May 15, 2009

Surprises unnecessary in "comment here"

FrazzComments online intrigue me and a Frazz comic inspires me to speak up today.

I'm a gray person who often wears rose-colored glasses so it is as hard for me to completely dismiss all comments as useless as it is to see news organizations abandon acquired skills of managing and monitoring community conversations just because the mode of delivery changed.

Let's start with the what and move onto where.

Life is a series of patterns and the Internet is no different. Stay online long enough and you know that some people will always say the same thing, that some themes will prompt certain responses and that the time of year can influence what's being said.

That's also what I learned by reading printed letters to the editor. And, oh my, those ideas were hammered home the three times my work obligations included sorting and picking what to print.

I get to decide

So over the years, I've learned that people will say and believe just about anything. That helps me decide where I want to read comments and when I want to jump into the fray.

I also have learned that only some sites or some parts of sites are more likely to offer "some kind of Socratic discourse" so if that's what I want now that's where I go. Unfortunately, I rarely find that I'm going to places hosted by news sites even when I want discussion about the news.

Wasted talent

Many news sites started by print organizations do not use their years of experience handling discussion on opinion pages effectively online. Perhaps it is a matter of letting the medium frighten them into not using their developed skills, time and talent.

I'm not alone in my amazement as a recent Online-News discussion revealed so I can only hope that those who can make changes read "why comments suck" and "if you're not doing comments right, you shouldn't do them at all."

Howard Owens
has suggested comments might be like the mother-in-law who won't shut up at Thanksgiving dinner.
"She seems necessary, after all she brought the pie, but she really isn't very entertaining and sometimes offensive. And she's probably the main reason your sister and her family decided to stay with her husband's parents."
Improve comments, not mother-in-law

Owens wisely sticks with the possible by sharing ideas on how to improve comments:
  • Make one person responsible for watching over the community conversation,
  • Require all writers to read and respond,
  • Get rid of libelous statements quickly,
  • Make sure community knows you take conversation seriously and
  • Require real names.
Dan Conover also suggested that something as simple as allowing pictures or avatars can help improve the quality of comments by cementing identities. Sometimes, knowing that public comments are associated with your online personality and reputation is enough to stop what some of us consider ridiculous comments.

Actions guide outcomes

Conover says comments suck because news sites:
  • Don't value them,
  • Don't touch them,
  • Don't have time,
  • Are afraid and
  • Are not a community
But Conover offers hope by suggesting news sites improve their comments. For those with good tools, improvements might start simply by wiping out the old comments ("rebooting the system") and investing staff time. Think of reallocating some of the letters editor time online. He also suggests:
  • get better tools and learn to use them,
  • stop making excuses and
  • learn to talk to people.

Transforming comments into gold

Talking (and listening) to people is what got The Plain Dealer's Robert Schoenberger on the Beatbloggers Leaderboard without a blog. Patrick Thornton explained:
"Schoenberger wrote a story about UAW rallies in downtown Cleveland, where workers called on Washington to protect GM and Chrysler plants in the area. The story drew heated comments on both sides, because of the contentious nature of this issue. Many commenters don’t believe the auto industry should be singled out for a bailout, while other industries sink."
Thornton said The Plain Dealer recently called on reporters to interact more, and this story shows why interaction can help make a better product.
"Schoenberger enters the comments and provides additional facts and figures. His presence helped make the comments less volatile, despite this being a topic with passionate people on both sides. Most of all, however, he helped make better journalism by directly responding to claims made by commenters."
Go away, please

Read the Leaderboard for more insights into what the reporter is doing with comments as an illustration of why news sites investing time on comments is worth the time, talent and money.

I encourage you to read Xark's Why comment suck and "If you're not doing comments right, you shouldn't do them at all."

Still have time? Head over to Nancy Nall's post on The Whatever BBQ but finish up with the comments on Snow Flu Day to see how community conversations can become as interesting as the original post.

Consider also spending some time on the Save the Media post reacting to the Wall Street Journal rules for social media.

What's in your reader?

Meanwhile, I'll ponder why so few folks who stumble through here ever comment in public and wonder what Jef Mallet, who creates Frazz, and the Stephan Pastis, who creates Pearls Before Swine, are reading online.


  1. Comments are the most difficult part of my blog. The people (for the most part) interested in stopping by my blog are in some way still connected to the newspaper business. If not, they still have friends in it and for them to be frank and direct (use their real names) is not practical or desirable.

    When I comment elsewhere I always do so with my blog name and link, so people know who I am.

    I use the reject button infrequently, but I'm not afraid to use it. It's not really a hard call, when people threaten violence or run down a person personally (he sucks, he's an idiot, that kind of thing) the comments are gone.

    As much as possible I ask folks not to use real names of people, especially if they are commenting anonymously. I have to admit to a little unease about the anonymity of many commenters.

    After a career of having my name out front and not hiding behind anonymity I find it hard to accept that others are not willing to be out in front. That said, I know my comment count would shrink by 90 percent if I did not allow anonymous comments.

    What I wish people would do is at least pick a fake name like "Derring-do 1997" so that we could at least connect the dots when they comment again.


  2. Some great ideas about comments. To me the most important one is for the blogger to engage the commenters and respond back. I try to do this on both my blogs, and I do find it helps deter the creation of comment ghettos.

    If a comment is over-the-top, delete it. But some are just stupid. I wouldn't delete them, but when you respond in a thoughtful but straightforward way, you sort of put the person on their guard. "Hey, we don't act like that around these parts."

    I also find that other commenters will step in an police the bad apples.

  3. Jim:
    I agree it would help if anonymous folks would adopt nicknames but I don't think most folks realize they have that option in blogger.

    Your guidelines seem to keep most conversations civil. Plus posting your email gives folks a way to contribute directly.

    Thanks for the comments (again)
    Mary Ann

  4. Gina
    Thanks for commenting. I like your idea of making sure you participate in conversations. Otherwise, it seems like preaching to me and there's enough of that.

    On some sites, I get frustrated when only some questions/comments get answered. Of course, I understand delays :) But when I see later comments discussed, it makes me feel unwanted on a site.
    I think it is important to recognize a comment was made - at least privately.

    Mary Ann