Anonymous comments and the mythical Facebook fix: Jen Eyer’s TEDx talk

In this video, Jen Eyer makes the case for anonymous comments. I have been a fan of her work with comment moderation for several years; she made MLive’s comment area into what I hoped cleveland.com would be when it grew up.

MLive isn’t perfect. But perfection isn’t possible — not even if you “require” real names, not even if you require a Facebook login. As Eyer notes in her speech to TEDx Kalamazoo, a study that looked at a variety of sites, some allowing anonymous comments and others requiring real names, found 50% of the comments on the anonymous sites were objectionable — but so were 30% of those on the real-name sites.

The percentage on MLive is, by my rough estimates, well below 30%, even though parent Advance Digital does not require real names and has a very leaky registration system. Even at cleveland.com, when I was in charge of comments on stories there, our percentage of objectionable comments in total — not just the ones that got past our initial screen, but counting those we had spiked as well — hovered around 10%.

Eyer says she has a three-part approach to managing the comment community: govern, engage and evolve.

Govern: Like her, we at The Plain Dealer believed that only through hands-on, local monitoring and consistent enforcement of the rules can you take control of a comment stream. As I said in a previous post, good moderation takes a commitment of resources. But it is an essential part of a news organization’s role in a community. Enforcement of the rules isn’t enough; users need to see that moderation is taking place, and need to understand how the rules are being applied.

A fine example of how not to moderate comments was the great Tim Tebow Comment War of 2011. Briefly: ESPN commenters felt that the organization had become a bit too fawning in its coverage of the genuflecting QB. They started hitting a story about him with comments along the lines of “Chris Mortensen confirming with his sources the Joe Schad report from his sources that this comment thread is being trolled>Tebow” and “Finding out that your new neighbors are actual sharks > Tebow.” ESPN’s comment moderators took the comments down. More comments appeared. The moderators struck back. I dropped in on the war at one point and watched with bemusement as comments flashed onto the screen and blinked off, the moderators just nanoseconds behind their enemies.

There were two big problems with this: First, the comments were neither offensive nor off-topic, and were in fact far more interesting than what ESPN actually had to say itself about Tebow. Second, ESPN simply picked off comments like a crazed video gamer, firing at anything on the screen that moved.

I had my own running battles with cleveland.com commenters, but during most of them I at least tried to explain what was happening. If anyone contacted me directly with questions about comment moderation, I answered — at least the first two or three times a particular user asked the same questions.

Engage: MLive’s reporters are required to enter the comments on their stories. They’re encouraged not just to answer reader questions there, but to ask questions to try to steer the conversation. We had less success in getting PD reporters to do the same. It doesn’t always work, but Eyer notes one case where a discussion of gay marriage resulted in no comment deletions at all because the reporter led the discussion into civil channels. It can work.

Jen Eyer's posts about controversial topics set out clear, thoughtful guidelines for commenters.

Jen Eyer’s posts about controversial topics set out clear, thoughtful guidelines for commenters.

Evolve: Users come to a site with expectations about the comments — some based on what the site was like in the past, some based on other sites they’ve visited. It can take a long time to establish a new policy. Eyer talks about moving from one target to another — first concentrating on eliminating the -isms (racism, sexism, etc.), then personal attacks, and so on. That’s a lesson I learned over time, too.

She also posts long discussions of the right way to discuss controversial topics. Will those change the behavior of the worst trolls? No. But the worst trolls aren’t the problem with online comments. They’re few and become easy to spot. The real problem is the easily influenced — people who adjust their standards to fit the lowest remarks on the site. You can get through to them, and that helps crowd out the hardcore trolls.

All of this takes time, and people, and an iron will. But the result is a thriving comment community. When the comments work, you get tips on news stories. When comments work, community leaders come in and talk directly to their constituents. When comments work, controversial subjects produce thoughtful discussions.

None of those things happen — or they happen much more rarely — when sites decide to take the lazy way out and “require” real names. That, Eyer argues, violates “a basic tenet of journalism, which is to give voice to the voiceless. … It is the voiceless who are hurt most by these policies.”

Watch the video for her full argument, with studies to back it up.

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