Chris Tolles brings some stats to the anonymous vs. registration debate

Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, sent me a note and said:

I got sick of reading all the hand wringing by various newspapers around anonymous comments and had our development guys run some stats comparing anonymous comments vs. registered users’.

And that led to this blog post.

While anonymous posts have a roughly 50% higher kill rate, they also account for 3X the comment and commenter volume. If one asks, “where are we getting the most acceptable comments from?”, the answer is clearly the non-registered user base. As pointed out above, that there are as many registered users on Topix is partially due to offering anonymous comments

Also, its important to note that the ability to manage “anonymous” commenters and “registered” commenters is equivalent from a moderation standpoint. It’s just as easy to identify someone by their IP address for the most part as it is through a registration system. While a 50% difference is certainly something to look at, it’s not an order of magnitude, and we’re also looking at a grand total of way under 10% of total commentary.

Some quibbles:

I think there is a difference between “acceptable” and “accepted.” What the Topix numbers show is 3x as many “accepted” anonymous comments. That does not mean they were “acceptable,” if you define acceptable as A) adding to the civil discourse (as opposed to empty, ranting blather); B) providing useful information that advances the storyline of the article, which is the beauty of a really good user comment string.

Both A and B should be the goal of a newspaper.com adding comments to a story.

That’s not to say that there isn’t value in a Wild-West approach to comments. The open conversation is better than no conversation. I would simply rather see newspaper.com interaction evolve to a higher level of utility. We catch glimpses of that sometimes in some anonymous comment strings now.

I have a great faith the the majority of a newspaper.com audience to be civil and intelligent, and that providing some tools, techniques and encouragement, we can draw more civic mindedness out of more people. Anonymity does encourage, I have no doubt, a certain level of glibness if not outright bad behavior.

I’m willing to accept some lesser level of participation in exchange for better conversations.

That said, I totally part company with those (referenced in Chris’s post, but original articles no longer available (now there are some newspapers using a bad CMS)) who say there should be no comments unless we enforce registration. At GHS, we’re building a registration-based system, but in the meantime, we’re using an anonymous system. I would rather have the conversation than not, even if that means we have to weed out some junk.

Chris is right on this point:

The “anonymous” issue is just a red herring. Really, what these journalists are threatened by is the nature of truly public discourse on the web. These people are not barbarians that appeared one day the net went up.

They’re your audience

I agree. You simply MUST enable the conversation on your web site (just don’t outsource it to Topix). And you must be a part of it. And you must learn to deal with it. That’s part of being a journalist these days. If it’s not already in your job description, it should be.

You simply must engage your audience. The benefits far outweigh the periodic bad actor post (one of the benefits of the Topix report is that it statistically demonstrates how little actual really bad stuff is part of the submission flow — journalists should be able to deal with this trickle as part of their duties).

One thing that would be interesting is if Topix ran an A/B test on registration vs. non-registration. Of course, it would only really be useful if we had some way of measuring the civic value of conversations, not just how many posts were banned. Also, I would like to see the test involve registration that sets some sort of expectation for real identity. Topix, at least, has the volume of participation to make such a test statistically valid if run over a long-enough period of time (and maybe in a couple of different periods). The A/B test would involve using the same content to spur conversation, but route half the people to an anonymous-allowed site, and half to a registration site.

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  • http://www.indystar.com Matt Dial

    We use Topix on our Gannett site. I am not responsible for the site (I’m the Multimedia Editor at the newspaper), but our comments on articles are a failed experiment. The signal-to-noise ratio is so bad, it’s not worth even reading (and why I quit personally.)

    I love reading comments on many of the sites that I frequent and usually they are constructive comments that have meaning. I don’t understand why a newspaper site (at least ours) draws in the worst of the web. I am embarrassed of the thought that these people live in my community.

    I’ve always felt that if you wouldn’t say it on a street corner to someone that would give you an ear, and you wouldn’t put your name next to it, then maybe you shouldn’t say it. But I’m apparently in the minority on this — at least in Indianapolis and our surrounding communities.

    If it was up to ME I would only allow registered users. That would be one hurdle to slow down the “drive-by” spew of thoughts, along with moderation — which I know is very difficult to do because of our site volume. I also would like to see where people can vote your registered name up and down to self-censor to some extent. Someone that is looking to cause trouble will be modded down by dozens of users and it would be apparent that this person isn’t contributing anything positive.

    In all seriousness, pick the most innocuous story off our homepage and just read the comments. We can write about something incredibly positive and within a post or two it turns into an ugly train wreck.

    Topix is a disaster on IndyStar.com. I’ll put my name next to this as it’s no secret.

  • Nick

    Some of the Topix comments that I’ve read from one of my hometown papers, the Akron Beacon Journal, are some of the most vile, hateful things I’ve ever read. And they’re predictable–usually racial.

    There are some excellent conversations that could be had about fixing Akron, making it stronger, etc., but because of the anonymous commenting, people are able to spout off all sorts of awful tripe.

  • Nick

    @Matt Dial

    “In all seriousness, pick the most innocuous story off our homepage and just read the comments. We can write about something incredibly positive and within a post or two it turns into an ugly train wreck.”

    Same at the Beacon’s site. There was this very simple story about a church’s outreach ministry in a local mall. That conversation devolved quickly and bizarrely.

  • http://www.howardowens.com/ Howard Owens

    This may bring up an issue with topix that I never really thought about before … since topix is bringing your content and your conversation onto its site (as well as yours), the sources of participation vary from a comment string that is hosted just on your servers. The conversation is no national, and some of your stories are being pulled into different vertical sections of topix (around topics) … what you’re seeing is not necessarily a reflection of just your community.

    And if my theories about anonymity and psychological behavior are correct, that is amplified when people think they are commenting on a national site, not just a site shared with their friends and neighbors.

    While anonymous comments strings I’ve dealt with on local sites I’ve been involved with can devolve, my sense is the local conversation is not nearly the problem you guys are describing, and is far more often constructive (even when anonymous) when it is more or less strictly local.

    Hard to say for sure on limited data.

  • Anonymous Poster

    An awful lot of criticism about anonymous posting comes from either a critic’s high opinion of himself or just plain ignorance about the general challenge of communication. Most hyperventilating about “objectionable anonymous posts” has to do with wildly varying tastes, opinions and writing ability. Go read Ruby Payne’s analysis of registers of speech. And then there’s the free speech debate, which is a whole other subject. It’s interesting to note that a federal court last year scolded the FCC over the inconsistency of blessing bad words from white soldiers on Saving Private Ryan but penalizing black musicians for saying them on a PBS documentary. While you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, art centers have frequently beaten back government attempts at censorship — and in famous cases such as Robert Mapplethorpe, to protect even allegedly obscene points of view. “Don’t underestimate the common man. People are intelligent enough to evaluate the source of an anonymous writing. They can see it is anonymous. They know it is anonymous. They can evaluate its anonymity along with its message, as long as they are permitted, as they must be, to read that message. And then, once they have done so, it is for them to decide what is ‘responsible’, what is valuable, and what is truth.” Supreme Court ruling NY vs. Duryea, 1974

  • Jason

    Why is it that “acceptable” or even “accepted” are now the standard as opposed to excellent or exceptional? We require full names for commenting on our site in much the same way that we require it for letters to the editor. The result has been that comments are often not active, but the tone of the site is also not dictated by those who have opted out of taking a stake in the community. Also, what few comments we get are quite often very good and extend the discussion instead of just listing gripes or openly trolling.

  • http://chron.com Dean Betz

    When I was with Advance Internet, we switched our very popular forums from open access to registration with e-mail confirmation. There was a great deal of concern about the possible impact this would have on participation. We were pleased to discover that the change had no impact on the number of forum posts submitted by users, and that page views in forums grew significantly. I attribute that to significant change that registration had on the signal-to-noise ratio in the forums; the quality of discussion improved a lot overnight.

    News organizations that use Topix’s forums are doing a disservice to their users.

  • Sarah Corbitt

    We’re new at dealing with comments on our sites (a group of GHS sites). Anonymous commenting is allowed, as Howard said. I can’t wait for the day when more registration is required. Even in smaller communities, the level of vile, hateful comments is unacceptable, and rumor-mongering is rampant, which can be very damaging in a smaller community. I and the site editors spend inordinate amounts of time dealing with the comments themselves and the complaints about the comments. I think requiring greater registration – and certainly real names – would go a long way toward elevating the community discourse. Keep me posted, Howard. :)

  • the dude

    enuff said. can’t really argue with the numbers when an opposing view has no data to state their position.

    of course the data supports your conclusion, dear sir. those familiar with democratic principles didn’t even need the data.

  • http://www.howardowens.com/ Howard Owens

    Sure you can argue with numbers, when those numbers rely on interpretation to be understood.

    Ever hear the term “lies, damn lies and statistics”?

    And your second graph sounds like something out of Alice in Wonderland. What the hell are you saying?

  • Allen karaniuk

    I enjoy reading most of the comments, even from raving lunatics spewing vile insults about my sexual orentation, or policical leanings, As long as there not over the top lewd, threatening, or racist. I think my posts have been removed from topix because no-one ever replys to my posts but I think they show up on my computer only. I have left some posts that would surly garner a responce and I am left to believe I am spending an hour or two a day on topix writting responces that only I can read. If that is the case, I have been wasting an incredible amount of time on topix. Is it topix’s policy to remove posts from registered users without notifying the user? And not just selected “deemed inappropreate” posts, but all posts?

  • Anonymous

    The comments by Chris Tolles are simply a way to justify the insane amount of bullying and lies told on the Topix forums. I read an article where he claimed registration didn’t help cut down nasty remarks and cited You Tube as an example. First, You Tube doesn’t claim to be a news site. Second, You Tube has many more hits. Third, if it weren’t registration the number of attacks would be even higher. You can’ t have 350,000 forums (I think that is right) and only five or six so called moderators and even remotely have a fairly clean site.

    What it amounts to is many times is a lack of accountability. If someone truly cares about commenting, they would have no problem registering. All Topix would have to do is require a valid email address and some type of verification code and limit it to one account per IP address and you would cut down on a ton of bullying. I have seen forums were you couldn’t even find an actual newsstory because it was all whose sleeping with who types of posts. That site is ridiculous.

  • Anonymous

    I want to add one other thing. You can have a user name and still register for an account so anonmity (if you choose) would still remain. What it amounts to is Chris Tolles clearly doesn’t have any confidence in the number of users Topix have. They fear if everyone was limited to an account, they banned users who were libeling other people, and everyone had to register they wouldn’t have a very big auidence. If people care about something they will register and I would argue that with more civility, they would actually pick up a new base of advertisers which is where the real money is at.

  • bradleyplunk

    This proved to be ridiculous. What it amounts to is Topix is a bullying site. The reason they don’t have registration (and most other sites do) is lack of confidence in their users. The fact is this article came out in 2008 when they were averaging without registration around 150,000 comments a day which may sound good but they had at time probably 350,000 forums so if you think about it, that isn’t that impressive. Five years later, Topix claims they are getting millions of hits, etc. That may or may not be true but let’s examine the number of comments they are getting still WITHOUT REGISTRATION. They are averaging around 150,000 a day five years later. Think about that.
    With this says is the lack of registration is a problem. Those that are posting are the people who go on Topix post lies about other people and attack Topix users. They are the cowards who hide behind computers with the intent to harm other people and the comments have not grown. They haven’t grown at all. This means that those who go on Topix thinking it is a news site, may post a few times and then they are quickly ran off because of the trash allowed on that website only leaving the internet trolls. Topix doesn’t want to go to user registration because they fear even minor accountability will run off their auidence. Doesn’t say much for the product, does it?