The problem with comments isn’t them

I’m coming to think that the — or a — problem with the quality of conversation in comments online is a matter of timing:

Once we in media are finished with our work we allow the public to comment. We throw our product over the wall and let people react while we retreat into the castle and shut the gates so we cannot hear them. They know they are talking to bricks and so they shout and cover them with spray paint. Only we have the power to clean the mess but we’ve left the scene and so the castle walls are soon overrun with graffiti.

This timing — which is inherently insulting to the public — comes out of our old media worldview brought to the internet. We think the internet is a medium and that we make products for it that the public consumes.

When instead we open up to conversation earlier in our process then the conversation can become more collaborative and productive: We ask people what they know, which is a mark of respect and value. We listen to advice and requests. We end our separation from the public and join it. Waiting until we are done to listen is too late.

We must stop looking at the internet as a medium. I spent a long time this weekend talking with a reporter who’s writing about nasty comments — I’ll link to her piece when she publishes it — and I tried to convince her that the media-view we from media impose on the internet is much of the problem: When we see the internet as a medium, we expect it to be packaged and pretty, clean and controlled like newspapers and magazines and shows, and so when someone dumps a turd on that — a nasty comment — we think the whole thing is ruined, as if bad editing allowed “shit” to get into a letter printed in The New York Times.

But as Doc Searls taught me early on, the internet is not a medium — indeed, judging it as a medium brings all sorts of dangerous presumptions about control and ownership and regulation. No, Doc says, the internet is a place. It’s a park or a streetcorner where people pass and meet, talk and argue, where they are right and wrong, where they connect with each other and information and actions. It’s a public place. (And when I talk about publicness

Now judge the conversation in those terms: If you pass someone cursing on the streets of New York do you write off the place? Well, I don’t (especially because that person you pass might be me).

But all this is not to say that I accept, or we should accept the level of discourse on the internet as it is. No, I’m coming to believe that comments — which I defended when I ran sites — are an inferior form of conversation for the reasons I’ve just outlined. That’s easier to see because we’ve seen superior forms, like Twitter.

Twitter, like Facebook, is build mostly on real identities and control of relationships. I decide whom to follow and you decide whether to follow me. It’s an individual meritocracy in which each of us defines merit.

Back in the day — and still today — we hear that anonymity is the problem and that identity will solve that. That has never been the case. Identity alone isn’t enough. I may know the identity of that curser on the streets of New York but that doesn’t stop me from hearing him rant. Social controls are also needed so I can walk around him. That’s what Twitter and Facebook provide each of us. The result is better discourse. I don’t find Twitter or Facebook littered with fools and nastiness and when I do stumble upon them, I unfollow; when they occasionally spit on me, I block (if only I could instead give them their meds).

Somewhere in there is a secret to improving discourse online. Craig Newmark is talking about the need for distributed trust networks and in Twitter and Facebook I do, indeed, think we’re beginning to see the outlines of them. Clay Shirky wishes for algorithmic authority. Identity is a factor, of course. But we need to be careful about thinking that there is some system that will just clean up messy talk. That doesn’t work in life; it won’t work on the internet, which is life. What Craig and Clay are asking for is tools to help each of us have a more pleasant stroll in the streets of the internet.

But I also think we need to turn this question around and not look at the commenters but at ourselves as members of the conversation. What are we doing to improve the quality of discourse? So I return to that question of timing: When we open up and grant respect and talk with people eye-to-eye and collaborate, that creates value not just blather. In What Would Google Do? I told the story of MyStarbucksIdea.com as a platform for collaboration over conversation:

Some threads emerged from the suggestions and discussion. Many customers wanted express lines for brewed-coffee orders so they could avoid waiting behind alleged coffee aficionados with their half-this, half-that, skinny, three-pump, no-foam, Frappuwhatevers. Some customers asked to be allowed to send in their orders via iPhone. And some customers suggested—and thousands more agreed—that the chain should enable them to program their regular order into their Starbucks card so they could swipe it as they enter, placing the order and paying for it at the same time, letting them skip the cash-register line. One more proposed a pour-it-yourself corner and another asked for a delivery service. The theme—that is, the problem for Starbucks—was clear: long, slow, inefficient, irritating lines. But not one of these customers started with that complaint. Instead, they offered solutions to fix the problem. All Starbucks had to do was ask.

Should comments as a form of conversation be eliminated? No, of course not. The tool isn’t the problem (any more than blogging tools or printing presses are). If you eliminate comments that’s even more insulting than not listening to them and it risks giving up the incredible value the public can give if only they are enabled to (a value I saw so clearly in the comments under my posts here or here). The issue isn’t comments or identity or registration or tools. The issue is how you play host.

  • Jeff Sonderman

    Thanks for weighing in on this important discussion, Jeff.

    I do think it is important that the involvement and conduct of the moderator is essential to making comments productive. But I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the importance of identity, registration and other tools.

    If I may make a sports analogy: Every game needs a referee to arbitrate and keep the players on track. But the underlying rules of the game also play a fundamental role in shaping how the game will be played. We need good referees, and good rules.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Jeff,
      I don’t think I dismissed the value of identity. Here, I tell people that I respect their opinions if they have the balls to speak under their names. I’m just saying that it’s not the instant cure that some folks still think it is: If only we had blood tests, everything would be civil…..

      • yelvington

        I’d settle for a test that proved the commenter actually read the item before going off on a rant about how Obama was to blame.

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  • Lane

    Hi Jeff,

    Interesting post, but I’m not sure I agree with the idea that the comment model needs to move towards a more collaborative method. While there are specific contexts where it makes sense, such as My Starbucks Idea, I don’t think it makes sense to try and scale that model to a wider slice of the web. When I visit a site like BuzzMachine, I’m interested in hearing the editorial voice of someone I consider an expert on the topic at hand. Bringing in the opinions of a commenting community taints and weakens that voice, and greatly decreases the signal-to-noise ratio. It’s akin to running Letters to the Editor on the op-ed page: while it may give a platform to those who’d never otherwise have the exposure, there are frighteningly few profundities to be found in the typical two-paragraph rant of a geriatric racist homophobe writing from the nearest old-folks home. That’s not to say there’s no value in letter-writing or commenting, but when a gem does show up, I’d rather it be plucked out and highlighted by the editor whose opinion I sought out in the first place than tossed on the heap and left for me to dig up.

    • http://evilpundit.mee.nu/ Evil Pundit

      If you don’t like to read people’s opinions, the solution is simple: don’t read them.

      I find that the comments sections are usually more interesting than the op-eds. I actively avoid sites that don’t allow reader comments (with a few exceptions, such as Drudge).

      • http://toweedornottoweedthatisthegarden.blogspot.com K.a.m.

        @Lane….Are you saying none of us should leave the comments sections open on our blogs and just end our blogposts with a “So There” attitude?

        I, too, find the comments section more interesting than the original article and when I do, I put that in my blog. There was a time in this country via snailmail when you wrote a letter to the editor giving him a piece of your mind, waited a week for it to get printed (if it did at all) and were happy as a clam in mud at high tide that your voice was heard. Now in this “Here Comes Everybody” culture of new media, we all get a voice at the innernet microphone. The freedom is a phenomenal change for the better.

    • Matt Terenzio

      Then why did you comment on Jeff’s post? Are you entitled to comment but not others?

      • Lane

        No no no, that’s not what I meant at all. What I’m saying is that I think comments are most beneficial just the way they are, at least in the context of a blog post or any other sort of media outlet. If I understand the post correctly, Jeff’s talking about making comments a part of the evolution of of an item itself, instead of letting them be ancillary to one editorial point of view. The problem I think you run into with that is the same as those inane “man on the street” segments of a news story. I don’t care what some dude walking out of a bar at 4:30 in the afternoon thinks about a topic. It’s the inclusion of the non-expert voice purely for the sake of populism, or some other esoteric reason that escapes me. Point is, it doesn’t add anything of value to the exposition, and therefore it doesn’t belong there. There’s a place for it, certainly: I’m not advocating that we toss the letters to the editor out of the paper, as there’s plenty of good things someone might have to say, and if it’s really great the editor should highlight it. All I’m saying is that there’s more potential for harm than good when we start letting anybody who can shout loud enough to be heard dilute the strength of a singular, strong editorial voice.

    • http://escenic.com Christian Løverås

      One way to improve the signal-to-noise ratio is to promote good comments and commenters, and also allow readers to filter and sort comments. This can, to some extent, be automated.

      Escenic, my employer, has some examples of this on “Managing and moderating user comments and discussions”: http://is.gd/aY3Na

    • http://www.google.com/ Marylouise

      Always a good job right here. Keep rolling on torhugh.

  • Jeff Parrott

    Jeff,

    A comment and a question. I disagree with your view on identity. I don’t think we’d see half of the profane, racist, homophobic, provocative-for-the-sake-of-being-provocative comments we see if people couldn’t hide behind a screen name.

    My question: How, specifically, would you propose that newspaper reporters seek this collaboration with the public before filing their stories to the Web?

    • Naama Nagar

      As someone doing research on the topic I would recommend looking into the Guardian comment system where journalists and contributors have the opportunity to participate in the discussion below the line (users’ comments) and their participation is transparent i.e. they are marked as the Guardian staff/contributors.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Blog.

    • Matt Terenzio

      File a story to the web? Oh brother. What were they doing before and after that?

  • http://www.thehyperlocalist.com Jennifer Deseo

    Good post, Jeff.

    I agree that reporters and editors ought to be more involved in the comments section. On my now-defunct hyperlocal website, I treated the comments section like a neighborhood bar, and I was the bar keep. There were only three rules: Play nice. No personal swipes. No anonymous posts.

    With those ground rules alone, participants were able to engage in constructive discourse. Of course there were times when near-arguments had to be broken up or people who had had too much were eighty-sixed. Some were tossed out on their asses. That’s what a good bar keep does.

    Time to add mixology to the growing list of skills required of entrepreneurial journalists! ;-)

  • Izabella Klein

    Hi Jeff,
    Interesting post. Yesterday I was just reading this exact part of your book.
    Some questions was answered. But there are some more.
    I think it’s also important to mention that hearing your customers out of the internet, is also a very collaborative way of gathering relevant information and of being a good host. If you’re gonna integrate, integrate it all. You can’t ignore those old fellows that still like to leave their comments with his today’s attendant, can we? As you importantly point out: “When we open up and grant respect and talk with people eye-to-eye and collaborate, that creates value not just blather.”
    You’ve been a great host to me. I would love to host any time.
    Thanks for your words.

  • http://www.thepomoblog.com Terry Heaton

    Good thinking, as usual. But let’s not forget the intrinsic value of commenting that’s included in the link juice it provides. In many ways, that’s more valuable than the thoughts expressed, although I certainly agree with you about the conversation.

  • http://www.mq2.org Julie Drizin

    Since your column was about comments, I felt compelled to add one into the mix. Inviting comments seems to be the lowest level of engagement — enabling people to add their two cents, offer feedback, ask questions. But even this level of participation is more than some are seeking. Most people never comment on anything on line. And I suspect that direct commenting is in decline in the face of FB and Twitter. I think the debate about how to handle “inappropriate” comments rages on. When you respond, you dignify and continue to engage people who are sometimes aching to get the last word. When you ignore, you may be sending the message of tacit support.

  • http://www.vocus.com/invocus Lisa Rowan

    Interesting post. I discussed reader comments a few months ago (http://www.vocus.com/invocus/blogJan10.html#readercomments), and I still struggle with the idea of anonymity in comments. Identity may lead to self-censorship, but some of the best stories come from anonymous tips. I think it will take more experimentation to find the right balance.

  • http://www.conferencedepartment.com Roger Wilson

    I recently heard Linda Fantin describe her Public Insight Journalism project, (http://bit.ly/bsMzGf), which is a practical model enabling journalists to open up to conversation earlier in their process so story development can become more collaborative and productive. They ask people what they know and they listen to advice and requests. Essentially it is a big database of volunteer sources, subsets of whom can be reached in mass by email.

    But getting more, quicker and better input for a story does not negate the fact that the internet is primarily a medium. Nor is the internet the only medium most journalists are working in. Journalists are in the middle, finding and organizing information for audiences by creating a story. Most of us don’t find much of our valuable information on street corners, public parks or any internet equivalent and that ain’t gonna change.

  • http://mtv.uol.com.br/evocecomisso Marcelo Soares

    Jeff, that’s more or less the perception I have in a blog I keep at MTV Brasil. I make it a point of honor to try to answer most of the comments, especially the most aggressive or pointless. The impression I have is that, when they know there is someone on the other side trying to establish a dialog (even if he can’t be available promptly), there’s more respect. Even the number of comments is not unmanageable.

  • http://onlinejournalismblog.com Paul Bradshaw

    Agree entirely – but we can also exhaust users’ generosity by inviting them into our processes too often, or serving up too many half-baked thoughts expecting others to do our hard work for us. I don’t think there are any hard-and-fast rules here – only best practice. As is so often the case online, it’s much like real life: we’re always striving for that balance between being informative and dominating conversations; between being a good listener but a poor conversationalist.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Paul,
      Good and important point. We still need to do our work, eh? Yes, I perhaps emphasized inviting people to collaborate too much. Just being open about our process enables people to contribute when they have something to contribute; that’s more like it, I think.

  • Naama Nagar

    As I mentioned above in one of the replies, I am actually conducting a study on the quality of comments in news websites. I admit I did not look at the American case just yet, but in the case of the U.K. and Israel I find that the registration actually mattered in the case of the quality of opinions expressed in the comments. That being said my measure did not care whether the comment included flaming or extreme language. From my perspective people have different ways to express their opinions – some do it in a more radical way than others.

    However, I agree with some of your arguments about treating these comments with respect. My research show that commentators would like to see journalists participating in the debate and at the very least they like to think they are being read.

    • http://www.pottsmerc.com Evan Brandt

      Naama,
      My newspaper in Pennsylvania started with open comments, asking only that people behave and bouncing comments only when abuse was reported.
      When that didn’t work, we initiated registration, but found the same offenders registering under multiple screenames.
      During a month-long period of a particularly volcanic local news cycle involving a school board, the nastiness became so bitter and personal the newspaper had no choice but to go to a monitored comment model.
      Our on-line editor, Eileen Faust explained why in a column on-line and in the paper.
      Readers actually agreed with the decision.
      Eileen does a good job of answering readers questions about the process in the came comment column they are posted so everyone can see the answers.
      But I have lately come to agree with Jeff if only to the point that journalists participating as themselves is helpful on several levels. It allows them to answer questions about the story (sometimes pointing out holes) and immediately raises the tone of the conversation.
      I have also found, by particiating in another site dedicated to local issues which was particularly critical of the newspaper, that the tone of commentary changes when readers realize a representative of the entity they are complaining about is actually talking back to them, and not berrating them for their abuse, but addressing their concerns directly.
      My experience mirrors your research, the commenters like it when they realize their comments are read and matter enough for you to take the time to respond to them.
      Also, because the communication is public and not just between two individuals, other people who are passively reading the comments see that and you gain ground with them as well.

  • http://rizzn.com Mark “Rizzn” Hopkins

    I started responding in here, but my comments overflowed past what a “comment” typically is, length wise. Put the rest on my blog: http://rizzn.com/2010/03/23/the-ontology-of-the-net-person-place-thing-idea-or-social-media/

    Gist is this… the words “social media” and the ‘net as a medium fits too well in my mind as a terminology set.

    There’s ownership (in the emotional sense, not the legal sense) and uniqueness around the blog / comment format that I like… going to ad hoc conversational media types exclusively to me would inevitably lead to more transiency, and further strain the idea of the ‘Net being a place.

  • http://epeus.blogspot.com Kevin Marks

    The key role here is what I have come to call the Tummler – the person who sets the tone of the conversation between everyone else. See http://bit.ly/tummler for a longer discussion of this idea, or http://tummelvision.tv for the weekly show I do on the TWiT network with Debs Schultz and Heather Gold.

  • John Temple

    Good post about comments, Jeff. I just want to make sure you’re not under a false impression about what I said about comments and Peer News. We’re actually going to be engaging in the conversation the way you describe. I’ve talked publicly here in Honolulu about how we’ll share with readers what we’re working on, ask for their help, seek ideas, questions, etc. That’s what I meant when I was misunderstood as saying we wouldn’t have comments. We won’t. We’ll have conversations. I talked to the group at Newsmorphosis about transparency, and that includes in our reporting. I had a long exchange with Jay Rosen over Skype about this issue.

  • http://blakesnow.com Blake Snow

    Limiting comments to your trusted networks would lessen the perspective gained from said comments since people tend to mingle with like-minded individuals. The current free-for-all system, while annoying sometimes, is the best way to welcome new dialogue.

  • http://hbilling.personal.asu.edu/wordpress/ Heather Billings

    At my college paper, my advisor used to get so irritated when I (as the Webmaster/multimedia editor) would respond to comments on articles, ESPECIALLY when they were comments questioning our reporting. I believed then and still believe now that the whole point of comments isn’t “to allow your audience to have a meaningful discussion with one another” but to give users access to the faceless people behind the media they’re consuming. (In college, I was able to say “bugger off” and continue doing it anyway. I doubt I’ll ever have a job that allows me to do that.)

    I think this is why newspapers hate comments. Unmoderated, they do turn into flaming piles of crap. But when you use them to engage the audience, answering questions and offering transparency, the audience seems to respond. You’re levelling the playing field. Maybe that’s what media are afraid of.

  • Tom Grey

    Hi Jeff,
    I think comment sections heavily depend on the author being engaged with, and responding/ answering, the best/ most important comments. Including sometimes warning and banning folks who go over that moderator’s lines — and I think there should usually be lines.

    I think you’ve been a bit better on this thread than others a few years I have followed. I think signal to noise in the comments improves with poster participation, as well.

    But the internet is BOTH a medium and a place (like light is both energy and particle). I also think algorithm reputation will help out sometime in the not-too-distant future (I know I hope so). Identity is good, too; but allowing anon at times is very important.

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  • Andrew Curran

    Jeff, this is the most thoughtful analysis I’ve come across regarding internet comments, which all too often bring out the worst in people. Reading them is often a “guilty pleasure” similar to watching a car crash or reading a tabloid. You know you shouldn’t look, but you can’t help it.

    However, as you point out, the strategy (or lack thereof) being employed and how the host moderates the comments to a large extent influences the end result.

  • Eric Gauvin

    No comment.

  • http://fromtheonline.com JTownend

    I like the analogy here… it reminds me of a passage in a novel I read recently (State of the Union by Douglas Kennedy) in which the central character deals with the graffiti all over her house by adding her own to it, admitting (defiant) defeat of a kind, and they leave her alone… Not sure how sustainable that is as a technique for journalists but…

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  • http://themediamanager.com Kirk LaPointe

    We’re still challenged by the issues involved.
    The standard we’ve had is never to publish anything anonymous; it means our letter authors are verified beforehand. The principles we operate under include minimizing harm. And amid the complexities of the fairness principle is one that says we shouldn’t permit unattributed criticism — that you have a right to know who is your critic and that the critic has a responsibility to stand and be counted.
    While accepting that it’s not viable to suppress commentary until it’s verified, and while agreeing that it’s good to involve the widest possible audience in the conversation early in our journalism through blogs and social media, we expect to continue to run up against a steady stream of unattributed invective.
    It’s impractical — and in our case in Canada, legally problematic — to simply warn of possible offensive commentary or to tell people not to read them if you don’t like them.
    So we’re facing some very difficult choices: suppressing comments on stories that might be prone to attracting libelous comments or taking a run at some form of registration and identification. Not ideal, but I don’t think it’s viable to just leave the situation alone.
    As the children say after a school presentations: Comments? Suggestions?

  • Dan

    Puh-leeze. Whatever happened to the idea that Web commenters would somehow amazingly land on any kind of ground to spawn real discussion? Say hello to the trolls and true believers. All else is blah blah blah.

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  • Chiffonade

    Differing opinions are not the worst problem with public commenting. Comments by trolls should be removed. I personally have a troll who enjoys impersonating me online and doing “drive-bys” of nasty, sometimes racist remarks, then cowardly signing my name. If blog operators were not understanding and delete these irrelevant expressions of a sick mind, there would be all kinds of hideous comments attributed to me.

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  • http://blogs.lexpress.fr/nouvelleformule Mettout

    Jeff, a member of my team, at LEXPRESS.fr, summerized your post in a few words: “When someone feels at home, he doesn’t shit on the carpet”…

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  • danijel kecman

    internet is a medium to another plane of reality. that plane of reality is a place. via internet that plane of reality reflects all other places connected to internet in proximity and interactivity close to real time like no medium was able before.

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  • Phil

    Good article. Speaking of comments, at the bare minimum, websites need to install the “Human-Checking” systems…. which apparently this one doesn’t do. The comment section here is full of computer-generated crap. Just an observation. Both the article and the (human-generated) comments are thought provoking.

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