What would “Vox Local” look like?

News explainers have been a hot topic of discussion recently, with the Upshot, Vox, and FiveThirtyEight all launching this year. At first I was skeptical–shouldn’t all journalism be explanatory?–but after reading things like this post by Jay Rosen, I’m convinced of the need. And Vox’s Ezra Klein explains the problem with a focus on “news” at the expense of explaining:

It’s trite to say it, but the news business is biased toward, well, news. There are plenty of outlets that tell you what happened yesterday, but virtually no organizations that simply tell you what’s going on. Keeping up on the news is easy, but getting a handle on an ongoing situation that you’ve not really been following is hard.

If the providers of information aren’t providing the basic explainers that turn people into customers for that information, they don’t deserve those customers and won’t retain them. If explanation is required for information acquisition, then the explainer comes “before” the informer as a pre-requisite. We typically have it the other way around.

The more I think about this kind of journalism, the more I think we need it at every level. Here are a few sketches for what might make “Vox Local” something we can’t live without:

  • State and local campaign donation information.
  • Environment/development issues (debates over green space, local pollution information, concrete neighborhood effects of development, park statistics and data, etc.)
  • Employment data (biggest employer in the area, stats on historic influx/outflow of jobs, surveys about local business climate, numbers of different kinds of workers, etc.)
  • Longstanding political debates
  • Facts and figures about public transit (what is the history behind advertising on our city buses? how many people ride the train? what are the different proposals for high speed rail into the city? etc.)
  • Comparisons with cities of similar size (economy, number of childrens’ parks, funds spent on infrastructure, cost of internet access, etc.)
  • Impact of neighborhood associations, charities, nonprofits, etc. in the area.
  • Sports. History (when was that baseball field built), potential (what can we do to get an NBA team), and info (how many grads of our local high school end up in the NFL?)
  • Religious facts/figures about the area and how they play out in real life.

And the list goes on and on. I think the potential for meaningful comment debates and discussions could be even more exciting at a local explainer site, as well, because the participants would be your neighbors and friends rather than unnamed placeless commentators. Local matters, and Vox Local (I think) would be a success.

The Newman Resident Campaign

The Newman ResidentI’ve been working on a strategy to help get the word out about my dad’s new book. Starting a few days ago we started circulating custom altered copies of The Newman Resident. Each copy is hand laminated (a fancy way of saying that I make the front/back covers more durable) and includes a note on the inside front cover.

May_07__2014_at_0742PM (1)

Here’s the text that we’ve added to the inside front cover:


You have in your hands a first edition of The Newman Resident. Chances are it was given to you by someone. That’s how this copy of the book rolls. After its first owner, it’s never been bought or sold: it’s a pay-it-forward copy of the book.

So, please consider doing the following things:

1)    Read the book (if you are not interested in this, proceed to step 5)
2)    Review the book on Amazon and/or Goodreads (this has a huge impact)
3)    Take a picture of the book in your city **
4)    Write your first name and your city in the back of the book
5)    Give the book to someone else who’ll read it

** For privacy purposes, this picture shouldn’t have any people in it. Just a picture of the book along with something you feel captures the spirit of your part of the world. A landmark, your favorite bookstore, a neighborhood park. Then email that picture, along with the book number, your first name, and city to resident@charlesswift.net for inclusion (as long as it passes inspection—no people, no inappropriate stuff, etc.) on our wall of fame. We’ll keep posting them until we can’t any more.

Be sure to visit charlesswift.net/whereistheresident to see where else the book has been.


I don’t know how this experiment will turn out, but I’m interested to see. We’ve already got a pretty good collection of pictures from across the country–if you don’t have a laminated book and would still like to participate, just send a picture of the book (or your Kindle showing the book cover, if you have a PDF copy) in front of something interesting in your city to resident@charlesswift.net.

And, if you’d like to know more about The Newman Resident check out the book’s glowing Kirkus Review.

The People’s Lobby: A Model for Online Activist Deliberation

My dissertation explores and theorizes online activism and deliberation. I analyzed the Internet Defense League, Action Network, Reddit, Wikipedia, and other communities and initiatives. I also included the designs for two activism/deliberation tools. One of these designs has been published in the Journal of Public Deliberation as The People’s Lobby: A Model for Online Activist Deliberation, and can be read in full here. I’ve included a teaser below:

People's LobbyThis article presents a model for a “People’s Lobby,” a digital process of deliberation and activism that allows citizens to have their voices heard on important political issues. The model described in this proposal attempts to achieve deliberation for its own sake, but also for the sake of an activist intervention geared toward immediate response—a process commonly called lobbying. In other words, this is a model that combines the fairness and inclusivity of deliberation with the prodding tension of organized activist lobbying. The People’s Lobby might not completely counteract the effects of more conventional corporate lobbying and other mass-organizational pressures, but if it increases the impact of citizens’ reflective and deliberative voices even marginally, it will be well worth the effort.

—–

The People’s Lobby (PL) model of online deliberative activism consists of three main phases: selection, deliberation, and accountability. But before setting out this model, it is important to address an apparent contradiction in the title of this proposal. As Levine and Nierras (2007) point out, deliberation is often viewed as a process quite unrelated to activism. While deliberation is aimed at consensus and fairness, activism is more strategic and aimed at accomplishing predetermined goals (Levine & Nierras, 2007, p. 1). This project does not attempt to renegotiate these differences, only to include aspects of both deliberation and activism for maximum practical effect on policy and legislation. Levine and Nierras (2007) found that many activists were interested in deliberation not as an end unto itself, but rather as a means to help achieve particular “urgent goals” (p. 3). The model established in this proposal attempts to achieve deliberation for its own sake, but also for the sake of an activist intervention geared toward immediate response: lobbying. In other words, this is a model that combines the fairness and inclusivity of deliberation with the prodding tension of activist lobbying.

Though this combination might seem counterintuitive (how can activists be fair and open to opposing viewpoints?), this model accepts Garsten’s (2006) assertion that productive dialogue about public issues is best carried out by interested and even partisan citizens. In this sense, the ideal PL process would be one in which all participants enter with a desired outcome and then modify that desire through research, well-facilitated deliberations, and meaningful interactions. The details of how this model aims to achieve this combination will be more fully explained below.

The PL process officially begins as citizens collaboratively select relevant issues to weigh in on. The second phase continues the process in an online moderated deliberation. After the deliberations, the model begins transitioning into activism with a presentation to the public of the results of the deliberations. The final, and most activist-oriented, step involves holding politicians accountable to the published results.

Each section [of the proposal] presents a basic framework that is broad enough to be adapted to various countries or districts around the world. In this way, this model will follow Pfister and Godana’s (2012) requirement that deliberative technology be not a one-size-fits-all set of rules, but rather a flexible framework that can be adapted by moderators and participants for particular situations (p. 1). This model is specifically tailored for use at the intermediate level between local and national governments (e.g., U.S. states, Canadian provinces, etc.), but can be adapted for counties, cities, towns, or even neighborhoods. Ideally, the People’s Lobby model will be repeated on a regular basis in a given state, compounding its effectiveness by increasing visibility, participation, and buy-in from the general population.

Read the whole proposal here.

What is the role of comments in an “explainer” site?

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 4.43.12 PMI’ve written about the potential I believe news comments have. So what is the role, the potential, of comments under explainers?

First, the difference between “news” and “explainers”:

Ezra Klein explains the problem with a focus on “news” at the expense of explaining:

It’s trite to say it, but the news business is biased toward, well, news. There are plenty of outlets that tell you what happened yesterday, but virtually no organizations that simply tell you what’s going on. Keeping up on the news is easy, but getting a handle on an ongoing situation that you’ve not really been following is hard.

If the providers of information aren’t providing the basic explainers that turn people into customers for that information, they don’t deserve those customers and won’t retain them. If explanation is required for information acquisition, then the explainer comes “before” the informer as a pre-requisite. We typically have it the other way around.

NYU professor Jay Rosen also explores what explainer journalism is good at:

1) [C]reating that scaffold of understanding in the users that future reports can attach to, thus driving demand for the updates that today are more easily delivered; 2.) allowing the rest of the press to catch up quickly and deliver better reports. A product with two uses like that should be successful. (But that doesn’t mean it will be easy to get there, especially in the current climate of disinvestment and economic crisis.)

For the most part, comments under an explainer will be quite similar to comments under a news story. You’ll still want to follow the big three principles of moderation, reputation, and organization (see my report here). But the significant shift in the content focus will also need to be reflected in the comments section. I’m not a fan of just building a comment system and letting it go like a balloon in the wind, so here are a few ways to harness the power of comments in an “explainer” site:

  • Questions: Since the goal of an explainer is to help people get up to speed, the comments section is a great opportunity for readers to chime in about what they’re unclear about.
  • Research: For example–we’re looking for scholarly studies about this issue. To have your comment published, provide us a link and a 1 paragraph summary in your own words.
  • What did we miss?: Vox has been referred to as a “better Wikipedia.” In that spirit, explainer sites can solicit input from readers about key facts, people, or theories that were not incorporated into the original explainer article. This would be especially important in a “Vox Local” type model (more ideas on that coming soon).
  • Q+As with experts on the topic: A Q+A on an explainer site would look different than a Q+A on a more news-oriented site. Rather than bringing in an expert on a given current event, an explainer Q+A would need to be with someone who can explain the backstory. For example, a Politico reporter would be a great Q+A participant on a news story about the minimum wage (which Senators support, which oppose, how will this affect the next election) and an economist would be a great Q+A participant on an explainer story about the minimum wage (will this kill jobs? will it decrease poverty? etc.)

I wrote last week about innovative uses for comments sections in general, and I think the ideas I suggested could apply for an explainer site with a few tweaks here and there:

  • Debate: Invite representatives from two or more disagreeing perspectives to have a structured/moderated debate in the comments section. Strict rules would include a per-comment word limit, requirement to verbally cite sources (rather than just pasting a link), and structured argument/rebuttal turn-taking.
  • Story Hunting: Ask for commenters to collect relevant news stories from around the web. For example, under an explainer about paternity leave laws: ask for links to stories about similar laws in other countries, stories describing effects of such laws, current news stories based on facts discussed in the explainer, etc.
  • Argument Map: Ask for commenters to collect relevant opinions from around the web. For example, to augment an explainer about the history of Russia/Ukraine relations: ask for commenters to build arguments out of the facts exposed by the explainer. “Why should/shouldn’t the US intervene in Ukraine, based on these facts?” or “Does this make Putin’s actions more or less defensible?” 1
  • Role Play: Randomly assign commenters one of three temporary and thread-specific labels/badges when they indicate interest in commenting on a particular post. The labels/badges would be different for every story. For example, under the imaginary explainer I described above about Russia/Ukraine relations, the labels might be “Pro-Russia Ukranian,” “Pro-American Russian,” and “American veteran.” Or, under an explainer about paternity leave, the labels might be “single father,” “small business employer” and “working mother.” Ask commenters to serve as voice for the perspective represented by that label, regardless of the commenters’ personal opinions. Ask commenters to then reply to and/or interpret the facts of the explainer. This could help commenters separate personal feelings from the argument and allow them to explore issues from perspectives they might not agree with (all while hopefully improving the overall tone, civility, and depth of the thread).
  • Arbitrary Limit: Comment threads could occasionally change things up and issue a call for a specific type of comment, including a word or character limit. For example, “In 20 words or less, explain the most important issue relevant to this policy change” or “List your top two questions about this issue in three lines or less. The author will pursue a follow-up post based on the questions submitted.”

Notes:

  1. As a bonus, the commenting system could allow commenters to mark their comment with some kind of label or tag for easy sorting of linked-to opinions.

Antifragile Digital Activism

Currents in Electronic Literacy recently published a special edition focused on digital activism. I was honored that they accepted a selection of my dissertation for the issue. I’ve included a small portion of the article below, and you can read the full text here. My thinking has evolved–improved, I hope–since I wrote this, but I think the core insights are still useful.

Image from Currents in Electronic Literacy
Image from Currents in Electronic Literacy

Nassim Taleb, a philosophy professor at Oxford, proposes the idea of “antifragile” systems as a way to rethink the capabilities and potential of societal systems in general. The idea is that while fragile systems break upon encountering “stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil,” robust systems attempt to resist such opposition in order to stay thesame. Antifragile systems, on the other hand, embrace opposition and draw strength through their interaction with those opposing forces. Taleb refers to this opposition as “harm,” arguing “the fragile is the package that would be at best unharmed, the robust would be at best and at worst unharmed. And the opposite of fragile is therefore what is at worst unharmed” (31). While robust systems are able to withstand opposition they are also unable to benefit from it. In other words, avoiding harm, failure, and uncertainty can be significantly detrimental. On the other hand, antifragile systems welcome the stress that comes from oppositional confrontations. As Taleb demonstrates with examples in finance, government, dieting, medicine, and even punditry, this counterintuitive proposition can be applied to a wide variety of fields.

Taleb’s argument about the value of the antifragile can be related to activism in general—many activist causes utilize, often to their disappointment, fragile means. These efforts fail to hold the attention of their supporters and generally are unable to turn that attention into meaningful commitments. Without these key developments their efforts flounder. Some causes are able to attract committed participants but are ultimately unable to translate this support into actual change. Examples of this type of activism are difficult to come by because, by their very nature, they never really make a mark on public discourse.

Other causes see the danger of their own fragility and turn instead to robust forms of operation. Robust activists are skilled at keeping the attention of their participants and frequently succeed in their goals. Historically, labor unions have served as excellent examples. Unions in certain states have even benefited from mandatory membership, guaranteeing them participants and negotiating power. Additionally, union hierarchies work to ensure enough funding to keep the public focused on issues relevant to their members’ interests. Their lobbyists work to keep their causes at the forefront of legislators’ minds such that, in the past, their endeavors saw a great deal of success. But the downside of robust systems such as this, according to Taleb, is their inability to cope with change or learn from failure. As a result, these robust systems risk losing relevance when confronted with any substantial change. Faced with increasing mechanization, changes in political preference, and a decline in desire to participate in civic organizations, labor unions have seen a steep decline in their effectiveness over the past four decades (see Goldfield; Putnam). Labor unions’ inability to embrace failure has been a large contributor to their succumbing to that failure, as evidenced by decreasing membership rates, increasing legislative failures, and crippling inability to adapt to modern American economic realities.

If fragile activism is immediately destroyed by failure, and robust activism is unable to embrace it, antifragile activism is able to endure and succeed because of failure. There are many ways for an activist cause to fail, but in the next section I will expand upon the three key areas already alluded to: distraction, uncommitted participants, and lack of results. Drawing on the Internet Defense League as a case study, I will then explore how antifragile activism is able to confront each of these common failures and embrace them, becoming stronger in the process.

Read the rest of the article here.

Strategies for Equality in Comment Sections

A great discussion on Twitter yesterday morning with Matthew Ingram, Quinn Norton, Alex Howard, and Zeynep Tufecki (you should follow all of them) explored issues of internet comment moderation. All agreed that moderation is important, but I was exposed to intriguing ideas about the dangers of placing the brunt of moderation duties on authors themselves. Here is one key tweet:

I’ve written before about the three principles I think need to govern a comments system: reputation, moderation, and organization. The key for the second on that list a system that promotes the best comments and hides the worst. Because no technological tool can do that on its own, moderation requires human input.

So what are the core principles of moderation? Delete the racism and homophobia, the pornography and the threats of violence and the spam job offers. Okay, that’s easy enough, though not a fun task. But once you’ve blocked the obvious stuff, what’s the next step?

There’s a theory in communication and political science about a “spiral of silence” that exists in groups and actively silences minority opinions:

Spiral of silence theory describes the process by which one opinion becomes dominant as those who perceive their opinion to be in the minority do not speak up because society threatens individuals with fear of isolation.

When you look at Zeynep Tufecki’s comment about moderation protecting the vulnerable through the lens of this theory, it becomes clear that moderation is far more than just deleting porn and blocking trolls.

Without moderation, comments sections quickly devolve into bile, driving away good commenters and feeding a cycle of trolling and counter-trolling. If the author is in charge of moderating comments while also expressing a vulnerable position, the author will be subject to burdensome (and potentially silencing) personal & emotional pressure. But if authors aren’t involved in the comments at all, they are not really engaging with their community–they and their community will suffer as a result.

So, one answer would be for a combination approach: editors or other platform representatives (and/or bots) could cull the hateful/angry/worst comments and the author could be in charge of engaging. Add to that a smart upvote/downvote system that rewards good points rather than agreeable ones (note: I’m not sure if a voting system like this exists anywhere yet), and we’ve got a pretty good moderation system.

But I still don’t think that’s enough. Because at that point, while we’re protecting the vulnerability of the author, we still haven’t done much 1 to promote equality among commenters. And if we’re not actively promoting equality and protecting the most vulnerable commenters, then we’re taking the side of the status quo and potentially silencing minority comments and perspectives.

Good moderation that overcomes the spiral of silence requires structure, and that structure might mean doing away with the open-ended “add your comment below” invitation. 2 At SpeakUp NC we’ve seen some success with structured Q+A commenting activities. I would love to see similarly structured events dedicated to protecting minority opinions and driving productive conversation in comments sections. These strategies would be biased toward a long-term commenting communities rather than a hit-and-run leave-your-opinion-in-the-box type of engagement. For example:

  • Q+A: Invite an expert quoted in the piece to be present for a limited time in the comments section to answer questions about the issue at hand. SIMILAR: invite two experts with disagreeing opinions to hold a Q+A, but only allow them to respond to questioners, not each other.
  • Debate: Invite representatives from two or more disagreeing perspectives to have a structured/moderated debate in the comments section. Strict rules would include a per-comment word limit, requirement to verbally cite sources (rather than just pasting a link), and structured argument/rebuttal turn-taking.
  • Story Hunting: Ask for commenters to collect relevant news stories from around the web. For example, under a story about effects of paternity leave laws: ask for links to stories about similar laws in other countries, stories describing effects of such laws, etc.
  • Argument Map: Ask for commenters to collect relevant opinions from around the web. For example, under a story about why USA shouldn’t provide arms to Ukraine: ask for commenters to collect other arguments against USA assistance to Ukraine, in favor of assistance, and arguments that fall somewhere in between/outside that spectrum. 3
  • Role Play: Randomly assign commenters one of three temporary and thread-specific labels/badges when they indicate interest in commenting on a particular post. The labels/badges would be different for every story. For example, under the imaginary story I described above about providing arms to Ukraine, the labels might be “Pro-Russia Ukranian,” “Pro-American Russian,” and “American veteran.” Or, under a story about paternity leave, the labels might be “single father,” “small business employer” and “working mother.” Ask commenters to serve as voice for the perspective represented by that label, regardless of the commenters’ personal opinions. This could help commenters separate personal feelings from the argument and allow them to explore issues from perspectives they might not agree with (all while hopefully improving the overall tone, civility, and depth of the thread).
  • Arbitrary Limit: Comment threads could occasionally change things up and issue a call for a specific type of comment, including a word or character limit. For example, “In 20 words or less, explain the most important issue relevant to this policy change” or “List your top two questions about this issue in three lines or less. The author will pursue a follow-up post based on the questions submitted.”

Some of these will be more effective than others, and all would need to be adapted for particular blog/newsroom styles. But the underlying principle is constant: smart structure is the only sustainable way to really counteract the natural comments section tendency to silence minority opinions and attack authors and commenters. 4

Notes:

  1. other than the smart upvote/downvote system
  2. Case in point: Quora is very limited and highly structured and has relatively high quality discussions.
  3. As a bonus, the commenting system could allow commenters to mark their comment with some kind of label or tag for easy sorting of linked-to opinions.
  4. To be fair, that’s a tendency for all human groups, not just for comment sections.

Why do we even need comments?

Seriously, though. Why do we even need comments under news stories? Most engagement about a story happens on Facebook and Twitter, 1 comments sections are troll paradises, and they can often feel like a hopeless waste of time and resources.

I will introduce three broad defenses of dedicated comment sections. First, the value of public conversation. Second, the trap of the filter bubble. Third, the untapped potential of commenting systems.

Public Conversation

As important as it is to have rousing debates over the kitchen table or with the TV during evening talk shows, public dialogue is the lifeblood of a democracy. Speeches, rallies, town halls, marches–all powerful in part because they’re public. Even if not everyone participates, everyone can at least see and hear them. The same is true with internet comments. Conversations that happen on social media are very important, but if that’s all there is we’ll be missing out on everything that is gained by open dialogue.

Filter Bubble

Social media is trained to show us what we want. If we are constantly confronted by things we dislike on Facebook, for example, then Facebook is risking losing our eyeballs and their ad revenue. So they go out of their way to show us things we like and agree with. 2 This echo chamber effect means that we tend to miss out on news stories and news sources we disagree with. So, if conversations are happening solely on social media, chances are we’ll never have the chance to join in.

Of course, the same can be said for news sources themselves. Very few readers of the NYT venture over to the WSJ, and the same is true visa versa. So, you might say, wouldn’t their comments sections be just as prone to filter bubble echo chambers as social media? Yes, but there are two important differences: 1) comments on social media are much more difficult to access publicly, meaning that there are very literal chambers being built to contain the echos. So at least comments on news stories can be viewed, unlike Facebook posts by people outside one’s “social graph”; 2) even if few people cross the ideological divide and read papers they disagree with, those few will be able to make comments that are seen by a given publication’s journalists, editors, and readers. And those lone voices are sometimes the most important to hear from.

The Potential

I’ve blogged about the untapped potential of internet comment systems, and many others have made similar arguments based on a wide range of experience. I won’t go into more detail here, as my post on The Great Internet Comments Section goes into five specific areas of untapped potential. I will say, however, that there is a big loss for bloggers/journalists when they outsource their comment discussions to social media: any potential growth or exciting innovations are also ceded to the social media companies. As far as the bloggers/journalists are concerned the potential is capped, and any benefit will be channeled in the direction dictated by a social media giant rather than your newsroom. And that’s a potentially large loss.

Notes:

  1. A recent NiemanLab post, for example explained that “a typical story of ours might get 300 tweets, 150 Facebook shares, and one comment.”
  2. Eli Pariser makes this case eloquently in his book and TED talk.

The Great Internet Comment Section

The Great Internet Comment SectionCommenting systems: they’re ubiquitous, they’re maligned, and yet they’re still here. There is huge untapped potential in internet commenting sections, and I want to explore that potential by first taking a step back. I’ll introduce a few different ways to conceptualize internet commenting sections by exploring the mythical and idealistic Great Internet Comment Section.

Platform/Forum

It seems to me this is the most popular way to think about internet commenting sections. People look at commenting sections make a statement, the comments section is a prime location. We like comments because they create a sense of engagement and give a voice to the wisdom of the crowds, but we dislike them when they become a vitriolic mixture of soapboxes, hobby horses, or unproductive trolling. It is important to acknowledge, however, that comments sections are home to the most powerful communications out there: personal experiences. As important as facts and figures are, without narratives to give them context they are impotent. The Great Internet Comment Section will have figured out how to collect personal stories without encouraging personal vendettas.

Competition

Similar to the platform/forum understanding, many people view internet commenting as a battle. And this can sometimes be okay–it’s good to get a robust back-and-forth going about an important issue. Sometimes, though, these back-and-forths spiral out of control. This comment thread death spiral is most pronounced in a comments system that isn’t organized well. Without threaded comments, the ability to easily hide child comments, and the moderating influence of a robust community voting system, a thread can be turned into a confusing jumble of anger very quickly. I do think there is abundant potential still untapped in the competitive vision of commenting sections. I’ll write more on this later, but I think The Great Internet Comment Section will create a space for more formal and organized debates.

Gallery

People love to watch comments sections crash and burn. In many ways we see comments sections as the pulse of the internet. People get depressed about society when they read comments, because they go into comments section thinking that the discussion is, at least to some degree, reflective of society. And, to some degree, they’re right. But comments sections regularly miss quite a bit of society. Bringing more people into comment discussions isn’t just about increasing engagement with a community (or increasing pageviews), though it does both of those. When you bring more people in to comment, the comment sections will begin to edge closer to a representative sample of society. We’re not all trolls, and The Great Internet Comment Section will begin to reflect that. Though it will be an uphill battle.

Wiki

Comments sections currently aren’t used as wikis, but why couldn’t they? Why couldn’t public comment on blogs/professional journalism be treated as a collaborative commentary project? If an article makes a claim that can be disputed with reputable sources, The Great Internet Comment Section will allow that to happen. Maybe it’s by putting comments on the side, like Medium does, or maybe it’s some resurrection of the ideals of Google’s failed SideWiki project. If it’s going to work it needs to be tied even closer to the text (hiding the comments far down at the bottom of the page won’t cut it) and it needs to be heavily moderated–possibly by the community itself.

Interlocutor

Just as as journalists at blogs and newspapers, at their best, can be a check to political and corporate power, a good comments system can be a check to journalist power. Why didn’t you cite this study? What about what that government official said last week? How come you’ve quoted four men here and no women? There are really smart people out there who have valuable contributions on issues journalists are writing on, but don’t have the time to be a journalist themselves. The Great Internet Comment Section will be able to encourage this kind of substantive engagement from a variety of people, and will even be a space where journalists and authors themselves will engage with commenters. 

The Great Internet Comment Section

I really do believe that internet comments can be something very powerful, and I’m going to keep on reading and researching about how to make that happen. There are a lot of smart people already working on this project, as I’ve suggested before, and I hope to learn from them as much as I introduce new thoughts and ideas. If you’re reading this and you have ideas or experience in this area, please chime in . . . in the comments section below this post. UPDATE: In a future post I will discuss what might be the most important feature of The Great Internet Comment Section: protecting the vulnerable minority opinion.

Report: Online News Commenting Systems

When the news broke over the weekend that the Chicago Sun-Times is temporarily shutting down its comments section, some took it to mean they were giving up on comments altogether. But, as the paper’s managing editor Craig Newman wrote in a blog post on Saturday:

Again, we are not doing away with comments. But we do want to take some time and work on the qualitative aspect of how they are handled and how we can foster a productive discussion rather than an embarrassing mishmash of fringe ranting and ill-informed, shrill bomb-throwing.

This is very exciting. News commenting systems represent a huge untapped potential. All kinds of problems are impossible to solve when we aren’t willing to listen to those we disagree with, and when we are unable to have thoughtful discussions with friends and foes alike. The Sun-Times decision to take a step back and reassess is promising in the way it respects both the potential and the current malaise of internet commenting systems.

As part of my work with SpeakUp NC, an innovative program of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, I’ve put together a report on internet commenting systems. As I’ve written before, I believe three main principles govern commenting systems, so the bulk of the report is focused on reputation, moderation, and organization.

I’ve summarized scholarly research, journalist expertise, and commentator opinion. 1 I’ve worked to synthesize a wide variety of outlooks and theories about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to internet comments and internet commenting systems. 2

This research suggests that there will always be terrible comments, even with a great and thoughtful commenting system. There will also always be excellent comments. The key to a good online commenting system is promoting the best comments while hiding the worst.

The first section deals with tending the comments “garden” (link takes you to the report, which is a publicly available GoogleDoc). This metaphor comes from a piece in The Atlantic in which the author suggests comments systems are gardens that need to be cared for, watered, and weeded. This metaphor frames the report’s suggestions for “gardeners” to tend their comment patches: reputation, moderation, and organization.

Successful commenting systems facilitate the creation and management of reputation. Most successful systems require a permanent identity, even if it is a pseudonym, with the goal of reducing trolling and encouraging commenters to hold each other accountable over time. Experts suggest that communities crop up around most comments sections, and that the strength of these communities is dependent, to some extent, on how well good comments are rewarded and bad comments are ignored. This subsection outlines expert thought on the importance of commenter reputation.

Commenting systems also require good moderation, whether by journalists, experts, or the commenters themselves. This generally means that an editor or journalist is in charge of weeding the comments on a regular basis. The best systems also allow commenters some degree of moderation rights, generally in the form of voting systems or the ability to “recommend” or “like” fellow commenters’ work. This subsection explains a variety of perspectives on moderation.

Finally, the best commenting systems have thoughtful organization. As Clay Shirky, an Associate Professor at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU argues,

Chronological lists in either direction are just about the worst form of ordering comments.

Strong systems allow users to sort by quality of comments in some way, whether it is by “editor’s picks,” “community favorites,” or some other metric. This section goes into more detail about how and why this is necessary.

This section concludes with a few short success stories demonstrating the positive potential of commenting systems.

The next sections contain comments and thoughts about two other side discussions. The section on anonymity outlines the current discussion about whether commenters should be allowed to comment anonymously. While research definitely shows that comment vitriol is decreased when commenting systems require real names, research also shows that anonymity encourages participation and can often be necessary to encourage honest and meaningful debate. The report finishes with some links to reviews of top 3rd party commenting systems.

Please head on over to the google doc and take a look at the report–the links above take you to the related points in the document. Let me know what I’ve missed!

Notes:

  1. The quotes and excerpts are meant to give intellectual heft to and specific practical ideas for the importance of each item listed as subheading. Where possible, quotes have enough context to give a sense of the expert opinion’s full perspective.
  2. There is an important difference between a focus on internet comments and internet commenting systems. The former is an issue of people making comments, the second is an issue of systems that encourage certain kinds of commenting behavior. Many attempts have been made to fix both comments and commenting systems. The linked-to report contains insights into both.

Comments Section Q+A with Equality NC

SpeakUp NCI blogged a couple of days ago about a project I’m working on as part of the innovative and ambitious SpeakUp NC initiative of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. I’ve been working with Shannon Ritchie on SpeakUp NC for months on the problem of internet comments: they have the (often deserved) stigma of being the gutter of the internet, which discourages good commenters, which makes the comments sections worse, which makes them even more gutter-y.

But there’s just so much potential there. Just about every news story and op-ed has a comments section, and the discussions that go on there matter. Or they could matter. One of the first steps is to have good comment system architecture–and I’ve thrown around some ideas about that already.

In the mean time, we’re working on comment section innovations that will help experts (in this case, nonprofit leaders) weigh in on important discussions in an interactive and substantive way.  Our comments section Q+A, inspired by Reddit’s AMAs, is designed to organize discussions around questions posed by readers to experts on the issue at hand. It’s also designed to bring people into the comments section who do not normally comment–we don’t want to have a discussion with the occasional troll, but rather with a wide group of interested people to have a meaningful back-and-forth about the details and implications of the actual issue.

Yesterday, our first go at this was even better than I could have hoped. The brilliant team at Equality NC jumped at the chance to try something new. Their executive director, Chris Sgro, submitted an op-ed about the tax rigamarole North Carolina puts legally-married same-sex couples through. When the op-ed was published, the team posted the following comment in the comments section:

Over the next few hours, a few comments trickled in–about what you’d expect for an article on a hot topic in this particular newspaper. At 3pm on April 1st, there were 7 comments, three of which were from Equality NC. Between 3 and 5pm, however, was a different story. Due to Equality NC’s active network, and SpeakUp NC’s own email blasts and social media outreach, comments started pouring in at 3pm. Not only were there a lot of them (106 by 5pm), but they were substantive, thoughtful, and enlightening. While Shannon and I were behind the scenes, coordinating and advising Chris, Jen, and the rest of the Equality NC staff, the discussions under the article were inspiring. Here’s one exchange as an example:

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Imagine a world where you could actually learn from the comments section! We plan to do this Comments Section Q+A strategically and with other specific nonprofits in the future. 1. Stay tuned.

Notes:

  1. If your nonprofit is interested, email me. We’re focusing exclusively on North Carolina nonprofits right now, but have plans to expand in the future.