A Saturday conversation on comments

Comment TrollI missed the running Twitter debate between Mathew Ingram and Howard Owens on anonymous comments on Saturday; the weather in Knoxville was just too nice to stay indoors and on a computer.

But, thankfully, Ingram has recapped it.

I think the reliance on persistent identity from technologies such as Facebook Connect and OpenID could render the debate moot, but neither “real names”  nor “quasi-verified identity” will solve the problem of racist, sexist and just plain hateful speech in Web site comments from the likes of comment trolls as in the drawing on the right. Some people just think that way. And here’s a news jolter: Not everyone is nice.

It would be wonderful if all comments were erudite, thoughtful commentaries on the issues, but forget it, it’s not going to happen. It wouldn’t reflect your community anyway.

Putting resources to comment management is one of the keys to keeping the conversations in bounds. The power of reputation is another. Raising the value of reputation can come through “real names,” persistent identity or by merely making the user’s profile more important on a site.

I’ve been collecting links on Delicious about Web site, particularly newspaper Web site, comments for at least a year as part of the APME Online Credibility Roundtable the Knoxville News Sentinel held. A Webinar at Poynter’s NewsU. continued the discussion.

Update: Steve Buttry joins the conversation and Steve Yelvington has a take.

Here’s the most ones I’ve tagged  (if there are others that should be on this list, please let me know):


  1. I think one important aspect of this debate is that anonymous comments are good for business.
    How doea a newspaper generate online page views? Controversy. And nothing does that better than a good old anonymous pissing match.
    Why haven’t newspapers insisted on the same rigorous identification standards as print letters to the editor? They can explain away how our country was founded on the anonymous treatises of B Franklin and others but the fact is the press has applied their standards inconsistely because they fear the anonymous comments (and the page views they generate) will go elsewhere if outlawed online. True?
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post as always, Jack!

  2. Thanks for your comment.
    The short answer is Web site operators don’t have the same legal liability in online comments as print publishers have with printed letters to the editors.
    Yes, I believe comments increase the “stickiness” and time on site and a sense of community that articles alone can’t achieve. Anecdotally, I often hear people say the comments were better than the story (maybe in an entertaining if not enlightening way).
    But basically, I don’t view comments as “letters to the editor.” I often find them more akin to callers on talk radio, where people are identified as “Jim” or “caller from Knoxville.” (If you applied the “same rigorous identification standards” to radio call-in shows, they wouldn’t have any callers.) The dynamics of online story comments are similar to what happens in forums and fairly open mailing lists.
    They are, I think, a participatory experience unique to the online medium and whose benefits outweigh its negatives. That said, we’re still grappling with ways to minimize the negatives without stifling the speech.
    Do we have story comments merely to generate additional page views? Maybe, but I suspect the cost of managing comments negates nearly all of the additional revenue. A page view on a news story is worth at best just a couple cents.
    As Google’s economist Hal Varian recently said: “The fact of the matter is that newspapers have never made much money from news,”

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