What I Learned From #BeyondComments

On February 27, around 5 pm, we wrapped up the first-ever “Beyond Comments: Building Better Conversations” (#beyondcomments) conference at the MIT Media Lab. #Beyondcomments was a daylong series of talks, demos, panels and prototyping. The gathering was organized jointly by MIT’s Future of News Initiative (including me!) and the Coral Project, with sponsorship from the Knight Foundation. Our goal was to answer the question: “how can we build stronger communities online?” Participants came from startups, universities, nonprofit newsrooms, forprofit newsrooms, activist organizations, and many other places.

Around 5:30, as we were clearing away the last of the prototyping materials from the tables in the Media Lab, Andrew Losowsky, who leads the Coral Project, asked me, “So, did it live up to your expectations?”

I told him the truth: I was and still am shocked at the number of people who gathered to share ideas and solutions. (We expected 40 participants, we had more than 100. For those who couldn’t be there, Adrienne Debigare’s thorough, thoughtful Storify sums up the conversation, while Greg Barber’s notes capture events as they unfolded in real time.) To everyone who made it: thank you, not just for being present, but for willing to be open, honest and deliberative. For me, #beyondcomments wasn’t just about comments, it was about an idea: that we can find common ground in difficult territory.

Being part of the #beyondcomments organizing team offered me a rare opportunity to reflect on how we put our ideals into action.

I first became interested in comments in March 2015, as part of my MIT Master’s thesis. I wanted to understand how the relationship between journalists and “audiences” was changing, not just because of new technology, but because of new attitudes towards information and authority. This was before the Great Comment Shutdowns of Summer 2015, and comments — particularly the comments on news websites — were largely seen as an unfortunate graveyard. Although journalism’s interfaces and affordances had evolved dramatically over the past several years, the comments section hadn’t kept up. Studying comments didn’t seem like a great idea — not even, entirely, to me.

“Every few years, someone wants to reinvent news comments,” said one of my potential advisers.

But then came the Shutdowns, and suddenly everyone was talking about comments. Can comments move to social? Can they be profitable? Who should moderate, and how often? I read a controversial but much-discussed piece about how social teams had turned into the “pink ghetto” of newsrooms. I wanted to know: How can engagement teams be paid, structured, empowered? Where is innovation happening, and who has promising solutions?

Finding answers to these questions took me outside the traditional newsroom, to communities like Wikipedia, MetaFilter and Reddit, among others. I spent part of summer 2015 in New York and Washington DC, as well as on Skype, interviewing whomever had experience and was willing to talk to me. I didn’t limit myself to people at news organizations. I was interested in how comments become communities, and what labor is involved in making these communities pleasant and functional.

In my conversations with moderators, both inside and outside newsrooms, several themes quickly became apparent: 1) news organizations approach the idea of engagement very differently from communities that have formed purely around the notion of conversation, and that part of this difference stems in part from what they view as their primary product. (One moderator told me, “[our] only purpose is to have people talk to each other”.) 2) That comments moderation is emotional work, and that great and effective moderators display both deep emotional commitment to their communities and hard-won emotional maturity. Many moderators talked about the importance and difficulty of crafting “norms” — the written and unwritten rules by which people engage with each other. These realities cut across comment to form the heart of community, both on- and offline.

I also met the team at the Coral Project. In theory, their task is to build tools for better engagement, but after a few weeks of watching them operate, I became more interested in the other work they were doing: starting conversations, opening spaces for dialogue, giving people opportunities to think more deeply about what it means to exist peacefully online. These were not small conversations, nor were they small questions.

When we set out, together, to craft the early agenda for a daylong event, tentatively called #beyondcomments, we wanted to bring that spirit of reflection and conversation to the gathering. After all, whatever lies #beyondcomments has to flow from some larger sense of purpose.

We all agreed that the event would only work if it brought together diverse viewpoints, but it wasn’t easy to define “diversity”, or to figure out how people with very different values could all be made to feel welcome in the same space. We wanted to talk about complex issues like race, politics, and gender, and we wanted to do it in a way that involved many different sets of ideas. In figuring out how to frame these conversations respectfully and responsibly, in outlining a code of conduct that respected both boundaries and differences, we faced the same challenges that many moderators face every day.

Here are a couple of things I learned from the process:

There will be uncomfortable moments. One of our longest and most fruitful discussions was over our event code of conduct. This document evolved out of the Coral Project’s existing code. But our discussions were less about whether or not we wanted a code, and more about how we could translate the words of that code into meaningful actions. Part of keeping people safe meant allowing for anonymity, particularly for those who had faced abuse online. (Anonymity is not a typical feature of journalism conferences, or at least, the ones I’ve been to.) Borrowing from SRCCON (who, I believe, borrowed the idea from the Ada Initiative) we opted for a three-color lanyard system. At registration, participants chose a lanyard color: red, yellow or green. Those with red lanyards didn’t want their presence to be publicized— that meant no Tweeting or photographing them. The yellow lanyards meant “ask me beforehand.” Green meant “go ahead.” Sam Ford, who moderated our first panel, began by asking each panelist to introduce themselves and to explain their lanyard preferences.

Overall, I’m incredibly happy with how this system worked out. We created space for nuanced and varied levels of privacy. By and large, those who asked not to be Tweeted did not appear in Tweets (not an easy thing to keep track of, considering how rapidly the #beyondcomments Tweets were flowing.)

At the same time, values cut in many directions, and what makes one person feel safe can make another feel alienated. One or two people mentioned to me that they were surprised we’d opted for such a specific code of conduct, while others told me they deeply appreciated the signal we’d sent by writing one. Although I think the code of conduct worked very well for us, I also recognize every community’s right to set norms in ways that work for them.

And, of course, people had differences of opinion. As an organizer, I was more on edge with this event than I had been with any event I’d organized previously. I wanted people to express their views, but I also knew the real potential for damage, not just to the event but to individuals present. Beforehand, the organizers talked extensively about how to handle potential conflict. In spite of that, there were one or two moments when I felt uncomfortable, when I didn’t know how to smooth things over.

At the same time, discomfort allowed people to raise important questions about things like social reward versus social responsibility, the definition of free speech, and whether or not we really should be trying to “scale” successful communities.

Another thing we did (not entirely on purpose, but it worked out beautifully*) is that we didn’t print people’s employers or affiliations on their conference nametags. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated this decision afterwards — the fact that we’d omitted this information encouraged participants to see each other as individuals, rather than as representatives of (sometimes very powerful) institutions.

We need to be more collaborative. I include myself. I moderated a panel that included three journalists and a researcher. I now think we should have had another non-journalist on it. At the same time, we were able to ask questions like “What is the purpose of journalism?” And “Whose job is it, really, to be in charge of engagement?” When Amanda Zamora of ProPublica said that engagement needs to be everyone’s role, and not just the job of a “social engagement SWAT team”, I thought she presented an incredibly important challenge to existing procedure. When Monica Guzman talked about successful Reddits’ sense of gratitude to their communities, as well as the fact that journalists still feel too distant from their communities, I felt the same way.

At the same time, the people in the room (and those who couldn’t or didn’t come to the event) often pushed back on Twitter. Afterwards, when I read through the Twitter stream, I found a host of productive moments of disagreement and challenge. Here are a few of the things I remember the most:

An essential critique of the way that journalists sometimes view not just commenters, but the audience at large:

At the same time, an awareness of the growing diversity within journalism:

In response to the question of profitability, some people played up the value of lurking:

As well as big picture questions about what journalists owe to international audiences (this was a great question, and we didn’t even begin to answer it at #beyondcomments)

In the initial run-up to this event, we (the organizers) focused a lot on what it means to bring the conversation to the next “level”. If level one is acknowledging the ways in which online commenting can be broken, then level two is starting to think of ways to go beyond those problems. I’ve started to think about these questions in my own research, but together, the academics, commenters, journalists, and everyone else at #beyondcomments were able to take this conversation forward and amplify its ideals in a way that was heartening, terrifying, and vital. I can’t wait to see what ideas come out of this, and I hope to see the spirit of #beyondcomments in other events and discussions.

For those who want to join in this ongoing stream of events, here’s the Coral Project’s wrap up post, and their ideas for future plans. To everyone who was part of this project —the Coral Project, my fantastic co-adviser Matt Carroll at MIT, everyone who attended and who Tweeted — thank you, a million times.

*EDIT: Andrew tells me that the affiliation-free nametags were actually very deliberate, on Coral’s part. Awesome!