The ethic of interactivity

Let’s pull up from the fur-flying fray over pulling down blog comments that attacked rookie ombudser Deborah Howell thanks to her misguided attempt at balancing a scandal (see full coverage and great links on Jay Rosen’s Press Think; see also Umair Haque’s attempt to give big, old media an attitudectomy).
The bigger question is: What is the ethic of interactivity?

Q: Are media required to play host to the opinions and criticism of others?

A: No. But they will be judged by their interactivity.

That’s the real issue here: One-way media are trying to figure out the two-way world and it’s hard, but necessary. If you’re not part of the conversation, you won’t be heard.

Q: Is it better to host comments or link to them?

A: You should do both.

I believe that linking to comments made on blogs (and in other media) will, in the long run, yield more compelling — albeit distributed — conversation. The people who use their own space to comment care enough about the topic to say something and stand by what they say under their own names (or brands). As Glenn Reynolds (not a comment host himself) says: “Given the Post’s addition of Technorati links to many of their stories, they’re in a better position than most to say ‘the blogosphere is our comment section.’ And, you know, it is.” That’s true to a point. But there are also times when I don’t want to use my space to react to a conversation on a blog or around a news story. But I do have something to add. So I want to comment. When I am not given that opportunity on blogs (or other outlets), I suffer media constipation.

Q: Should there be an expectation of civility in interactivity?

A: As much as there is in life.

We see two mistakes in the discussion surrounding the Post blog:

First, too many people judge interactivity by the worst of it, which is rather like refusing to visit New York because you hear there are a few assholes there. This, I think, comes mostly from people who wish they could dismiss interactivity, and the internet and blogs with it. Sorry, but interactivity — and New York — are here to stay.

The second mistake some people make is assuming that the rest of us can’t figure out who the assholes are. With that comes the presumption that we need to be protected from the bozos, that that is media’s (and, in other contexts, government’s) job. People sometimes ask me why I don’t kill stupid comments from various bozos. I reply that I figure most people know they’re bozos and judge them accordingly.

Q: Should you moderate interactivity?

A: If you want to.

But don’t think that you can tidy up comments any better than you can tidy up the world. People are messy and so’s life. Get used to it.

Nonetheless, I do believe that this is my space and I have the right — and sometimes responsibility — to maintain a proper atmosphere for conversation. I rarely kill comments but I choose to sometimes when someone goes overboard.

Q: Shouldn’t technology help with moderation?

A: You wish.

But I wouldn’t count on machines outsmarting people who need their meds. They will outsmart filters and parole officers everytime.

Q: Is interactivity worth the price?

A: Yes.

It may not bring in much ad revenue (yet) and it may take effort (but less than creating content), but if you treat interactivity — and the people who do it — with respect, good things will come of it: content, improvement, promotion, respect.

You cannot afford not to interact.

Q: By the way, do we really need ombudsmen?

A: No.

Everyone in a newspaper should have a direct relationship with the public. They should all be their own ombudsmen.

: I’ve worked with interactivity since the early ’90s and continue to learn lessons.

At Advance, our community expert taught me that moderators should not be the people who kill bad comments any more than mayors should be the guys who pick up trash. I learned that we didn’t need moderators; that’s a one-way-media way to think: that the people need hosts to tell them what to talk about. What we needed instead were police to clean up problems. Our expert showed me that the public would send us alerts to those problems, but only if we responded to their snitching quickly and reliably. It worked. The quality of discourse improved; complaints from newspaper editors declined (though none of them truly appreciated the value of interactivity); traffic and audience skyrocketed.

I also sat on the board of the company that started, which tried to bring Slashdot code to a broader audience. It didn’t really work. Slashdot works for a geeky public. Others may disagree, but I think it proved to be too complex — too not worth the effort — for the rest of us. Still, the idea that people can collaboratively dismiss the bozos and promote the geniuses makes sense. Someday, someone will figure out how to make it worth our while.

So what would I advise the Post — what will I advise them in a planned Wednesday roundtable chat?

I’d tell them to let the comments roll and to let all their constituencies — newsroom, ombudsman, and public — know that there will be attacks and there will be bozos, but there will also be signal worth that noise.

I’d tell them what I told CBS Public Eye when they, too, complained about the quality of public discorse: The best way to ensure a real discussion is to join in that discussion. Rather than just just making a post on a blog — and then a column on the topic — ombud Deborah Howell should have joined in the discussion in the comments. Of course, she should have followed my father’s advice about office politics and not be drawn into the lowest attacks. But she should have entered into a real dialogue with the readers who had legitimate criticism and questions and advice. What is an ombudsman for, after all, if not to interact with that?

I’d tell them to kill only the worst of the bozos’ spiteful, personal, and off-topic attacks — but to kill them quickly and consistently.

I’d tell them to give greater promotion to the external blogs that used their own space and names to enter into a discussion about the issues. The conversation is distributed.

I’d tell them to stop thinking that all interactivity should be about the newspaper and what it says. Make it about what the public is saying and what the newspaper is not saying.

I’d tell them that rather than trying to find more ways to control interactivy, I’d find more ways to interact: Solicit help from the public on stories, do the wikitorial the right way (not the way the LA Times did it but by, instead, encouraging two sides of an issue to each, separately showcase their best cases), let people remix stories…

I’d tell them to sit back and enjoy the ride. Democracy and discussion are messy, like life.

  • FWIW, I dig the Q/A format of this post.

  • Jeff, great post. At H2otown most of my time is spent thinking about community management. My theory is that newspapers have a harder time with the idea of actively moderating comments — let’s call it what it is, nuking commenters and banning repeat offenders — because they believe they’re supposed to be in the free speech business, and the idea makes them blanch. That’s probably a good thing. However, the results of unmoderated forums will definitely make them blanch. It’s only a matter of time before someone provides a live demonstration of Godwin’s Law in a big comment thread on a controversial issue.

    You know what I would like to see? Just put a comment section under every story, and give the reporter who wrote that story the authority to moderate and respond to comments. Give those reporters some basic guidelines on “commenter’s rights,” and let them manage the discussion. Some reporters may encourage a more freewheeling, frat-house comment thread, while others may rein in excesses earlier. Start small, with a few stories open for comment with a few reporters. Community management is a learned skill, people need time to practice it.

    But without some active moderation done by actual humans, comment threads will get trashed, and shouting will drive out everybody who’s not interested in 24-7 shouting.

    Why do this? Because it’s a way to build and cement a long-term relationship with readers, who are proving pretty fickle about the traditional product.

    One thing I would love to understand better is how online communities pass on community norms to each other. Wikipedia, I think, does a great job of engaging newbies and helping them figure out how to get along in Wikipedia, both technically and socially. I frequently have the problem of a newbie who goes nuclear in their first comment — and they’ve never read the guidelines. In 2006 I’d like to find a way to make how the site works more transparent to people who are using it for the first time, without a big, imposing sign out front listing a bunch of Thou Shalt Nots.

  • Oh, and one thing that’s implicit here: just as there are no technological shortcuts for “community gardening,” I think it’s a bad idea to employ human shortcuts too. Hiring someone just to hang out in comments is a bad idea — the right person to shape the conversation is the person who started the conversation: the person who wrote the article.

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  • I agree with you that, in certain situations, there is a need for moderation. It’s the only way to keep your user generated content spaces safe. But it shouldn’t, as you point out, be used just to filter out spelling errors and other messy bits. People do make mistakes and we shouldn’t necessarily see this as harmful to the value of our “old media” brands or content. In fact, it adds authenticity when you think about it.

    One of the things I’ve been working on with various parts of the BBC is making our editorial process more transparent. One some of our sites, users used to post a message using a form (like I’m typing in now) and it would go off behind closed doors somewhere and journalists would correct the spelling, fix the grammar, change the meaning… well, not that last bit but that’s what users thought was going on and I don’t blame them. Media organisations using user generated content should keep this in mind: trust is important to your organisation and the best way to build trust is to publish any comments that users submit so long as they don’t break fair, and publicly available, rules. Doing anything less than that will send your users elsewhere.

  • One of your best posts ever, Jeff. Thank you.

  • == The question is often not one of interactivity, but of community. A strong community can moderate itself through more subtle means than the Slash/Scoop approach of rating every single comment. A strong community rewards good and/or bad community behavior in many different ways. Through user ostracization, early troll identification, etc. an online community can police itself, up to a certain size userbase.

    == User moderation ala Slash/Scoop introduces real problems of bias that can’t be solved. The rise and fall of is notable in this respect, IMO. When users can moderate to promote their own opinion, the community can become an echo chamber.

    == One problem is that building a strong virtual community requires a specific set of skills, and these skills are not taught, as far as I know.

    == Another problem is that a community can be fragile and requires different management at different “sweet spots”, according to how many people are participating. If three people are participating, it requires a different approach than if 300 or 3000 are in it. It requires different decisions, about anonymity, censorship, management participation, transparency, etc. Making the right decisions is hard and requires skill sets that not many managers have. Again, it’s simply too new, it’s not taught.

    == I really doubt a great community can be built via a business plan. People need certain things from their community… a sense of gravitas… a sense of permanence… enough leeway to know that their participation is important and won’t simply be tossed or ignored. All a business plan can do is provide the room.

    == The gravitas that big newspapers already bring, along with their remaining audience, and their daily content production, make them an ideal place for such communities to thrive and present all the advantages thereof. However, the window in which they can pull it off is shrinking extremely fast.

  • Undertoad: Really great comment. Thanks. I agree with your points, especially that this is new and what communities need is still to be learned. j

  • Jeff: As always, wise and insightful. But again, I get back to a deep concern of mine: defamation. I am absolutely convinced it is only a matter of time before a blog gets sued for a defamatory comment posted on its site. I recognize that our response will be “I took it down once it was brought to my attention,” but I am not sure it will hold up in court.

    Mind you – I don’t want to “lawyerize” (as you once put it) the issue – but I think the lawyers will come nonetheless. And even if a blogger were to defend him/herself successfully, the price would be more than any of us could afford to pay. Lost Remote doesn’t moderate comments – we do pull down the occasional egregious, profane or insulting one – but I have often thought we should.

    Democracy is messy – what fun – and lively. But it also has tort law.

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  • Terry Steichen

    Jeff, two things I believe have been mostly overlooked in the current controversy regarding Wapo.

    First, the controversy was sparked by a very provocative incident by a Wapo employee. The way it was handled, IMHO, served to inflame the audience, rather than channel it.

    Second, the fact that the sponsor of a newspaper blog does not have a particular point of view on specific topical issues, and the fact that the newspaper itself will (as with this incident) often become the target of the controversy, make these blogs and the conversations they attract, very different from ordinary blogs.

    I expand a bit on these points in comments I made to Steve Outing’s E-Media Tidbits column (

  • To me the interesting subject is the fine line between censoring idiots and trolls and letting them display their ignorance.

    I have pleaded with some blogs to remove their trolls to which they have told me unequivocally that they want them there to help make their point.

    More than a few of these blogs, I no longer frequent. And this begs an existential issue for all blogs, are they there to “make points” or attract and engage an audience?

    I think blogs that don’t actively moderate for decency AND ignorance are doomed. Who has the time or inclination to read trolls?

    Maybe more blogs can incorporate an “Ignore Poster” setting like Yahoo has on its message boards? Then the moderator can see which posters are valued and which aren’t based on who they want to ignore.

  • Old Grouch

    Expanding on Undertoad’s comment a bit: The long-standing blogs developed their communities by starting small and growing. Most now have a core of regular commenters who have achieved their credibility and gained respect through repeated posts. These “old hands” establish the level of discourse and, as UT points out, help police things. And because they identify with the community, they have a sense of “ownership,” as it were. Also, over time, each comments section develops its particular “voice,” through interaction of contributors and direction from the host. Once established, this can be quite robust in the face of troll invasions and the like.

    Neither the WAPO (nor, before that, the LATimes editorial WIKI) had a chance to build a community. Right from the beginning, a lot of people checked in, and hundreds commented. But no community=no ownership=no standards=lots of shouting/trolling. This may be the fatal problem for attempts by the traditional press to establish interactivity: You can’t have the benefits of a gradually-established community if everyone is a newcomer.

  • You’re no nut Captious. (And not all that captious.)

    At this stage in blog development I also would think about comments policies and their effect on the quantity and quality of the audience. I wouldn’t worry about the effect of comments on blog writers or guest posters. They should handle anything. I worry about the audience beyond commenters.

    I personally see blogs a lot like talk radio. I learned that call screening was a very important part of producing a good show (as important as guest bookings and research). I was told, “Callers are not listeners.” That forced me to think broadly about the show’s appeal to all listeners and not overestimate the opinions of the hundreds of callers versus the tens of thousands of listeners.

    Over time ( I was in that business in the late seventies) some shows stopped taking calls altogether. Others stopped screening and the hosts just let anyone have their say no matter how boring (the worst sin), disconnected, or inarticulate. The remainder stayed somewhere in the middle.

    Blogs should think carefully about their blog’s goals and match them to their comment policies. What you encourage and discourage will have a big impact. Interesting, engaging, and even contentious commenters can add value. But what are you going to do with the rest especially those who are trying to work out their personal demons and inadequacies in a way that kills your show?

  • Key though, to the whole thing might be to get newspapers to enlist the help of those of us who *know* what they are doing with blogs and blogging! Hire us to help them, not just ask us to help them gratis. (yeah, I know, call me Pollyanna…)

    There are a lot of us who know how to handle this thing, know the tricks and tools, etc…treating those of us who know the blogosphere as if we are second-class is not just condescending but uncivilized (yes, I could get foul, but I won’t)

    BTW, the negative comments/community building thing is part of the panel I’m on at SXSWInteractive. The panel is Us/Them: a Blog Conversation Guide. I might suggest we hold a separate panel on this strictly for MSM folks :-)

  • I agree with Old Grouch: big newspapers online lack a sense of community that a blog that started small and grew over time has. But newspapers have something very few blogs have: lots of readers. If you’ve got that, you can build a feeling of community if you’re willing to put in the time and effort it takes.

    I don’t think putting up rules and regulations is the answer. If you invite people over to your house, you’re not going to hand them a list of rules detailing what they can and can’t say, nor are you going to walk off and leave them alone. You’re going to encourage them to talk by maybe opening up a topic of conversation you think they might find interesting and then let the conversation wind its way along.

    In my experience, if some troll barges in wanting a fight, the best way to handle it is to laugh at them. Trolls like to argue. They don’t like being laughed at. And if you’ve got a group of basically decent people together who are having a good time, they’re not going to want someone to come in and ruin the party. They’ll laugh along with you and the troll will leave.

    I find blog policies irritating when I see them because they suugest that the guests coming to visit are incapable of behaving themselves. I’m not a school-boy. I know how to behave. So even if that would mean I’m exempt by default, the comment policy still amounts to posting a sign at your door telling people how to behave when they come to your party. It’s rude. It’s also pointless since you’re assuming that people who come to visit your site are going to care about your rules and regulations, even bother to read them.

    While I understand what Laurence is saying, i disagree with him that blogs are like talk radio. For one thing, you can scroll past boring comments in a second on a blog. On talk radio you’re forced, painfully, to listen to them. I think blogs are more like house parties with lots of conversation that people can easily jump in and out of. Blogging is much freer and much more fun than talk radio. Everyone in your audience can participate, if they choose, providing you don’t have the bad manners to exclude them because they don’t fit in with what you consider your ‘mission’ … or should I say, image, to be.

  • As an online editor that has worked alot with interactivity and specifcally reader comments, I think one has to committ to moderate the interactivity. If you want to close the gap betweeen the public and the newsroom, you need to be an active part of that loop. To sit back and let readers react to static content is abandoning the playground, in my view. If you moderate and maintain a slight presence, you ‘ll know your readership, can respond to it, get tips, etc.
    Get involved, be responsive. Setting up arm’s length discussions and walking away from them isnt as interactive as one could be.

  • It isn’t always bad manners to exclude someone. That what good hosts do for the sake of the party. Sure when one gets the boot it feels like an offense against freedom. But it’s very good manners to spare the rest of us.

  • There are three real-world examples that can be looked at.
    The oldest is Usenet. Anything goes, flame wars are frequent and the ratio of signal to noise varies greatly depending on topic. A simple Mac is better than PC remark can spawn hundreds of contentless remarks, and the politcal areas are even worse. Community pressure has little effect on the abusers. The news reader software frequently allows end users to filter out noise on their own so it is possible to deal with the issue oneself.

    Then there is slashdot. The postings are moderated, the remarks are rated and the raters are rated. It also has a type of filtering so that end users can skip low rated remarks or people.

    For a newspaper-like site huffingtonpost may be the best current example. It allows remarks on individual stories. I think remarks are looked at, but I’m not sure. It can get a few hundred comments on a single story which seems to be the limit if real people are going to moderate. So far it seems to be working reasonably well.

    The problem with blogs is that the blog software is too primitive. Everything just goes into a big long scroll, with at most a little threading. Adopting something with ratings and end user filtering would allow readers to set their own threshold for what the wish to see. Newspaper blogs just need to examine the possibilities a little more deeply.

  • Not for nuttin but….
    This is a great discussion and it is proof itself of the value of interactivity. Some people don’t want to see the signal for the noise but it’s there. You all have different experience and perspective and the coming-together is what makes this valuable.

  • Laurence, I’ve never gotten the boot, thank you very much. I still have enough imagination to understand what it must feel like and think it would have to be for a pretty damn good reason for a blog not to tolerate a different personality. Challenging the image would not count nor would expressing an opinion that disagreed. Ask Jeff. We’ve disagreed before. He’s never booted me out (not yet anyway!).

  • ArmstrongG

    …C-SPAN had a good internet ‘Community Forum’ up until the end of 2004.

    C-SPAN management summarily terminated it … and stonewalled any & all inquiries as to ‘why’, or their views as to its success/failure.

    It would seem C-SPAN would be an ideal organization to nurture interactive net forums (… a modern, neutral, public-service media group with no advertisers to please, nor profit-margins to meet… and free to innovate).

    However, C-SPAN obviously found the interactive net-forums experience to be unpleasant and undeserving of support.

    If C-SPAN can’t make it work — who can ??

  • Earth to Noel… I didn’t say “you” ever got the boot. I wrote “when one gets the boot…”

    Also I didn’t suggest that bloggers not “tolerate a different personality.” Quite the opposite I wrote “even contentious commenters can add value.”

    I didn’t ever think that blogs are just like talk radio. Again I wrote, “I personally see blogs a lot like talk radio.” I produced radio talk shows for a living and see several similarities. I agree they are not “exactly” the same. Sheesh.

  • The problem with slashdot as I see it is that while techies like it could be a little complicated for other readers. I also think it encourages people to post for the sake of their moderation/points game rather than the issues.

    Noel: an online community is not a party at a house, its a school playground – or a city – or a club. All of those have rules, by-laws, statutes. Rules arent the only answer but you cant manage an effective online communtiy of the WP scale without them.

    Armstrong G: I maintain it can be done, but there’s no free lunch. You need a hand in it, thats all there is to it.

  • Jorge

    I don’t think a community should fawn and fare over each other. Just be civil and use common sense and courtesy. Ask the tough questions and give fair and truthful answers. The buddy buddy goody goody back and forth crap are at the root of media opinion problems. Sometimes the truth hurts all sides, so what.

  • It’s also hard to moderate transparently. If I moderate out a comment, it just disappears, with no evidence that any comment had ever been there. I’m particularly taken with the Disemvoweler, which leaves troll comments in place but takes out all the vowels — a lighter, funnier touch than just deleting, and transparent in that the author of the comment can see what’s happened to their comment. It doesn’t just disappear.

  • Eileen

    Noel Guinane says:

    “Everyone in your audience can participate, if they choose, providing you don’t have the bad manners to exclude them because they don’t fit in with what you consider your ‘mission’ … or should I say, image, to be.”

    I agree with you.

    And unfortunately, although I agree with much of what Jeff has to say in this post, I have also witnessed a thread where he killed 11 comments. All of them were from conservatives, and I was one of them. As I recall, noone was even profane (certainly not even in the realm of Howard Stern “free speech” profanity).

    I believe Jeff’s ‘mission’ has changed in the year and a half I’ve visited here. It’s his house.

    As for respect, I’ve learned that Jeff treats those who he agrees with with respect.

  • jerry

    I rarely kill comments but I choose to sometimes when someone goes overboard. Oh please, you love killing comments and do it not when someone goes overboard, unless overboard means disagreeing with you. And you lie about why you do so. You were a wanker two years ago, you have even improved on that since then. Congratulations.

  • Eileen

    Addendum re ‘the mission’.

    From my prior post: “I believe Jeff’s ‘mission’ has changed in the year and a half I’ve visited here.”

    When I arrived, Jeff was a purported ‘moderate’ and he supported our Iraqi war efforts. He talked the middle line. Because of that, many conservatives visited and commented here. His comment threads were voluminous. [Yet many jihadis ALSO visited here.] Jeff got MANY MSM appearances as a blog guru as a result of this for his temperate, moderate ‘mission’/stance…

    And then USCentCom arrived in the comment section (in about October if you want to check the archives).

    This was just about the same time that Jeff got his gig with Al Guardian.

    Times have changed, eh?; the mission has changed. No more war posts. No more need for them. No more mention of Iraq the Model or even a mention of Iraq on voting day. (Of course the rest of the left wing blogs didn’t mention purple finger day, either.) No more politics. Back to ‘media’, with Stern “free speech” issues for baseline.

    Got it.

  • Gray

    Great post, Jeff. I knew that you would add some good points to this discussion since you’ve been specializing in the role of interactivity for the media. So it’s no surprise you’re on that discussion panel at WaPo at 13 pm, discussing the “evolving nature of Internet commentary and ethics” (

    Regarding the ombudsman position and moderated threads you wrote: “What we needed instead were police to clean up problems. Our expert showed me that the public would send us alerts to those problems, but only if we responded to their snitching quickly and reliably. It worked.” Pls emphasize this point during that disucssion! WaPo stated it hasn’t been able to clean up the thread, this doesn’t sound very convincing: Blogs like C&L manage to handle a comparable amount of comments every day, hasn’t been able to do the same? Also, WaPo’s response hasn’t been “quickly and reliably” (3 days is a long time in the fast living internet), adding insult to injury. Pls tell them they should try harder!

    “Instapundit” Glenn Reynolds (who’s afraid of comments) will be there, too. I guess this will be interesting :-)

  • an online community is not a party at a house, its a school playground – or a city – or a club. All of those have rules, by-laws, statutes.

    Stefan, rules of what? Rules of speech … what you can and cannot say? I’m not sure that’s something we want to encourage online. I agree big communities need a moderator (if by moderation you mean a tolerant host), but I don’t think rules are useful because there are no hard and fast rules that apply to conversation, or to people voicing their opinions. I still think blogging is like a party at a house and in my view the best of them are open and free houses. Eileen makes an interesting point. I started coming here because of the variety of opinion and the tolerance for it. I don’t know what school you went to when you were a child, but where I went to school, our playground had no rules. It was where children went to escape from the confines of the classroom. Now we’re all grown up, or are supposed to be, and if some of us aren’t, it’s plain for everyone to see. Time and again, I’ve seen trolls ignored or laughed at. The community sorts it out among themselves without ever the need to resort to a policy manual.

  • Interactivity is communication and communication is life.
    Since the first hickup to the last gasp man tries to communicate.
    We are social animals, that is why we have ears and mouth.

    Discussion is but a form of civilization.
    The first men had a very limited way of discussing, mostly with weapons and of course the right was on the side of the physically stronger.
    In one way it is similar with words: the winner is not always the right one, sometimes it is the one who can better present his ideas.

    “Democracy and discussion are messy, like life.”
    Interactivity and discussion ARE LIFE.

  • Gray

    “The problem with blogs is that the blog software is too primitive. Everything just goes into a big long scroll, with at most a little threading. Adopting something with ratings and end user filtering would allow readers to set their own threshold for what the wish to see. Newspaper blogs just need to examine the possibilities a little more deeply.”

    Surely you’re right, Mr. Feinman! :D
    Americablog and C&L for instance quite often have 300+ comments at one post. This makes it very difficult to find responses on comments you posted there. Plus there are some times problems with trolls and it’s hard to find the valuable insights among all the background noise. High volume blogs and especially newspapers should have a better software. Personally, I like the board of german media company (maybe you know their magazine c’t):

    Sorry, german language only, but you see there are several threads in the comment section of this articel about the Disney/Pixar deal. You can sort comments grouped in threads or in the order they were posted and you can expand or minimize threads. Readers may rate the comments, the overall rate is shown with a green or red bar. Also you may filter trolls or commenters you don’t like. OK, only registered users are allowed to post, but this is necessary because of the restrictions of german laws. All in all, a good board system that is working well. Would be nice if blogs with a high rate of comments would use such a software, too.

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  • Maybe some improvements could be made to blog software for big sites, but I don’t think nesting is the answer. What you get with nested comments is lots of mini-conversations sprouting off ‘popular’ comments requiring you to drill down into lots of sub-directories to follow them. Who has the time? When I come across threads with hundreds of comments, I find it easy to pick up the gist of what’s being said and who’s saying it by quickly scrolling through them. I don’t need to be advised what comments I should read or respond to. I can make up my own mind about that.

    My vote is to do nothing to complicate following a conversation by sectioning off some of its comments into sub-directories, something that requires a lot more effort to follow than just zipping through them in a continuous straight line with the scroll bar.

  • Louis

    Xeni Jardin of bOINGbOING was on News Hour talking about this. Ironic because bb does not allow commentary. It’s largest, most glaring fault IMHO. She talked about how they eventually had to shut down comments altogether, but that’s the easy way out. The internets are finally moving away from being an exhibition to being a community, but not on bOINGbOING. Why not bring them back Xeni, Mark, et al.?

  • Gray, Noel, et al:
    I think the UI discussion is interesting on a few fronts.
    How should blog posts, blog comments, and posts linking from other blogs be mixed? What should the role of blog comments be vs. a forum? Should there be a distinction? Is a forum a place where anyone starts any conversation they want and a blog is, by its form and branding, a place where conversations are started (or not) by a blogger or bloggers? And what about chat? Is that more social? Don’t people try to turn forums into chats?
    I don’t know.
    In forums, I was a big fan of threaded conversations (with one important change in software — not just making “RE:…” the headline of each reply but instead leaving the head blank so people put in their own headlines).
    In blog comments, I think threading could be useful in big discussions. But in a discussion such as this, which isn’t so big but is meaty, I’d hate to see the substance of each comment hidden behind a headline.
    There is a need for new frontiers of interactivity UI to be explored on blogs and elsewhere.
    And it gets even more fun when you add in audio, video, IM, etc.

  • Noel: i think rules are useful and necessary as a departure point, as a definition of of tone you expect to set. ive seen some large message boards with different rules for different parts of their forum: i.e., this ones for adults only, this ones family friendly etc. I dont think its unreasonable, especially when any given topic on a newspaper can vary widely, to define a common floor. This in my view was part of Wp’s problem ( and was part of my question/comment I sent for the panel, but didnt get answered…)Brady keeps mentioning rules that werent followed, but in fact I dont see them posted anywhere on WP. If youre going to have them, fine, but dont expect to have them followed if no one knows what they are.

    Newspapers are also scared about liability and defamation issues. MSM will always be seen as having deep pockets to go after, rather than a one man blogger, so the risk is much much greater for a MSM institution. Our lawyers wouldnt let us do comments till we had rules clearly posted. If thats what it takes , so be it – id rather have rules and engage readers, than not, and not.

    But Ive used my rules time and time again. someone gets edited or deleted, they whine why? I cneasily say “go see the rules”. I dont have to explain or justify my reason – its spelled out there. The community does self police to a large extent, but there’s a reference to draw on, and they also are not afraid to call me on it if i get overwhelmed and am not moderating at my best ( and yes by moderating I do mean being a gracious and tolerant host). Which happens. Im at 300 comments a story plus others, still posting breaking news, etc, etc – judgment can falter. They call me on it, thats fine. It helps all of us to have an objective reference post.

    Its about being held to some level of accountability, and establishing a clearly defined basis of trust based on that accountablility. WP is unable to point to a set of rules to help establish that trust: theres nothing to hold the public accountable for their online behavior and there is nothing to hold the Post accountable for moderating fairly.

    Its the basis of Jane’s issue today, incessant as it was. I believe Jim’s answer, btw, having moderated before and been in similar circumstance, but the fact that he cant be accountable for any of it – he cant show rules that werent followed, he cant show WP definitions for “obscene” or “hateful’, or any terms, so of course theres bound to be suspicion and frustration, because it all seems so arbitrary. Youve lost trust.

    Im not sure if he can/will produce the record of deleted comments either (which if made available privately or by request or behind some password protected gate) would answer the charges levelled at him – but keeping a record of all that you do and delete would also be a sign of trust and accountabilty.

    As to threaded or not – I wont impose that arbitrarily, but we’ll let our readrs decide what works best for them. Right now we have the simplest of tools to comment with, and the long discussions g do get hard to scroll on, but when we do a major redesign in a few months we’ll ask the readership and see what they want. Also keep in mind every community may want something different.

    Jeff, you bring up some good points in your first graf of that post. I’d love to offer all of those options to our readers, but Im not sure how to integrate it it all, or if its actually needed ( just because you can, doesnt necessarily mean you should…). Right now Im trying to decide on any benefit for general topic forums, as all we do at the moment is offer commenting on every single article. Do I need to offer a broader focus? How will that integrate with the more targeted discussions based on a specific news story? A lot to think on.

    Gray, Im defintely going to check the link, see how thats done.

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  • Also keep in mind every community may want something different.

    Stefan, that’s true, but online communities that need written rules and regulations in order to function don’t appeal to me. If a lawyer’s advice is needed before people can speak their minds, something’s wrong. Does this mean when I go to my community supermarket, I can’t have a conversation with the cashier or other customers without taking advice from my lawyer or without reading the supermarket’s terms and conditions for cashier and customer conversations? As I said on our blog, are we as adults so incapable of controlling ourselves that we cannot be trusted to walk out our front door without being policed?

  • Alki Joe

    The Spokanesman Review

    prefers to silence any and ALL dissent in its bloggs. It even recently (and illegally) has made false accusations and published libelous commentary in its blogs regarding a group of people that have responded to their blogs.

    The hide behind the right of the electronic media to access Free Speach, yet they refuse to allow the same right to people willing to comment on their reporting.

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  • Tim

    I like your site.
    Blogs with comments windows that you have to click to open keep the dialogue under wraps. Blogs like this one which string comments out in the open are much more proactive about sparking dialogue.

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  • Brent Arsenault

    I believe that interactivity is a necessary learning device for our society. If it were not for interactivity there would be no point in the things we do. Having a person that moderates what comments are being posted are doing exactly what is being spoken above: one-way media. Bozos leave comments all the time and are constantly doing so on my old webspace, but I taught myself to let it be said and use there words as an outlet to anothers opinion. I then think about what they are saying nad compare it my own judgement. I guess you could say I use it as criticism or as a point of disscusion. I figure that this is what interactivity is all about, two-way communication between people via a space, interface, or other types of communication. Interactivity is worth the price because of the discussions that they generate. All and all, i believe this is a very strong discussion about interactivity and one that needs to be talked about on a more regular basis.

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