Notes from Beyond Comments

A full day literally all about website comments

On Saturday I went up to the MIT Media Lab for an all-day summit on comments, with about 100 participants from the web, traditional journalism, academia and tech. “Beyond Comments” was sponsored by the Coral Project, a collaboration of Mozilla, the NYTimes and the Washington Post and funded by the Knight Foundation.

Some key findings, separated into PHILOSOPHY and NERDERY :)


1. There’s a feeling that website comments are in crisis, and some sites are choosing to shut comments off, sadly. But the premise of this day was: Comments on our own content create real community and offer vital feedback to content creators and consumers both. And thus, we should fight for them to be better. Comments are not just a nice-to-have but a core part of a media site’s mission, part of building collaborative intelligence. (This is why Knight’s part of the mix at this event.)

2. Academics have been studying online comment behavior for about 15 years, who knew?? A couple people I met or heard from:

Cliff Lampe, at Univ of Michigan, who did one of the first studies on the useless practice of requiring real-name use.

Eric Gilbert, at Georgia Tech, who studies deleted comments (I promised to send him ours) for what they might have in common. Are most bad comments pretty similar? Why?

— Cynthia Peacock, University of Texas at Austin, from the Engaging News Project, who told me: We love to run experiments that help media organizations answer questions they have about their audience.

Nate Matias at the Media Lab works on fascinating ways to measure chilling effects online due to race and gender; whose voices do we lose, do we never hear, because of our current tools?

Joseph Reagle, at Northeastern, looks at collaborative commenting — online groups that offer substantive advice and feedback to content creators (like fan fiction-writing threads).

Whitney Philips, at Mercer, wrote a 2015 book on online trolls for MIT Press.

And here, if you’re interested, is a massive and incomplete list of academic papers about internet comments.

3. Lots of broken comment systems are designed for a platonic ideal of how people ought to behave. But several people are asking instead: Can we build comment systems that leverage how people really behave, that offer strong social cues for better community behavior? (Could we even build tools that leapfrog the problem of abuse completely and get right to the goal of creating smarter comments?) Alessandro Acquisti wrote an interesting paper on social cues, Civil is leading this (small) category of tools, while CommentIQ is working on algorithms to identify civility using NLP.

4. A huge takeaway: Comment systems should and must work harder to be welcoming to a diverse audience, not just because it’s the right thing to do but because for media to function we have to hear from wide groups of people. Research suggests that young men dominate the large online communities we’re familiar with, and older men dominate newspaper comment sections, bless ’em. These two groups may be comfortable with a commenting tone that other commenters don’t enjoy engaging with and thus actively avoid — and thus the collective intelligence loses! There’s a growing sense that moderating harsh and aggressive talk is a fair trade-off for creating a conversation that welcomes more people, so that we hear from more diverse and global viewpoints on important issues. The quote of the conference for me was: “Comment spaces that feel unwelcoming actually create LESS free speech.”

4(a). The organizers of this event made a spectacular effort to create diversity in the room. The diversity of speakers and attendees — in age, skin color, gender, background, level of education and work experience — is part of why this conference felt so vital, so energizing. This was not the same old conversation with the same old people and the same old conclusions.


5. Annotation came up a lot, as an alternative way to comment. Think of annotations as comments-in-context — perhaps would lead to better quality, more relevant comments. A few tools that came up: Groovy people working on web annotation

The w3 working group on open annotations:

Nota Bene A group annotation tool used by MIT students

6. MIT’s CSAIL showed us some crazy cool toys for reading and creating content. All are experimental and worth a look

The Deliberatorium

A place to help large groups take on wicked problems


A tool to give private mailing lists the best features of social media


A way to share your browsing on certain sites, and socialize what you’re learning


A tool for organizing super-long comment threads so they can be easily scanned


Love a news story? Tip your journalist.

7. New kinds of spaces for free-form discussion also came up a lot, similar to our good old on-hiatus TED Conversations:

Discover272 Say anything, in 272 words

Hearken A way to start a comment thread before you write a story, so your eventual story reflects more ideas