Sunday 29 September 2013

Online comments: Kill them or fix them?

By Alex Hern, Published The Straits Times, 28 Sep 2013

POPULAR Science is closing comments on its articles. Citing "trolls and spambots", the 141- year-old American magazine has decided that an open forum at the bottom of articles "can be bad for science".

The decision was "not made lightly", said online content director Suzanne LaBarre - nor, appropriately, without some supporting scientific evidence.

Citing research from a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Brossard, the magazine argued that exposure to bad comments can skew a reader's opinion of the post itself.

"Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they'd previously thought," Professor Brossard wrote in the New York Times.

"If you carry out those results to their logical end," said Ms LaBarre, "commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded - you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the 'off' switch."

The reaction to Popular Science's announcement was mixed (though on their site, there was silence: comments weren't enabled on the post announcing comments were to be disabled).

The Washington Post's Alexandra Petri argued that "it can't come soon enough", but Mr Mathew Ingram of paidContent echoed the sentiment of many, asking: "Why not try to fix comments instead of killing them?"

That's what Google's trying to do. The company has announced a major change to the way comments on YouTube, widely seen as the worst of the worst, are displayed. Now, comments will be tied to a commenter's Google+ profile - which they will have to have to be able to comment. When viewing comments, you will be able to see posts from those who your Google+ circles show as friends and acquaintances, or who are "popular personalities" near the top of the thread; by contrast those from random passers-by are relegated further down the list.

As already occurs, the video's creator will have a privileged place in the thread. But so too will popular personalities on YouTube. But hiding bad comments only solves part of the problem. For one thing, the person who moderates the comments still has to read all the abuse. It's preferable, surely, to focus on encouraging good comments?

That's the approach the Huffington Post is taking, as it attempts to increase the accountability of its commenters.

Starting this month, the site is asking new users to verify their identity when creating an account, in the hope that it will "reduce the number of drive-by or automated trolls".

"Rather than participating in threads and promoting the best comments, our moderators are stuck policing the trolls with diminishing success," said Mr Jimmy Soni, the group's managing editor.

It's a weaker requirement than "real name" policies of the past, since the site is keen to point out that "many people are not in a professional or personal situation where attaching their name to a comment is feasible".

But, argued Mr Soni, "we are capable of doing far worse things to one another when we do not have to own up to the things we do".

By requiring, if not real names, then at least stable pseudonyms, HuffPo hopes to inject some humanity back into comments.

Gawker Media, the blog network which includes sites like Valleywag, Kotaku and io9 as well as gossip blog Gawker itself, is taking an entirely different approach to comments, focusing on the carrot rather than the stick.

Kinja is Gawker Media's new comment platform. But it's also the network's new blogging platform. Both commenters and bloggers write using it, and readers can follow a commenter's feed just as easily as they can their favourite blogger.

On top of that, Mr Nick Denton, Gawker's founder, views it as an effective tipline, telling Mr Ingram that: "We want sources as well, we want them to be able to participate in these discussions. And the principle is that in order to be able to achieve the potential of the Internet we need to harness the collective intelligence of the readership."

Gawker's pitch to commenters isn't "behave or we'll block you", but "behave and we might promote you". And Mr Denton has made good on that promise. Jalopnik, Gawker Media's site for car enthusiasts, hired its weekend editor based on his active participation on Kinja.

But maybe the problem is something which doesn't need to be solved with technology at all. Boing Boing had onsite comments since 2007, but this May went back to the future, moving all discussion on the site onto a dedicated forum, BBS.

Comments no longer appear directly underneath stories, which could ameliorate Popular Science's fears that they would ruin discourse. Instead, readers are invited to discuss the story further on the subsite, where they can also make their own threads, link to their own work and, wrote managing editor Rob Beschizza, "demolish serious culture without any help from us at all".

Given how many look back fondly on the days when the Internet was bulletin boards as far as the eye could see, maybe Boing Boing has the right idea.

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