Friday, 1 August 2008

Comments on articles - desirable bar the undesirables

As Adam reports, we had an interesting exchange yesterday about journalists' discomfort with comments on articles.

Part of this discomfort is almost certainly a reaction to the unfamiliarity of being so exposed to criticism and/or feedback. I am reminded of Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington's first foray into blogging. Because he's Michael Billington and because they could, people laid into him and one can imagine the poor man's confidence being justifiably shaken by the whole thing.

As Adam points out, the problem for national newspapers' online audience is that they are not and can never be communities.

I hope that Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik won't mind me borrowing their famous and beautiful explanation (right) for bad behaviour.

Anyway, I hope that for most of the journalists the shock will pass and they will harden up. I vividly remember the first angry comment I received on a blog of mine and how shaken I was. But what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger (although it sometimes crushes you actually).

Anyway, the point of this post (at last!) is to reflect on what can be done - not only for the sake of the poor journalists but also for the visitor and the brand.

Et voila! Powazek offers 10 Ways Newspapers Can Improve Comments

  1. Require Accounts
  2. Set and Enforce Rules
  3. Employ a Community Manager
  4. Sculpt the Input
  5. Empower the Community to Help
  6. Link Stories to Comments
  7. Enable Private Communication
  8. Participate …
  9. … But Don’t Feed the Trolls
  10. Give Up Control
Now, I don't quite agree quite with all of these because I don't think newspaper websites are or can be communities.

But the comments underneath the post give some fantastic additional insights which I utterly agree with. For example
  • Do not give any truck to users who are unable to distinguish between "freedom of speech" and the freedom to be an offensive arsehole on someone else's website (I'm paraphrasing with that one)
And these recommendations from Robin Hamman:
  • a clearly defined purpose for hosting the discussion
  • a clearly defined set of rules - and staff or super-users empowered to use them
I think these are key. I really don't think publishers need to do so much hand-wringing about democratising comment. It's not a community; it's a website; it's their website. It may be interactive, it may be a "social medium" by virtue of the interactivity, but it's not a community.

It's your website. Set firm but fair rules about conduct and deal with transgressors of the rules firmly and fairly.

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