Commenting systems — don’t moderate; facilitate

We all hate comments on news sites. Is there a better way?

The default for most news sites is to place comments in smaller text and awkward framing at the bottom of an article, always implying that those comments are, by definition, less important than the article at the top. This often creates messy discussion, a lot of yelling, and zero value. Yet we know comments can improve the content — that’s why we include them in the first place, isn’t it? Thus, commenting systems must be designed effectively, or they might as well not exist at all.

Never scroll down.

Consider the typical design: comments are typically from an anonymous source directed at the author or, worse, at a faceless and nameless audience. Commentators are rarely directed to return to their comment to see what others have said. Authors themselves are rarely directed to engage with the comments. All this adds up to a hateful experience for both commentators, authors, and the quiet reader, leading to the humorous but disappointing “NEVER SCROLL DOWN” mantra many try to stick to when browsing the web.

That said, many examples exist of successful comment systems, from Reddit and Imgur to the Disqus platform to Medium itself. The key is in the framing. On Reddit, Imgur, and Disqus, accounts, replies, karma and other features create an experience that encourages people not to blast away at a faceless void but to engage with each other to share, learn, and to improve the experience of other readers. Medium’s piecemeal paragraph-by-paragraph and author engagement creates a back-and-forth between readers that includes the author of an article that drills down into the components of the content. These are just some of the ways in which a comment system might be useful, but they contrast harshly with the dirty reality sitting at the bottom of most news sites.

Facilitation not moderation

Editors should try to frame how comments are meant to be used with any given content — to think deliberately about how to facilitate contributions from readers that actually improve the content on the page. For the average article, this might mean providing a means for readers to discuss the content, but these discussions themselves should be facilitated no less than an in-person meeting or workshop. For others, an ask me anything-style scheduled Q&A might work, allowing users to write several questions or discussion points when they read the article knowing that the author would soon return to address them. Still other pieces might require direct replies. These replies should not denigrate the value of an alternative voice or opinion by making the contributor squish their thoughts into a tiny text box. Instead, an editor might guide the commentator to write a real response, giving it a similar (if well-defined) space on the site as the original article.

These challenges are as old as conversation itself. Sifting cruft from content and hearing signal through noise will be problems we continue to suffer forever, or at least until the singularity provides us with a collective hivemind. Hell, even then! Abdul will probably still think out loud too often and Sara might never yield their point. As digital governors over our little sections of the web, we have a responsibility to structure and facilitate these conversations so that they remain constructive and valuable to all involved.

This article was inspired by a discussion on media activism at the NL Social Justice Co-op’s May Day Hullabaloo just yesterday.
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