Hammering on comments again

Newspaper sites continue to fail at comments.

The latest poster child of the clueless approach newspapers take to comments is an otherwise very fine newspaper — the Deseret News.

The DN is going to limit people to only two comments per day per story.


They say they will allow only two comments per day per story, and comments will be pre-screened.

Their article announcing the changes telegraphs their cluelessness in the first sentence:

Newspapers have always had an interest in feedback from their readers. The primary source for this feedback, Letters to the Editor, has had a prominent place in newspapers for more than a century.

Comments are not letters to the editor. They are not "feedback."  Such a notion indicates the Deseret News editors still view their roles as "we report, you read."  Feedback is fine, but the idea of a conversation is completely beyond their comprehension.

Typical newspaper think.

Comments are conversation.

Comments are about engagement, both audience to audience, and news staff to audience.

Comments are about community.

Polices that subvert comments include moderation and posting limits.

While I naturally applaud the DN’s new real name policy, the DN editors again show they don’t understand comments by instituting this policy in order to bring more civility to comments.

A real names policy will not bring more civility to comments.  The purpose of a real names policy is more ethical than comment quality.  People using real names can be assholes as much as John Schmoe.

The only sane comment policy begins with the concept of management and leadership.

A newspaper the size of the DN must have a community manager, and reporters and editors must participate in and help manage comments.

Any other approach is doomed to failure.

If you’re a publisher unwilling to invest in comments and community, you should just drop comments completely.

However, if you do that, the next natural question is, why are you even publishing on the Web, then?

The why and how of a real names policy on comments

If you run a online news site, you should allow users to comment on posts. And if you allow comments, you should require users to register with their real names.


It starts with basic news ethics: Readers have a right to know who is saying what.

Newspapers long ago stopped allowing anonymous letters to the editor. Ethical editorial page directors go to great lengths to ensure the author of a letter is who he says he is.  There is no small measure of credibility tied to using your real name when expressing an opinion or stating what you believe to be facts.

Newspapers also have established policies on anonymous sources. Setting aside for a minute that some papers don’t follow their own anonymous source policies, the best policies require some verification by a trusted reporter or editor of the true identify of the source, some vetting of the source’s motivation, and ensuring the source is used primarily to provide facts, not opinion.

The argument is at times made that since newspapers allow anonymous sources, online news organizations should allow anonymous comments.  The logic doesn’t follow, however, because anonymous comments come from unvetted sources — there is no examination of their motivations or conflicts of interest, nor any idea if the person is even remotely who he represents himself to be even in anonymity. In most news environments, anonymous comments go live without any verification as to their news value or truthfulness.  No ethical news editor would allow such unfiltered information to flow freely into printed news columns. Why is it OK on the Web?

Real names may not prevent people from spewing misinformation and defamatory bile, but at least if readers trust that the person making such assertions is using a real name, they can judge it accordingly, or fact check the source themselves.

A situation came up recently at Cleveland.com where a judge allegedly/seemingly (she denies it) used a psudonymous name to comment on cases that had come before her court room.  If there had been a real name policy in place and enforced at Cleveland.com, there never would have been an issue about revealing her identity, which clearly the public had a right to know.

Newspapers set themselves up for a horrendous ethical dilemma when they create a situation whereby public officials, who have obvious conflicts of interests, can support their own agenda, or oppose another’s, through anonymous, unfiltered and unvetted commenting. The public, for example, has a right to know if the person pushing cuts to local bus routes is the politician who wrote the legislation or just some well informed citizen.

As another example, if the mayor is promoting a zoning change downtown, and a persistent commenter keeps arguing against it, the mayor has a right to know if that is a future electoral opponent or the local competing developer who stands to lose by the change. And so do the readers.

It is sometimes suggested that rather than require real names, persistent identity should be required, or pseudonyms. 

There are two problems with this suggestion.

First, it doesn’t solve the exceptionally important ethical issue of the readers right to know who is saying what; second, it’s too easy for sock puppets to promote an agenda using multiple identities.

There are some who seem to assume that the whole issue of comments and identity have to do with avoiding racist hate speech, nastiness, vile flame wars and the like.  While a real name policy can help in this regard, that is not the primary reason for requiring real names (again, it’s primarily about ethics).

At The Batavian, we’ve banned two people who we know were using their real names.  People can still be jerks even when their name is attached to their comments.  Real names might tap down some of the vileness, but it doesn’t eliminate it.

But if you have a real name policy — and this is the key point in using identity to police comments — it makes it much harder for the bad actors to re-register under a different name.

In a policy that requires only pseudonymity or persistent identity, if you kick Julie123 off your site on Tuesday, by Thursday, she can be Becky123 and you’re none the wiser.

Which brings us to enforcement of a real names policy.

Frankly, I will not reveal all of my secrets in a public way of how I catch fake names.  I don’t want to educate those who might chose to subvert my policy on The Batavian.  I would be happy to discuss this in detail with any news organization on a non-disclosure basis if requested.

But first and foremost, the vast majority of people who would seek to comment without their real names do so in very obvious ways.  The guy who registered with "Not Me" is obviously faking it.  Even if the person uses a plausible sounding name, such as Richard Montadello, will leave other inconsistencies in his registration to raise suspicion.

I approach a real name policy as a "best effort" practice. If you can get past my radar with your registration and get approved, the next test is your behavior. 

Trollish comments, repeatedly making statements that the average person would find embarrassing to be associated with, will likely mean that further investigation into your identity is required.  When such comments come from a recently registered person, the yellow alert goes to red pretty quickly.

At which point, I check public databases for names that match in the zip code provided. If no match, the user is asked to provide either by fax, e-mail or in person a copy of a picture ID.

But the best police of real identity are other registered users, members of the community.

We had a gentleman who got away with a fake name for about six months.  He claimed to be a small business owner employing 50 people in factory jobs.  For a small business owner in a small local community, his attitudes about supporting local business (or not supporting it, as the case may be) were pretty strange.  One day one of my advertisers said to me, "Who is this guy? I’ve asked all my friends, and nobody knows who he is."  So I checked with the chamber of commerce and the economic development office (where a man who employed 50 people in an industrial capacity would surely be known) and nobody had ever heard of him.  He was banned, but not before he sent me a nasty e-mail refusing to reveal his true identity.

But because his comments were always on business-related issues, and he seemed so well informed, if not a little out of step with the local business community, don’t you think the other business owners had a right to know who he was?  I think so.

I make no promise that every person who comments on The Batavian is using a real name, but I do promise a best effort to enforce that policy and that people who violate the policy will be banned. That’s the best I can do and for the most part, and our users seemed satisfied with this "best effort" approach.

And it’s clear that users care very much about our real name policy.

They care because it helps create a more trusting environment.  They care because it helps promote community (I know who you are and you know who I am, so its more social, fun and rewarding to participate with you — one of the same key features that makes Facebook successful). They care because they appreciate that on The Batavian, for the most part, we can discuss local issues as mature adults (it still does get out of hand some times, but we get better all the time at keeping a lid on nasty arguments).

As I alluded to before, a real name policy will not magically make an online community a more civil environment.  If community managers are not taking ownership of the community — which is a matter of both policing and participating (weed, seed and feed, is the old community managers motto), then no imposed policy is going to work.  Online community is not a set-it-and-forget it proposition.  It is labor intensive and requires dedication.

A couple of closing points.

— I’m not against anonymity on the Web.  In certain forums — say one dedicated to victims of child abuse — it is absolutely necessary.  Also, there is nothing wrong with an individual setting up an anonymous blog.  If the market place embraces his anonymity and finds what he has to say valuable, bully for him.  My advocacy for real names deals strictly with a professional news organization environment where ethics should be a hallmark of a credible news organization.

When you put it in those terms, all of the arguments about how the Federalists Papers were written anonymously (even if the argument isn’t entirely historically accurate) become pretty moot.  We’re not talking treatises to change the fate of a nation here, but information and commentary shared under the banner of a legitimate news organization.

— A real name policy, contrary to what some say, will not prevent anonymous news tips or scare off the whistleblower.  At The Batavian, we get anonymous news tips all the time.  They just don’t come through comments.  This argument against real names is a pure straw man.

As a closing emphasis: I strongly believe that news organizations that allow anonymous comments are committing a grievous ethical blunder. There is no justification or excuse for it. They are tarnishing their brand and credibility at a time they can least afford to devalue either.

If you’re not doing comments right, you shouldn’t do them at all

Maybe it’s time your newspaper reconsidered its Web site’s commenting policy.

If the same group of people are dominating the discussion and ganging up on newcomers who aren’t part of the clique, maybe it’s time to reconsider your policy.

If flame wars are frequent, sock puppets obvious and informative discussions rare, maybe you need to reconsider your policy.

If you cringe every time you see a new comment has been posted on one of your stories, maybe it’s time to reconsider your comment policy.

Those among you who have followed my career for any length know I’m an advocate for comments on news stories. I believe conversation and news are two great tastes that go great together, like beer and chocolate or peanut butter and apple.

And while I’ve noted that comments can help increase page views, I’ve never advocated comments purely as a cheap way to drive up banner impressions. To me, it’s always been about building community.

Unfortunately, for many newspapers, comments are more like the mother-in-law who won’t shut up at Thanksgiving dinner. She seems necessary, after all she brought the pie, but she really isn’t very entertaining and sometimes offensive. And she’s probably the main reason your sister and her family decided to stay with her husband’s parents.

If you aren’t managing your comments well, you’re doing your newspaper more harm than good  Your advertisers question the wisdom of associating their brand with yours — at least the smart ones do — and your readers are questioning your professionalism.

This issue came up on the Online-News discussion list this week, so I know many newspapers are struggling with comment management at the moment. It also came to a head this week in Batavia, where the Daily News was hit by a particularly ugly comment thread in which a socket puppet attacked fellow elected officials, one politician is posing as a defender of said politician, and a community activist brought to light unfounded allegations against a city councilman (I won’t dignify the charge by repeating it here, and because I know these people, it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s who).

I don’t bring this up to bash my competitor — in fact, I rejected (so far) the idea of discussing this issue on The Batavian for fear it would come across as petty — but the struggles the Daily News has with comments (and granted this is something new for them) illustrates a point that has implications across the industry.

If you allow behavior in your comments that would never fly in your news columns, even your letters to the editor, is your comment conduct really ethical?

Just because the law protects you from libel claims arising from comments on stories, should you really allow libelous statements to stand, especially when submitted anonymously?

Here’s how you fix your comment policy:

  1. Assign one person on staff — ideally, make this a full time job — to be community site manager. This person will participate in the community, both online and off and be known as a person of authority and friend to the community.
  2. Require every writer to read and respond to comments on his or her own stories. Journalism online is more than a "I publish and you read" job. Reporters need to be part of the conversation. This leads to more civil discussions and more fruitful discussions.
  3. Require real names. This is hard to enforce perfectly, but not impossible to make a consistent feature of your site.  The smaller the community – where reputations can be broken so quickly — this is especially important.  People will often say anonymously (you’ll note none of the garbage in the Daily thread has appeared on The Batavian) won’t they won’t say when people know who they are.  Real names also serve as a check against sock puppetry, which has no place in a local community site.
  4. Act swiftly to remove libelous statements. The law doesn’t require this, but journalism ethics does.  This is also why you need a pro managing your comments.  All kinds of grey areas arise when deciding what comments to delete, and even after more than a dozen years of managing online communities, I’m not sure I always get this right.
  5. A subtext to all of this — make sure the community knows you take the community conversation seriously and expect it to be productive.

If you’re unwilling or unable to take these steps, you should seriously consider turning off comments. They are likely doing your newspaper more harm than good.

Kentucky lawmaker wants to ban anonymity

A government law requiring online posters to provide real identity strikes me as a tad unconstitutional, but it’s worth noting.

Kentucky Representative Tim Couch filed a bill this week to make anonymous posting online illegal.

The bill would require anyone who contributes to a website to register their real name, address and e-mail address with that site.

Their full name would be used anytime a comment is posted.

While I believe newspapers should know the identity of people posting to their site (or at least make an honest effort to gather real identity), it seems some level of anonymity on the Web is +1 for society.

Besides, the law would be unworkable.  It’s unconstitutional because it smacks of the government trying to prohibit speech it finds objectionable (going far beyond merely banning hate speech); it’s an unenforceable burden on publishers to expect them to enforce real identity with 100 percent certainty; and the way the web is built, it is absolutely impossible to require real identity.

Newsaper sites should guard against abuse of Section 230

I’ve written before about the value of newspaper web sites trying to create community around profile/registration systems, and possibly even working toward requiring real identity.

Here’s another reason: Allowing unfettered anonymity could spur Congress to take away the protections of Section 230 for internet postings.

I thought of this while reading TechCrunch about JuicyCampus, a site that openly allows anonymous comments about fellow students. Naturally, the site is filling up with hate and bile.

Section 230 is important to our industry. It gives us a greater latitude in creating community than we would have without such protections. Losing that protection would be a serious blow to our audience growth prospects.

There are all kinds of sound journalistic reasons to run online communities in a responsible fashion. Protecting Section 230 is just another reason to set up communities that require some checks and balances.

Also, this recent post from Mark Potts is a very important round up of the key issues surrounding participation associated with news stories.  You can really learn all you need to know on this topic from that single post.

Why newspaper sites will continue to struggle with reader participation

We’ve spent many words recently debating the best way for newspapers to manage user participation, particular comments on stories and forum posts.

Most journalists value quality communication and are distressed to see rants, insults, cursing, lies and innuendo pass for online commentary, especially on their own newspaper.com.

It’s an understandable position.

There are a number of strategies to try an elevate the nature of the discourse on a newspaper.com, such as enforcing real identity, or using a Slashdot/Digg-style reputation system, or pre-screening comments (my least favorite), to outsourcing the entire headache to Topix.

But have you ever stopped to wonder why quality blogs usually have quality discussions?

Consider, for a minute, how quickly a discussion on your newspaper.com would spin out of control if you allowed comments on a story about butts on TV.  Now look at the interesting discussion on this Lost Remote post (maybe not the best example I could find of a great conversation, but it is a logical contrast to what might happen on a typical newspaper.com).

Some blogs get more and better reader discussion than others, but you rarely hear any more about bloggers debating whether to disable comments and wondering if this whole commenting thing is really worth it (as you do from some editors).

Sure, blogs use some form of pre-screen (first-time commenters on howardowens.com, for example, go into a moderation queue), but any filters on blog comments these days have more to do with trying to block spam than worries over the content of reader comments.

Why is that?

I would say, primarily because blogs get the close attention of their owners. There is little opportunity for trolls to get a foothold on a well-run blog.  Most blog owners apply high standards for the conduct they will allow.  They monitor closely. They participate in the conversation.  In other words, they are actively engaged and involved.  They are owners.

How involved are reporters and editors involved in participation on their web sites?

Not much.

And until we fix that weak link in our participation strategy, we will continue to struggle with developing the kind of online community our newspaper communities deserve.

Newsrooms need to develop an ownership attitude about participation on their web sites.  Only then will the technology solutions really work.  There is simply no substitute for real, sustained, dedicated participation in the conversation by editors and reporters.  Without it, newspaper sites will continue to struggle to grow and retain audience.

MSM and the struggle to balance user participation

Mark Glaser has a good post up summarizing the various positions and approaches media companies are taking to user participation.

“I think quality is more important than quantity,” Landman said. “You have to create a space where the conversation is the kind of conversation that appeals to the people in your world. There are places where the conversation gets really ugly and people don’t go to the New York Times to get yelled at.”

Mark was kind enough to include a couple of words from me.

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.

Contrary to Askimet’s belief, I am not a spammer

Askimet thinks I’m a spammer.

Thankfully, Scott Karp, among others, knows I’m not a spammer. But he has had to hassle four or five times recently to fish my comments out of Askimet’s spam bucket. That led to this post.

On any blog that is using Askimet’s spam filter, if I leave a comment, my comment goes into the spam bucket.

Why? Apparently, it’s related to the fact that my site was hacked twice. One of those hacks involved putting a redirect page in one of my directories, and then the spammers sent traffic from hundreds of other hacked blogs to that page.

That was great for my technorati ranking, not so great for my reputation with Askimet.

I’ve written to Askimet and asked to be taken off the back list. So far, the request has been ignored.

I pretty much hated spammers before these incidents. My inclination to think they should all be shot on sight is hard to resist, even as much as I strongly believe in full and fair trails for all accused criminals. Here’s to hoping people like Alan Ralsky, assuming he’s convicted, get punished to the full extent of the law. We need thousand more prosecutions like this, but then I suspect most spammers reside in countries where the government could careless. Hopefully, someday, those governments will join the civilized world and come to hate spam as much as the rest of us do.

UDPATE: Afternoon of Jan. 9, 2008.  I just got an e-mail from Askimet saying I’ve been unblacklisted.