The other day I noticed some griping on the Vibrant Victoria forum about comments being either deleted or redirected to other discussion threads. That is, it can happen that a discussion thread (for example, Langford’s Skirt Mountain, Bear Mountain, or any other thread) veers off-topic, sometimes with partisan political asides or wild speculation, and the site moderators have to rein commenters in. The moderators will either give a warning or delete the off-topic posts, and then post a reminder along these lines:
The discussion in this thread veered in several directions since it was first started. This is a request to return to discussing ONLY the South Skirt Mountain project. Any side discussions from this point forward, including discussions about environmental organizations, Langford politics or development regulations/practices in Langford will be deleted.
We have dedicated threads elsewhere on this forum that deal with these issues and comments in keeping with those subjects should be left there.
Folks, let’s remember this thread is about construction activity on Bear Mountain. Mentioning the sale of the TB Lightning is permissible given its potential relation to Bear Mountain monies, but this is not the thread to get into sports related discussions. Further posts on this topic will be removed.
Almost always, everyone complies.
Consider what moderators on a well-managed forum do compared to what happens on the daily newspaper’s comments board. Take the story about environmentalists releasing a bunch of chickens in the office of Ida Chong, a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of British Columbia. It appears that the animal rights activists are now ticked off at the environmental activists for using live chickens in their protest against the establishment politician. Hot stuff: a politician who’s often accused of being ineffectual and MIA – and who’s a BC Liberal; environmentalists and animal rights activists; right-left, and so on.
How does the local daily handle comments? (That is, how does it handle comments when it allows comments in the first place? Most stories do not allow comments.)
There appear to be some guidelines in place, but generally the commenters remain anonymous, and very often the discussion (such as it is) devolves to name-calling and overheated rhetoric. There’s the additional problem of comments being held in a “moderation” queue for hours on end, which makes true back-and-forth discussion almost impossible.
People have been complaining, specifically about how the paper censors comments. Aside from finding ways around the automated aspects (swear words are censored out), they’re mocking the censorship – they know it’s all sham:
Ida Chong is lucky they didn’t accuse her of being an aZZ. She could be knee deep in doodoo.
You know, the program that censors these comments is absurd. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t censor the word ri’dic’ulous. (source – posted by anonymous at 9:48pm on March 25)
More vehement comments critiquing the paper’s censorship have come up, but since I’ve become almost a non-reader of both the pablum articles as well as the often berserk comments they spawn, it would take me too long to find the ones that really zinged, so the above example, relatively gentle, will have to suffice.
I still bring myself to read an article if it’s about an issue I care about, and I’ll go through the comments just for a sense of the vox populi. But every time I ask myself: what is wrong with people? Why are the comments on the Times-Colonist daily newspaper site often so vicious and ill-thought-out and just plain ignorant, while the discussion on a forum like Vibrant Victoria always gets back on track, even if there’s the occasional silliness or derailment?
For a while, my take was that the ventilating ranters on the Times-Colonist comments board should just go and rant on a blog of their own if they object to the paper’s control. When I noticed a Vibrant Victoria forumer complaining the other day about moderation, I again thought, “Get your own blog, vent there.” You can even come back on the forum and post a link to your post! I’ve seen Dave Winer tell some people on his comments board to take it to their own blogs instead of trying to argue it out on his – and that’s absolutely right. It’s what makes the most sense, and can help the conversation go deeper and have diverse anchor points, too.
I was still stumped, however, as to why there’s typically such a huge difference in quality between comments on a good forum (or a good blog) and most of what passes for comments on a daily newspaper.
So, for an answer to that question, turn to Zombie Journalism‘s March 23 entry, Anonymity isn’t to blame for bad site comments, it’s a lack of staff interaction. Bingo – the title alone explains it. (Huge hat-tip to John Speck, aka Frymaster, of The Bucket Blog and Real Advertising for leading me to this entry.)
Zombie Journalism concludes that it’s not anonymity that lets commenters go off the rails. It’s lack of site moderation – whether by a blog owner moderating his or her comments board or a forum’s moderators doing the same …or a newspaper staff using human beings to shepherd the conversation.
It can’t be automated.
Here are the three concluding paragraphs (abridged, click through to read the whole thing):
A moderator is always online -and there is an indication of this that shows up on the forum. The moderator regularly participates in discussion, responds to questions and, most importantly, will give warnings publicly when they are needed. It’s not uncommon to see a gentle “Hey guys let’s try to get this back on topic” or “I had to remove a few posts that got pretty heated, try to keep it civil, folks”. (…)
Contrast this with the moderator involvement on most news sites. Most users don’t even know a staffer was reading their comments until they are removed. Chances are most users don’t know a site’s moderators until they get a warning. (…) Community interaction is not a top-level priority to most news outlets – and that’s the real problem.
We as an industry like to collectively wring our hands about the toxicity of online comment boards, but if we really want to improve the quality of on-site discussion we need to be willing to get involved in our sites in a hands-on manner. (…) (source)
Click through and read the comments, too (including Frymaster’s). These paragraphs hit on all the typical problems in the daily newspaper’s comments board: you post a comment and it’s like throwing something into a black hole. Your comment might appear …in an hour, or maybe in six. It might appear truncated or mangled – and there’s nothing you can do to correct it. It might take so long to appear, it’s no longer relevant. You have no idea whether or not there’s actually a human being taking it in, which in turn prompts the escalation of verbal outrage that’s so characteristic here. The spittle-flecked frothing-at-the-mouth ranter is probably someone who has never been listened to anyway, and in a comments board environment that suggests the absence of human moderation, his (or sometimes her) “outrage” finds its true home and amplification.
Contrast that to the immediacy of posting to a forum like Vibrant Victoria, which is well-moderated. You see your comment immediately. You can edit it for a short while after posting. It becomes part of a community conversation, not a verbal tennis match. If you make trouble by stepping over the line (whether in terms of going too far off-topic or being offensive), you’ll hear about it: there’s feedback, there are consequences.
It’s true that anonymity isn’t the defining marker of whether or not conversations will be constructive. The defining marker is ownership, embodied by people, aka moderators. Forums like Vibrant Victoria have it. The newspapers, on the other hand, not so much.