How to design a neutral commenting system

The makers behind the annotation app Rap Genius just came out with a new product — News Genius. The gist of News Genius is that you can annotate everything on the internet.

With News Genius, you can highlight any part of any webpage’s text and add your hot take on the fly. People can respond and together, theoretically, you can help improve the internet.

Here’s me using it on an article I’m currently reading for this article I’m currently writing (so meta).

The self proclaimed mission of News Genius is that they want to open the doors for the public to interact and contribute directly to journalism.

This is a very noble mission, as most of our beloved news corps are owned by billionaires, who, surprise, have political agendas. The American 2016 election cycle has thrown this fact into sharp relief with around-the-clock speculation, suppression, and hyperbole. By citing sources and holding journalists accountable, theoretically we can reach a higher level of quality journalism.

Graphic from the News Genius homepage.

You may have noticed over the past few years that the quality of journalism has swiftly descended into terrible clickbait. You have to understand the main thing about online (or most) journalism:

Ad dollars come before everything else.

Articles with BuzzFeed style headlines are mathematically proven to bring in more money. News websites are businesses. As much as the Columbia journalism school grads want to be the next Bob Woodward, chances are they have an executive asking why the bounce rate is still so high. Monstrosities like the Forbes ad blocker blocker are only going to get worse as the news corps get more and more squeezed.

I’m not surprised at all that a product like News Genius came along to contest that. I welcome it, even.

The politics of comment systems

Journalists are trained in school to deal in a one way environment: they gather research and publish stories. The end. Journalists are not trained on how to react to comment systems and the direct feedback of their readers, unless we are talking about a capacity to accept hot tips.

I worked for a small local news agency for NYC and Chicago, with reporters working directly in the field and writing original breaking news stories. Many larger news orgs pull stories from these sources and broadcast them to their larger audiences.

Sometimes we would get picked up by various news trackers and have a flood of people outside our usual audience. Oftentimes it would be right wing news aggregators, and we would have people flooding our commenting systems.

As a reporter or an editor, if you open up a story you just broke and see a bunch of racial slurs, you panic. Our reporters would lock down threads, leaving the trash to rise to the top. Many larger news orgs have grown weary of doing this, and publications like the Verge, Motherboard, and most recently, Engadget have disabled their commenting systems entirely.

Community management is not a job to be left to the writers, and most orgs just don’t see a positive ROI on hiring them. There is an argument to be made that flamewars bring more pageviews and ad dollars, but the risk of having an executive see racial slurs one day is just too high for most editors.

If you leave the comment threads that are now full of slurs open, something interesting happens. The regular readership starts to chip in, often downvoting, reporting, and decrying the ones doing the slurring. Sometimes minds are even changed, and people are correctly educated, believe it or not. Cultivating a positive community leads to self policing. The lesson to be learned here is that when you shut down your commenting systems, you are punishing your most loyal readers and rewarding those who are least involved.

If you don’t have a self policing community as a large news organization, it may be time to do some soul searching and ask why. It may be time to examine your content and really take a look at your readership.

Fox News comments.

This is a long tangent about the current state of comment systems (namely Disqus and its brood) that are managed by media companies. Now let’s take a look at News Genius.

Externalized commenting

News Genius takes the power out of the news organizations — the literal agency out of the news agency — and puts it within their own hands (and those of their users). Here are some of the ramifications.

  • Writers lose power. This is basically what their mission says. It makes sense for a multimillion viewership large news organization, but not so much for an independent blogger.
  • A different layer of community is created. These comments and notes exist independently of the site. Your average News Genius user might be a certain demographic — for example, people who love to cite sources and correct people — and your ordinary web readership might be a different demographic — let’s say a community of advocates for LGBT rights. You’ll have a separate layer of interaction that the normal viewership may or may not see, depending on if they are a Genius user.
  • Moderation is centralized. Currently, there is no moderation besides up or downvotes (I hope they rectify this soon). They may be working on this as we speak, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt. Granted that they do implement some kind of reporting/blocking tools, the rules of engagement for each individual site is highly contextualized.
  • Universal rules of engagement. Simple example: they implement a list of banned words. Let’s say one is a slur against black Americans. It’s also the word for black in Español. How do you set up a universal moderation system? It would need to be done by hand, and I doubt Genius is at a stage to do that when large companies like Twitter and Facebook are struggling with infinitely more resources.
  • They could do nothing. I’m assuming Genius is currently working on moderating tools. I could be completely wrong. They could just leave it, and watch it swiftly degrade as less congenial types start using it, a fear of many independent bloggers.
  • It’s not opt in or opt out. You can use this on almost any site. I could pull a 4Chan and go on an epilepsy site and post strobe GIFs. Granted, only Genius users would see it, but this would be out of the epilepsy org’s control.
Don’t do this.

There are dangers in painting with broad strokes. Treating large news orgs with the same software as independent bloggers seems a little shortsighted.

If the focus of the company is to hold large news orgs accountable, why not implement a whitelist of large, high traffic news organization domains and offer an opt-in option for independent bloggers who want it as their comments system of choice?

Also, why not implement this so that you can only annotate things with an <article> tag, and not any old damn string of text?

There is no such thing as neutrality.

Reporters are always trying their damnedest to keep reporting neutral, and claim they can’t be held responsible for how readers react.

Engineers are always proclaiming they only work on neutral products and are not responsible for how people choose to use them.

Think about it this way. If you build and own a building, and let white supremacists book your event space, are you not complicit in their affairs (I’m looking at you, Microsoft/Tay).

If you actually care about raising the overall quality of content, take a little responsibility for what you put into the world. You’re not a deviant for thinking of the worst possible thing that can happen. You’re a realist.