What we learnt from inviting our most regular commenters into The Times

All of our prolific commenters had been reading The Times for decades, some for more than 50 years. Photograph: Lucy Young

I’ve got two daughters and my eldest looks over my shoulder when she sees me commenting and says ‘How old are you?’,” says Swiss Tony, one of our most prolific and divisive Times commenters. “You feel like you’re four and you’re being told off by your mother. But it’s your own little world.”

Online critics like Swiss Tony who regularly get into heated debates are often labelled as “trolls” and can find themselves either banned or moderated. The problem is that banning doesn’t always deter them; instead they can set up new aliases or accounts.

We are fortunate to have few such commenters. But we wanted to find out more about our regular commenters’ motivations, who they are and what makes them tick. So Amber Bryce, social media and community journalist, and I invited nine of the most prolific commenters on Brexit articles into the offices of The Times on the anniversary of the triggering of Article 50. They debated with journalists and columnists, before taking part in a Q&A on our commenting strategy and a tour of the newsroom. Here’s what they told us:

Policy editor Oliver Wright and political reporter Henry Zeffman debate with readers. Photograph: Lucy Young

Comments are often posted in the heat of the moment

Subscribers said that the anonymity of commenting meant that they often wrote things they would not be happy to say in real life.

“It’s very easy to stoke up responses with a glass of wine in one hand, or both hands,” said Swiss Tony, who asked us not to publish his real name for work reasons. “You don’t have to have a well-formed argument. You can just put it out there. And that makes people lazy.”

Some regret their off-the-cuff posts. Ben Whitelaw, head of audience development for The Times and The Sunday Times, says: “When we used to pre-moderate all our articles people would regularly email us after posting a comment and say ‘I’m not quite happy with what I said — can you delete it’.”

Female subscribers can feel too intimidated to comment

The statistician Emma Pierson found that women were less likely to post comments on the New York Times website. Likewise, female readers of The Times told us that they often felt too intimidated to comment, particularly in conversations dominated by male voices.

Female commenters felt that they got more abuse for their opinions. Mrs Fox says: “When I first starting commenting on The Times my account was under my husband’s name, so I signed off my comments ‘Mrs Fox’. I decided to change it to my name and got a load of abusive comments saying, ‘You killed your husband’, and, ‘I’m not surprised he’s run away’. You do think, this wouldn’t happen if I’d been a man. In fact, there was somebody going round using his wife’s account and signing off with his name. When he switched usernames nobody asked him what happened to his wife.”

Mrs Fox said that that these subtle differences in how people responded to women discouraged others from getting involved. Our other guests agreed that they saw women who commented receiving more abuse.

Commenting is a social experience

Several readers told us that they commented because friends and family weren’t particularly interested in the news. Swiss Tony said: “My wife isn’t particularly politically engaged and some of the conversations I have with other commenters I wouldn’t necessarily have at home.” Sameen said: “Commenting is a lot like the dinner party they never invite you to.”

It’s like the dinner party they never invited you to

This was something we hadn’t expected. Working every day in the newsroom it’s easy to forget that not everyone is interested in the goings-on in Westminster or what’s happening on the stock markets. Mrs Fox agreed that The Times comment section gave her an outlet for political discussions. “My family are not political. My kids live abroad, and my husband downloads The Times on his iPad so he doesn’t get the comments. All he knows is that I’m at the computer but he doesn’t know what I’m doing.”

Paul said that the sense of community kept him coming back. “I enjoy the debate and persuading people. If I can see that — just to get involved and maybe win someone round. Sometimes you can see people soften and I enjoy that.”

Readers said they often comment because they want to improve what we do. Photograph: Lucy Young

Our most provocative commenters are often our most loyal readers

All of our prolific commenters had been reading The Times for decades, some for more than 50 years. They comment, essentially, because they want to improve what we do.

Andrew says that his desire to comment comes from a wish to correct. “There’s a certain sense of frustration when you see something you disagree with. So you have the opportunity to say why it’s wrong — I enjoy that.”

What does this mean for us?

Commenters told us that meeting us, and each other, gave them a new perspective. Paul said: “On reflection [attending the event] will definitely influence how I write and interact… having actually met the moderators and some of the commentators. I didn’t appreciate that the set-up would be such a big and integrated part of the Times organisation.”

For us it was fascinating to meet those behind the screen names and to understand why they comment. True success will mean using this experience to strengthen the relationship between our journalism and readers.

First, we want to encourage more women to comment: no one should feel too intimidated to have their say. We also plan to focus on lifting up minority voices within our readership by hosting diverse in-person events. For our writers and journalists, we are putting together commenting guidelines to encourage more informed debate across the website. Similarly, we are running more community journalism projects to involve commenters in our journalism, be that through Q&As with columnists or as case studies for articles.

Most importantly, we learnt that our biggest critics are often our most loyal readers.