Back in early 2015, my co-founder Christa Mrgan and I set out to solve the problem of civility in online discussions, particularly news comments. We believed that systemic harassment and abuse had been something of a blind spot for the people who built the early internet, and that most of the toxic behavior you see online today is the inevitable result of naive decisions about how social tools should be designed and built.
We believed that, by designing and building software from the start for basic civility, we could raise the bar for what types of behavior would be considered acceptable in online communities, without overworking staff moderators or stifling open discussion and vigorous debate.
I’m proud to say we achieved this with Civil Comments, a full-featured commenting plugin for independent news sites. Civil Comments used a clever peer-review submission process to mimic face-to-face social interactions, requiring commenters to rate the civility of three randomly-selected comments before their own was, in turn, rated by others. Commenters were willing to pitch in and do the extra work because they were motivated to get their own comments published, and so every single comment came in with human moderation data attached. The more comments submitted, the more “moderators” there were, so it scaled beautifully at times when, say, an article went viral.
And, since users knew their comments would be immediately and anonymously rated for civility by their peers, they were strongly motivated to moderate their own posts prior to submitting. To our surprise, this ended up being the most effective piece of the entire system. Yes, the infinitely scalable community moderation data was important, but it was the users’ own self-moderation in response to the peer reviews that got us 90% of the way there. Both online and off, peer pressure remains a powerful force.
But even though the product succeeded beyond our expectations, product alone does not a strong business make. As much as everyone might like to see higher-quality, less-toxic comments on their favorite news sites, the reality is that the number of sites willing and able to pay for comments software of any quality is not large, or growing. Civil the company finds itself in a catch-22: unable to land the largest enterprise customers we need to survive because we aren’t a big enough team, and unable to build a larger team because we don’t have the largest enterprise customers. I believed, really believed, that we could build a solid business by solving problems as we did; I understand now why that wasn’t the case. I’m very glad to know our friends at the Coral Project will be continuing the fight for better comments.
And so we find ourselves at the end of our run with Civil. It’s been an incredible experience, in ways I couldn’t have imagined when we were just starting out. I want to convey my deepest thanks to our customers for joining us on this journey, to our wonderful angel investors for allowing us to put our best efforts into this product and company, to Asa, Ben, Toby, Lydia, Lynn, Shaelyn, Rael, and Matthew for bringing everything to life and teaching me a lot along the way, and most of all to my co-founder Christa, who’s weathered all the ups and downs with me from the very start. It’s been an honor and a privilege working with you all, and while it hasn’t turned out the way we hoped, I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.