Can Social Media save commenting? #killcomments

In the weeks since I wrote about killing comments and explored my own theory for what lies behind online misogyny (and beyond), prompted by the inspiring discussions of @helenlewis and @pennyred, I’ve tried to explore how my suggestion – that social media membership could regulate comment – might work.

I got into a lot of discussions about why it could or couldn’t work. I discovered that actually both the Independent and the Telegraph are already offering socially linked commenting. Although the Telegraph’s choice to also host a simple email sign-up method does undermine any of the effect I might desire from attempting to make commenters accountable.

Jack Riley is the Head of Digital Audience & Content Development of the Independent, i and the Evening Standard. Despite being as busy as his incredo-jobtitle suggests, he kindly agreed to answer some of the questions I had about what impact socially linked comments have had on the Independent website.

Jack points out that the Independent does use Disqus – a site building communities based on comment threads – as a login, and that this effectively provides an email-only sign-up method for commenting. 

Q: Have comments and the debates on your comments fields improved?

Jack: Definitely – though the majority of commenters don’t use a social identity, having even a minority [of] people who do has a real qualitative effect on the tone of the discussion, and makes anonymous sniping and trolling less common.

Do you moderate in much the same way or is there better feedback to commenters?

J: We moderate in the same way as previously, but we also have a flagging function, whereby if a comment has been flagged by the community a certain number of times it’s automatically unpublished for a moderator to review.

What about banning, or when abusive comments are posted – are there any consequences through Twitter or Facebook, or are they limited to your website?

J: There aren’t any consequences outside of our commenting system for banned users.

For instance, can you ban someone so comprehensively that they simply wouldn’t be able to comment ever again?

J: No, that’s not possible with Disqus – you can find more about their system at http://disqus.com/about and http://docs.disqus.com.

I’d love to have more time to talk with Jack about the reaction there has been from commenters themselves. The blogpost in which he originally announced the change to their commenting system has just one comment – “Great news” – which is hard to believe as representative of all users at the time.

I’m at an impasse to some degree, in that what comes next is a lot of hard work – I can’t just postulate any longer. I need to know what’s really happening, if there’s really been a change, and what the users actually think. WordPress has pleasingly released a FB/Twitter linked comment system, and I’d be very interested to read your own reactions and thoughts below.

For the time being, though, I’ve done a rough and ready exploration of what’s going on out there. First, crudely, I’m going to look at some of the comments on the ‘Most Commented’ list on the Independent’s home page.

The articles are significantly focused on various EU shebangs and Cameron’s veto. One story (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/unemployment-total-hits-17year-high-6276704.html) has 149 comments at 3pm today.

I counted around three Facebook users and two Twitter users, whose profile you can access by clicking their name.  In addition, you can click on an avatar and it brings up a window populated by Disqus-provided information, so you can see Indy commenters also commenting on Telegraph stories and other similarly powered websites.

There are lots of facetious comments, statements of fact relating to bungled Government decisions, and the brandishing of statistics, hyperbole and strained metaphors (eg, “Inflation is a suicide, when it starts it’s difficult to stop it”). But overall commenters are displaying their opinions without resorting to shouting people down.

Brilliantly, there’s even a post where a commenter has censored the word “shit”.

There are thousands of further comments on the other articles, and I’m not about to go through each one. But briskly passing over them gives the same impression – a few Facebook users, a few Twitter users, a smattering of sarcastic comment (largely directed at the Government) but generally a calm tide of commenting.

It’s also clear that there’s a lot of reading going on, not just writing. The fields structure as threads with replies indented out, and people obviously come back, check and reread and then respond. It also took me a while to find any insults, and then only between commenters, and even then at a charmingly tame level. No threats of violence here.

I was interested to see one commenter pointing to the amount of comments by first-timers, suggesting that these were ‘sock-puppets’ purposefully getting in the way of a proper debate. Purely socially linked comments (or a FB/Twitter requirement or stricter sign-up by Disqus) could be a great way of avoiding even the possibility of this. If it really does happen on any scale, which I honestly don’t believe.

Then I went looking for Opinion pieces – surely where there would be trolling, if it still existed on the Indy’s website. A Mark Steel article? Generally just amused comment and appreciation. What about an article titled “Please keep out of gay bars and clubs”. Which is, amusingly enough, being commented on now despite first appearing in 2002.

The oldest comment (from just a week ago) is a strongly worded response, though without any expletives, just with sheer anger and disbelief. It’s also a Facebook linked comment. And further down there are far more Facebook/Twitter/Google+ linked accounts here than in the news section.

As it happens, the article itself has the tone of a pissed-off commentator who just wants other people to stop stepping on them, or their life choice. It isn’t an attack-piece, but it is hardly worthwhile reading, doesn’t really offer beyond a complaint and showcases some fairly closed-minded thinking.

But there’s no trolling, no attacking, and when people disagree they are overwhelmingly doing so at the same time as providing the reasons for why they disagree. There’s no ad-hom kicks. There is one comment which has been removed, but the followup suggests that it was removed because the author realised how old the article was.

When I have the energy, I’ll go through and do the same thing on the Telegraph. But, peeking at the links I’ve picked up already, I’m not looking forward to it.

Thanks to @_JackRiley and @helenlewis

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About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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