how well-approved they are destroys the ability to view conversations as a thread – a good reply to an idiotic comment suddenly loses all useful context. As a result, most of these systems still keep to a semi-threaded system and set a very low barrier for entry – which is why it fails miserably on both sites.

Casting an eye over the comments sections of national newspapers, and this idea hasn’t been taken on very much. The Guardian’s Comment Is Free has no such system to rate others’ contributions, but does have a “Offensive? Unsuitable? Email us” link in red after every single post. That’s hardly encouraging an environment of considered debate, or promoting positive and constructive thinking, is it?

Here’s an idea: Do we really need to have comments as a thread, or even have them ordered in time? After all, such an architecture encourages a hothouse, an environment of one-upmanship, reactionary thinking, getting personal and taking things to a ridiculous conclusion. Going to a more blog-like format, instead of the forum format we have now, with each comment standalone and not threaded or ordered in time would discourage this. It would mean they focus on the matter at hand, rather than getting personal, making it more like the format of a traditional debate (instead of an episode of Jeremy Kyle). Ordering it by rating or vote means that (we’d hope) the better and more insightful comments get promoted.

Then again – there are flaws and I acknowledge that not for the first time in my life, I may have too much faith in human nature. While I’m hoping hope the better ones get promoted, while the pointless, vague or plain idiotic ones would not (partly because they are less well-written, but also because there usually being more of them, the votes would be split), that may be just wishful thinking on my part. This Facebook group of dickheaded cuntery is 50,000 members strong, for example – all of them clicking an “I like this!” button on an equally moronic post would be awful. All internet voting systems like this can be gamed, and there is the possibility (maybe inevitability?) of cliques being formed. As well as, of course, the risk of people deliberately clicking a terrible post not because they agree with it but because it’s hilariously idiotic.

Still, I’m only speculating, and it’s very much a case that someone needs to actually do it, and do it properly for us to find out how good it would be. It would be a welcome sight to see on MSM websites, removing threads entirely and making it less confrontational. It also has benefits for the site owners – getting the community to partially self-police itself can take the workload off moderators, and the best content can be promoted to site level and adds value there. It’s worth a shot, surely?

What do you think? Why not “have your say” in the comments below? Oh God, I can’t believe I just said that. Right, flame away.

Update Thanks to John in the comments, who points out the BBC employ such a system, although it is not the default view – stupidly, I only surveyed newspaper sites before writing this blog post. It is interesting – as John said, it does get rid of the worst, albeit to varying degrees. On some topics it works quite well on and others it doesn’t (e.g. this). It does run the risk of making some debates look very one-sided. It would also be interesting to see the number of recommendations per user – they are unlimited, something I’m uneasy with – it makes it far too easy for one person with the time to flag up everything they like. A restriction on the number of recommendations allowed a day perhaps would be a good idea.


7 Responses

FIRST!

Second.

Maybe I have misunderstood your idea, but don’t The Sun and The Telegraph already do this sort of thing (albeit in tandem with the traditional comment threads)? I have to admit that I haven’t delved too deeply into them. Having said that I did spot a terrible blog post on The Sun’s website about the F1 racism issue, which I recently mentioned on my blog. The thrust of it was that all Spaniards are racists–a stunning example of irony bypass.

Maybe I am being hasty but I doubt The Sun’s standalone blogs are of much higher quality than BBC Have Your Say and other the cesspits of demagoguery.

Which brings me on to the Digg / YouTube style scoring system. I totally agree with you on that. Allowing people to rate comments just encourages demagoguery and grandstanding even more.

I did also think you made a good point on your post about Max Gogarty. It was the comments that made it go viral. One of the few instances of an entertaining MSM comment thread, although I certainly wouldn’t like to have been at the receiving end of some of the comments given that Max Gogarty’s biggest crime (nepotism aside, although that’s the editor’s fault) is being a dickwaddish 19-year-old, which doesn’t differentiate him much from plenty of other 19-year-olds.

BBC Have Your Say is a bit like the system you mention already, showing standalone comments and giving you the option to view by most popular.

It sort-of works – while you do certainly still get some ignorant comments if you sort by most popular, it does mean you get to read the best ones without most of the really stupid ones you’d get if reading chronologically.

The Facebook group is worrying – although on the plus side, it’s a good way to find out whether or not a new acquaintance is a complete f***wit who you should have nothing to do with…

I really did think for a moment that comments were broken on your website and you were asking people to write in with their suggestions in the comments section. I should have known better. Interesting post.

In all seriousness, I think the only true solution is firm moderation by full time (or as close as possible to full time) mods who are both participants in the community and engaged with the issues at hand. It’s imperfect, but it’s the thing that’s produced the best results I’ve seen online (Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s work at Making Light and the new Boing Boing comments section being a good example; MetaFilter’s another one, for all that MetaTalk frequently makes you want to swallow your own tongue just to end the pain).

I think that technological fixes to the problem – Slashdot-style forms of voting and user-led moderation – rarely fix anything. In fact, I think lots of them actually make things worse. If people know that their comment can be hidden if people don’t like it, there’s even less social pressure to make it good.

It’s an interesting point to suggest that removing the linear nature of comment threads would decerease the noise – it’s entirely possible. Of course, for every person who sees a particular comment structure as just leading to shouting matches, there’s another person who thinks that they need to be more structured to encourage good back and forth debate, as opposed to a collection of lone voices hollering into the void.

In short: I’m not sure it can be fixed, any more than real-life mobs (in the losest sense) can be controlled. But you can introduce measures, much as you would with large scale public meetings, to at least structure the mob and remove unduly disruptive elements.

Some related links, all from the last time this came up, when that daft Blogger’s Code of Conduct was doing the rounds:

Cory Doctorow – How To Keep Hostile Jerks From Taking Over Your Online Community (deeply ironic, of course, because when hostile jerks took over the BB comments back in the day, they just removed the entire comment function for several years.)

Teresa Nielsen Hayden – Moderation isn’t rocket science

And from a link in that post, John Scalzi – “What the blog world needs is not a universal “Code of Conduct”; what it needs is for people to remind themselves that deleting comments from obnoxious dickheads is a good thing.”

I think it’s partly a scale problem. If you’ve got twenty or thirty regular readers & occasional commenters, the chances of that group including any idiot flamers and noisemakers is minimal. If you bring in another hundred RR&OCs, there probably will be a few IF&Ns among their number, but they’re not likely to cause any major problems – not least because your RR&OCs will deal with them. But if you try and build a blog from zero to a million overnight – which is basically what you’re doing when you open comments on a MSM page – you’ll attract any number of IF&Ns before you’ve even managed to build up your RR&OCs.

The irony of it is that there was some highly thoughtful, intelligent and appropriate flaming on the Gogarty thread. That’s the other point MSM sites don’t get about blogging, even relatively clueful ones like the Graun – bloggers can’t assume they’re always right, or even that they’re never ridiculous. Columnists can and do.

Have you seen StupidFilter?