The only way to good comments after news stories is to actively care about getting good comments — not by forcing people to use real names when leaving comments.
Take a look at the comments after many nytimes.com stories. It takes a combination of setting a clear tone of what comments should be like, active moderation of tasteless comments and allowing a community to vote up the best and to hide the worst.
Slashdot, a site filled with young, argumentative boys and men, has a strong commenting community. The comments are the main event. And it most people post under handles, not real names. It takes good tools and policies to make a strong comment community.
Requiring real names will do nothing to create a good comment community. First, you would be surprised at how many people will leave a tasteless, racist, bigoted, idiotic, conspiracy theorist, etc. comment under their real name. It’s shocking, but Facebook commenting has shown us that people using their real names attached to actual social networking profiles — complete with family and work information — is not enough to stop people from leaving terrible comments.
And let us not forget that anonymous and pseudonymous comments are important. Some people can contribute important information to a conversation, but can’t or won’t use their real names. Perhaps there are professional concerns with their employer or personal concerns with people stalking them. People have all kinds of reasons for using anonymous and pseudonymous names online and many of them are quite legitimate.
I was one of those people who thought that requiring people to use their Facebook account, and thus a real name in the vast majority of cases, could lead to better comments. It has not. All it does is prevent some people from commenting.
Compare the commenting communities on a blog to a random news website. A quick look will tell you that just caring and being engage is half the battle.
Here are some quick tips for better commenting communities:
- Be a part of the community — If editors and writers are not a part of the commenting community, almost assuredly the comments will go to hell. It’s kind of like abandoning your house and expecting it to be kept up. If you don’t care, don’t expect people who don’t own your house or your news site to care about your property. Part of a writer’s job should be to interact with commenters after stories, answer questions and dispel FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). When commenters know a writer actually reads their comments, their behavior changes. They don’t want to be judged negatively. They’ll also be much more likely to ask questions and start conversations.
- Reward good comments — When a user leaves a good comment, call it out. Let people know that you and your news organization appreciates thoughtful feedback. This could be as simple as leaving a response to that comment or as much as starting a comment of the day section where you highlight thoughtful comments.
- Allow users to leave feedback — Allow users to rate comments and flag them. Show users the highest rated comments and hide the really bad ones.
- Wield the ban hammer — Ban trolls, racists, bigots and other people who only want to contribute negatgively. Do everything in your power to ban them and make sure they never come back.
- Never feed the trolls — Don’t engage them — that’s what they want. They want to see you angry. Either ban them or mute their posts so that only they can see them. When they stop getting a rise out of people, they’ll leave.
- Maybe not all stories need comments — A lot of crime stories don’t really need comments, and they lead to poor comments from users. If you see a particular class of stories that constantly has issues, take down the ability to comment on them.
- Comments should be a part of your editorial product and mission — If you don’t know what this means, get rid of comments.
Some further reading on commenting:
- Bloggers, reporters handle user comments differentlyon new sites
- You can disable comments on stories that you believe will be overrun with tasteless comments
- Plain Dealer creates new comment policy, encourages staffers to interact