Open and shut: Moderation and message boards on Guardian.co.uk & Sky

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 27 October 2010

On Comment Is Free this week there has been a panel debate about the way that the site is moderated. The opening positions come from editor Natalie Hanman, a moderator, readers Jay Reilly and Tim Skellett and the lawyers.

Rather like a similar recent thread asking about the future of the site, it has sparked a huge response, with over 800 comments at the time of writing. It makes for absolutely fascinating reading if you've ever been involved in large scale Internet communities, with every range of view on show, from those who think there should be no moderation to those who would like to see threads more tightly kept on topic.

It takes time and careful management to nurture communities across news site, where, as I've argued before, a general interest in 'news' is very weak glue compared to, say, a community based around a niche interest. GNM is currently recruiting on that front - looking for two community coordinators to work in the news area:

"We are looking for two talented people to manage and develop community interaction within the News sections of guardian.co.uk. You will act as a host for conversations on the site, working closely with journalists and users. The role requires an extensive knowledge of social networking tools and experience in creating communities in an editorial context."

The moderator's point of view in that panel was put anonymously. They sit in front of a constant hosepipe of abusive comments, and for understandable reasons try to remain anonymous and outside of the community. You only have to see how one Blizzard moderator had their personal details plastered all over the net as a protest against the proposed imposition of 'real names' of the World Of Warcraft forums to see how exposed moderators could be.

There are some examples, however, of moderators on big news sites breaking cover.

Paul Wakely at the BBC has tried to make their large-scale moderation process more transparent, with a three part series on legal issues, and an open thread moderation surgery.

There was also a very interesting blog post called "Confessions of an online moderator" on the ABC site recently. Maybe reading it should be a compulsory part of the registration process for commenting on news sites. The anonymous ABC moderator wrote:

"Personally, I think you might all consider taking some pride in the fact that whatever your political persuasion, creed or race, showing up at Unleashed and being prepared to comment, being passionate about your own beliefs and interested enough to take part in the online debate means that you are choosing to join in. To care about the world you are part of. Pat yourselves and each other on the back and keep your community nice, tidy up after yourselves, and be polite to your neighbours"

This openness and transparency makes for a contrast with another news community story that emerged this week - Sky News throwing in the towel on their messageboards.

"Although the boards were very popular, a small number of people had hijacked them and reduced the level of debate to meaningless abuse. At Sky News we welcome robust debate about the news, but we want it to be of a high standard. I am afraid that too often on the discussion boards threads which started intelligently would degenerate into mindless name calling."

I've blogged once before about Sky's message boards, back in February 2008, when an algorithm designed to protect the site from hackers inadvertently meant users were able to maliciously block each other's accounts, and I still get mail from people who have found that post via Google and think that I can somehow help them with their Sky accounts.

I'm always sorry to see a news site drop community features though. It either means that Sky didn't value their community building enough to invest the right amount of time and effort into it, or it means that a small band of trolls got their way and disrupted a community into extinction.

Either way that is sad.

As I've written before, as frustrating as they can sometimes be, I miss readers' comments when they aren't there.

10 Comments

Thanks for this post. My mid-size community newspaper is experimenting with how to provide moderation of online comments without a single position dedicated to the task. Leaving every reporter in charge of moderating comments on their own stories has led to site-wide inconsistencies and spotty moderation, at best. Reporters do post under their real names, however, which provides more authentic interaction.

Have any news orgs experimented with community-sourced moderation? I've seen several sites using badges and such to promote self-policing of comments.

Being an online moderator seems like a bit of a thankless task. I imagine that the amount of nonsense that one has to wade through must be quite deep in addition to the potential for being abused online. I applaud those who are able to conduct this task in a fair and impartial manner and through their efforts increase the supply of useful information available on the internet.

Too much moderation can stifle a community, but it definitely is needed, and with some accountability. I've known too many communities which have fallen down to both too much trolling and to abuse by moderators. The key, from the sites that I've seen, is building a strong and engaged community, with trustworthy moderators (not bots and scripts!). A strong community will often be vigilant in reporting trolls, meaning less work for the moderators. I don't think real names for moderators are necessary as long as there's an avenue for reporting those who abuse their power (and which users know will be follow up on).

Thanks for your comments. I think this is a growing issue as so many people are not only flocking to websites, but wanting to participate in them. One of my favorite football sites needs heavy moderation due to the amount of abuse that streams in. It's really a shame when a small group of people can ruin it for the rest, as is the case with The Guardian.

Internet communities would never survive without moderation. I can tell you that.

Wow, you've higlighted the serious amount of effort required in building a community. I realise now that these things don't 'just happen'. You have to put work into them. I've added a forum at one of my sites, it gets quite a bit of traffic and I posted a blog post to announce it's launch, but its difficult to get going, getting people to start posting is the problem I have here.

It always seem to be the few that spoil it for the many. poor.

The online moderators' job is really tricky, on the one hand they have to censor commuities visitors, but on the other hand they have to stimulate participation in order to maintain the place worth a return visit and committed interaction.

Keep up to date on my new blog