Controllers of the conversation

Reader interactivity on the web means deep engagement, but online comments also pose an array of unanswered questions that publishers have to address, as Will Mumford reports.

Controllers of the conversation

The characterisation of a newspaper’s readers as merely its consumers is no longer an accurate one.

The internet and online discussion extends the lifespan of articles past their initial publication and consumption by readers, and into a post-read phase, where conversation takes place in comment threads, social media and elsewhere. The online space means that, as a recent World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) report put it, readers feel a greater right to contribute in an “environment that is becoming increasingly more dialogue-based than one-way”.

As publishers become increasingly conscious that news agendas are not exclusively theirs to set, and that the growth of the internet, social media and niche online publications has meant readers are more involved in the news process now than ever before, having a sophisticated and functional commenting platform has become critical to providing a complete digital offering.

However, how publishers construct and manage their commenting system is fraught with important and divisive questions – questions that there are no firm, definitive answers to. Should publishers focus on consistent and comprehensive governance on comments, or allow their social community to self-regulate? Should commenters be awarded for their loyalty and the quality of their comments, or should each comment be taken as an isolated entity – separate from the broader contribution that a commenter has made to a given site? Are reporters to be involved in this process, or is it journalistically delinquent for them to roam the comment threads that follow their articles? More broadly, should there be greater collaboration among publishers and standardisation of platforms – making it easier for commenters to move between sites and be members of the social communities of numerous publishers, without needing separate accounts for every website.

Rob Ashton has moderated comments on Fairfax’s metro websites for around two and a half years, reading and approving or declining  every comment submitted on up to 50 articles a day, from opinion to sport to entertainment, business and other sections. He is employed by AAP-owned editorial service Pagemasters, which has an arrangement with Fairfax to provide moderation services across its metro mastheads.

His job is part fact-checker, part gatekeeper, part judge – constantly checking the validity of comments, whether they are offensive, if they are defamatory or libellous. More than anything, he must ask; is this comment permissible in our online community?

Fairfax’s metropolitan sites – which use an in-house comment platform as opposed to Fairfax Regional which use popular hosting service Disqus – pre-moderate all comments, so Mr Ashton and his colleagues act as the gatekeepers for the various websites’ online communities – “it’s all read, it’s all eyeballed before it goes up”.

He says that impartiality is the guiding principle for moderators; “my personal opinion should have nothing to do with it, I’m just there to publish what is publishable”.

Comments will often draw responses that claim bias from both sides, says Mr Ashton – part of the ideology-fuelled nature of the platform. As a moderator, all is permissible as long as profanity is avoided, defamatory comments aren’t made and the commenter “plays the ball not the man”. Mr Ashton says the last point here is key; “if you say someone’s comment is foolish, that’s fine…but don’t say the commenter is foolish, that’s a personal attack and won’t be published”.

This uncompromising approach to ad hominem discussion reflects the tone and standards that Fairfax has developed with its online community. However, both locally and overseas, attitudes differ substantially from community to community. Dr Fiona Martin, a Sydney University academic who is currently working on a research project looking at comment hosting, moderation and standards, says unique community characteristics need to be recognised when designing comment systems and guidelines; “Gawker, say, is a totally different kettle of fish to the old media print-based publications in Australia and that’s because the people who read Gawker have a different kind of threshold of community expectation around civility, around humour – what’s humorous and what’s not.”

“I think one of the big difficulties for moderators is a lot of the decisions they make are subjective and they are based around their understanding of what is socially appropriate speech and what is not.”

This inherent difficulty in forming consensus on community expectations was astutely summarised by smh.com.au commenter ‘Timmo’, who wrote in response to an article about policing online trolls; “The problem with any legislation against trolling is that it’s a slippery slope and not objective – one person’s criticism is another’s trolling, and one person’s trolling is simply a sarcastic comment to another.”

Publishers need to build and adapt their comment platform and its guidelines to suit the attitudes of their community, says Dr Martin, they need to be flexible and willing to review their processes and standards. It is important to ask whether commenters should be able to swear in their contributions, or if it is better to have a system that discourages this speech and instead encourages creative bypassing of restrictions – such as a comment Mr Ashton noted which contained this profanity-avoiding euphemism; “…the solid fecal matter will really hit the mobile air distribution device.”

Unlike Fairfax, which manages its moderation both internally and through Pagemasters, News Corp outsources all moderation to ICUC – an international content moderation provider – and host commenting through Silicon Valley tech company Livefyre’s platform. Like Fairfax however, the company has ICUC pre-moderate every comment submitted by readers – an approach that publishers across the globe are split on. News editorial network director Alan Oakley says that since moving to ICUC, News metro network has published almost one million comments, with around 25 per cent of submitted comments being declined by moderators.

The WAN-IFRA ‘online comment moderation: emerging best practices’ study from 2013 spoke with 96 publishers that allow comments on their sites – with 38 moderating pre-publication, 42 post-publication and 16 adopting a mixed strategy. Post-publication has obvious legal risks, but allows the members of a community to assist in the moderation process – by flagging inappropriate comments – rather than external moderators controlling what comments reach the thread. Dr Martin says that anecdotally, people that comment on sites that pre-moderate have said they find it slow and laborious to engage in active discussion. However, she says that if publishers want to move to a more self-regulating system then they need to establish a proper governance plan and provide incentives for users to make effective contributions, while avoiding building a class system.

If publishers experiment with a move away from uniform pre-moderation they “have to make it really clear how people can get promoted, you set the bar differently for different levels of participation, you involve your users in upvoting good comments and you still need moderators, whatever happens,” she said.

“You not only involve your users in upvoting but you also have to involve them in flagging people who play nice to get a post-moderation status and then use it to spam. It’s not simple, there are no easy answers here.”

Recently, the announcement of a US$3.89 million grant provided by the Knight Foundation, a philanthropic journalism body, to The New York Times, The Washington Post and Mozilla to fund the construction of an open-source comment platform, emphasised the urgency and relevance of these questions.

Director of digital news projects at The Washington Post, Greg Barber, said that the group is trying to build a comment platform that is highly adaptable and can be used by any publication. They will also look at how users comment.

“This project is bigger than just comments, we want to build a system that allows for all sorts of different interactions between publishers and users,” he said. “we want to be able to take in reader contributions of different sizes…annotations on the small side, comments in the middle, blog posts and longer stuff at the high end. Photos, video and multimedia as well.”

As well as looking at questions around interaction, participation and other issues central to commenting, Dr Martin’s study is examining interface design and functionality. Websites like Quartz and Medium allow users to comment on sections of text, structuring comments like annotations, Reddit encourages its community to upvote and downvote comments, and various publications have experimented with reputation scoring – giving certain rights to established and valuable commenters.

The purpose of these innovations is to offer a more variable and engaging platform, but also to help readers find the best comments, or certain types of comments, rather than have all comments ordered in chronological or reverse-chronological order at the bottom of the article. WAN-IFRA’s study found that the two most common ways news organisations are doing this is by allowing readers to recommend comments, give them a “thumbs up/thumbs down”, or by enabling staff to recommend certain comments.

Mr Ashton says Fairfax commenters often ask about various possible innovations, particularly the ability to upvote and downvote. The Knight Foundation project, Mr Barber says, will try to give publishers the ability to “choose the engagement method that sits best with their content…in some cases that’s a comment stream, maybe in some cases it’s annotations”.

Recently The New York Times implemented a reputation scoring ‘verified commenters’ system – which allows selected commenters on the newspaper’s website to comment without pre-moderation. The incentive worked in that it allowed more comments to be published more efficiently, but as the paper’s public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote, “the system may work against those commenters who are edgier or more provocative in what they have to say”. As Dr Martin told me, “the problem [with verified commenters] is that you’ve got a class system”.

Perhaps a more important concern was the the lack of consultation with the people that the comment system is actually designed for. “Why didn’t The New York Times ask its users what they wanted?” asked Dr Martin. “I think the top-down approach to gatekeeping is not as effective as working with your user community to develop standards and functionality that they actually want.”

Does a publisher’s community want nested replies? Do they want sharing functions? Do they want their social media profile fused onto their profile in the comment platform? Do they want geolocation functionality? Do they want upvoting and downvoting of comments, or various kinds of status incentives? According to Dr Martin, publishers must be asking these questions, and paying attention to the answers they receive.

One thing that has been proven to improve the level of discourse and standard of commenting is having journalists involved in the discussion. A recent study by the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas showed that “uncivil comments declined by 15 per cent when a reporter interacted in the comment section” and that journalists can help direct the conversation, and keep it dialectic and on topic. However, as shown in the WAN-IFRA paper, many news organisations don’t believe journalists have sufficient time to participate in comment threads, or worry that doing so could tarnish their objectivity.

Dr Martin says that many of the complex issues involved in fully understanding how best to manage online commenting are only just starting to be properly examined. She says that when thinking on these issues she often reflects on a quote by journalism academic and sociologist Michael Schudson, which makes the point that democratic conversation is not about “free, equal and spontaneous expression”, but “equal access to the floor, equal participation in setting the ground rules for discussion”.

Considering the history of comment moderation is still so young, she says that we need to be conscious of how we approach these new platforms.

“When we talk about commenting as conversation, or associate it with democratic practice, we need to think about how that participation and democracy is actually being structured in these new social spaces.”

*An earlier version of this article, published in the print edition of The Bulletin, did not state that Rob Ashton is employed by editorial provider Pagemasters, which has an arrangement with Fairfax to provide comment moderation services.

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