The comments conundrum – a manager’s viewpoint

As the executive producer of a couple of Australia’s most popular sports-related websites, I’m always keen to read about the trends of online content consumers. That’s why I was particularly interested to read Anil Dash’s piece recently not only on the merits of comments on websites, but also the moral fibre of those publishers that allow many of them to be published unfiltered.

Dash argues that too often, comments are a waste of server space, and the rules governing what’s allowed through online are vastly different to those that govern not only other media, but life in general.

“You should make a budget that supports having a good community, or you should find another line of work,” he writes.

“Every single person who’s going to object to (adequate moderation resourcing) is going to talk about how they can’t afford to hire a community manager, or how it’s so expensive to develop good tools for managing comments. Okay, then save money by turning off your web server. Or enjoy your city where you presumably don’t want to pay for police because they’re so expensive.”

I couldn’t agree more. I manage The World Game and Cycling Central for Australian television broadcaster SBS. The World Game, the country’s most popular football website, is particularly susceptible to the types of trolls Dash refers to, since football fans generally love to shout before they’ve thought. That’s not unique to our website, though. Go to any football match, or sport fixture generally, and I guarantee at some point during the contest you’ll hear vitriolic abuse directed at one team from another. That’s not going to change, no matter whether you think it right or wrong.

Everything in moderation
We moderate all our content at SBS, meaning we do our very best to filter out any foul-mouthed tirades before they’re published on the front end. Supporting a sports team is, of course, tribal in its nature and while I admire the passion of our readers in particular, I do often wonder if we should allow them a platform for their nonsense.

We closed an old-school forum when the website was redesigned in 2009/2010 for that very reason. It was out of control, too time consuming to administer and quite frankly a horrible cesspit of racial vilification, sexist avatars, sectarian and many mindless morons with cowardice at the heart of their moral fibre. While that handful of its users moaned and whined at the loss of their forum, our best option was to kill it.

Dash’s closing statement is absolutely right.

“If your website is full of assholes, it’s your fault. And if you have the power to fix it and don’t do something about it, you’re one of them.”

Hopefully, he thinks I’m all right off the back of that decision.

Comments can effect judgement
We still have to deal with a lot of comments on the websites, which we allow under most of our content. While it’s all pre-moderated, it still takes up a lot of time. But I’ve had some journalists live by the amount of comments they receive. One in particular believed that because the volume of comments on his work was so high, he deserved some sort of higher placing among our contributors. He completely missed the fact that 80 per cent of the comments on his stories were angry, hate-filled diatribes – in many cases directed at him and the merits of his journalistic skills or otherwise. Of course he didn’t see what we didn’t publish, but forever pushed the “lively discussion” line, unfettered and disobedient when we pleaded with him to change tack.

At times he was so blinded by the volume of chatter around his content that he failed to see its lack of quality, so much so that ultimately it began to affect his own writing, and he became consumed with stirring up the hornets’ nest of readers that followed him, without understanding the consequences to both his own reputation and that of the website.

How to make it work
What pointed me to Dash’s piece was an article published on AdAge that stated 63 per cent readers don’t even care about comments. That figure was skewed somewhat by older users, whose uptake of social tools online is arguably less than the younger generation that has grown up with it, but it remains an interesting statistic. I won’t dissect the research here – they’ve done a good enough job of that in the story which you can read.

I firmly believe that there is a place for user interaction on our websites, no matter how hard it might be to manage, but as Dash hints, we have to allow it to manifest in the proper manner and manage it appropriately so as to not offend or marginalise our readership, which is ultimately more important than any contributor we employ – past, present or future. If they’re happy, so are we, and we’ll always listen to them first because they’re the lifeblood of what we do.

Both pieces I’ve pointed to here will certainly be at the forefront of my mind when time comes again to upgrade our communities at SBS and decide how best to allow our readers to contribute their own voices to the platforms we provide. I thank the authors and researchers for the time spent putting them together.

Oh, and by all means feel free to comment on this piece, too. But be aware … I pre-moderate.

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