Civil goes #beyondcomments

Photo by Emily McManus

We’re comment nerds, so we were chuffed to attend and present at the “Beyond Comments” conference this week at MIT Media Lab. Co-hosted by the Coral Project, it was an all-day event for journalists, academics, and technologists focused on furthering discussion in online community spaces.

We heard from a smart, diverse group of people on a variety of themes, from amplifying underrepresented voices to expanding collaborative intelligence in journalism.

Comments allow readers to contribute to the storytelling process. Fifty percent of my job is to engage readers in journalism. —Amanda Zamora, ProPublica

“Comments allow readers to contribute to the storytelling process. Fifty percent of my job is to engage readers in journalism,” said Amanda Zamora, Senior Engagement Editor at ProPublica, during a panel discussion.

But you can’t talk about public engagement without talking about harassment and abuse, and the discussion quickly turned to moderation. Panelist and avid commenter Jim Walsh pointed to moderation as a form of censorship, while Whitney Phillips, author of “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture”, suggested that moderation actually facilitates free speech, by creating a space where more people feel welcome to contribute.

Civil co-founder Aja Bogdanoff gave a talk describing her days as a Community Manager for TED.com, and the endless worry that someone would post something terrible on the site — and how that experience led to the development of Civil Comments.

“We designed Civil Comments with the expectation that anywhere from ten to fifty percent of submitted comments would need to be filtered out [with Civil’s crowdsourced pre-moderation system], because that’s what we’d seen with traditional moderation,” said Bogdanoff. “What was really interesting, though, was that with this process in place, the comments that people submitted in the first place became much, much more respectful.”

…with this process in place, the comments that people submitted in the first place became much, much more respectful. —Aja Bogdanoff, Civil Co.

Instead of ten to fifty percent, after six weeks of use in the wild, only two percent of comments are filtered out during peer review with Civil Comments. That means that commenter behavior is changing, in a huge way.

“People always think their actions are justified. We realized we needed to get people to pause and reflect,” said Bogdanoff. So far, it’s working!

Spending the day surrounded by people who really care about improving online communities was so great for our team. A huge thank-you to the MIT Media Lab and the Coral Project for hosting. We left with a renewed dedication to making internet comments worth reading again.