Let’s make it a fair fight before we call time on comments on media sites

Social media tools have far more firepower than commenting platforms. That needs to change.

If 2014 goes down as the year when publishers gave up on comments, 2015 may well mark the early shoots of a fightback.

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris have re-opened a discussion about the right to self-expression and the benefit of being challenged on our views (something that’s often a factor for those who engage in the comments on an article).

Aron Pilhofer, The Guardian’s exec editor for digital, followed that up last week by suggesting that it was a ‘monumental mistake’ for publishers to kill comments because it’s a way of giving readers ‘a voice’. Another respected digital journalist, Salon community advisor Annemarie Dooling, told Digiday that ‘the whole idea is not to give up on debate’.

So what’s holding comments on media sites back?

There was one line in Anne-Marie’s piece, talking about how moderator Nassir Isaf goes about his daily work, that hints at an answer:

Isaf’s job is to moderate the comments, but he also communicates with commenters one on one. Trello, an organizer app, lets him keep profiles on commenters.

At The Times and The Sunday Times, where I work, our community team use a Slack channel to notify each other when we’ve warned, suspended or banned a reader from commenting. And whilst it works, both this and Nassir’s Trello workaround are symptoms of a larger issue: the tools aren’t quite up to the job.

Take a look for yourself. Here’s a generic list of features of your average enterprise social media publishing tool alongside your typical enterprise community platform.

The difference is startling.

One seeks to understand an audience, find influencers, profile and segment an audience and enable effective communication with new or outgoing users. The other allows comments to be styled in bold.

It’s not unfair to say that the most advanced tools in a community platform are often the most basic offering in a social media publishing tool.

Why is that? I’m not sure.

But I do know that at some point in the recent past, while social media tools got beefed up, accessing full firehoses and hooking into CRMs, the humble commenting systems, like a digital Cinderella, got left behind. Publishers have been stuck with the old incarnations ever since, essentially bashing away with a rudimentary cuboid shaped hammer, making workaround after workaround, hoping their nut would crack eventually. And that’s why 2014 appeared to be such a death knell.

Basically, everyone had enough, at the same time.

credit: Cornelia Schrauf, Josep Call, Koki Fuwa and Satoshi Hirata

That’s also why Knight Mozilla’s partnership with The Washington Post and The New York Times to create an open-source community platform is so timely. Announced last year, the Coral Project will see developers and journalists from all three organisations come together to create a new piece of software to store, moderate and display contributions and “empower contributors to manage their identities and data.”

The project, backed by The Knight Foundation and due to last two years, signals the first steps towards admitting that community platforms up until now have been anaemic and lacklustre and haven’t had any of the features or tools that enterprise social media tools like Marketing Cloud (formerly BuddyMedia), Sprinklr, Socialbakers and Synthesio and others offer. Finally someone has put their hand up and said ‘This can be done better’.

credit: Remi Kaupp

That’s a start, obviously. But the tough part for the Coral Project will be to create something that gives control back to the newsroom, allowing a community journalist (or a reporter if it’s a smaller newsroom) to quickly know more about their readers, help understand what types of content elicits the best responses and how that engagement affects the bottom line. Because, whilst it’s important to have bright community journalists, it shouldn’t be up to someone like Nassir to spot new users or identify top commenters. That’s what a comment system fit for the 21st century should do.

It’s been done for social media so why not comments too? Only then can we decide if they’ve had their day.

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