Comments and character counts: Changes to "blogs" at the BBC
I’ve written before about how one of the interesting things about social media is the ability to watch reaction unfold to design changes on other people’s services - correspondence that would previously have happened by private letter or email. This time around it is the recent changes to the BBC News blogging platform that have caught my eye. Adam Tinworth has described them as a road crash.
One of the most notable changes has been reducing the maximum length of a user comment to 400 characters - less than three tweets worth. It makes the character limit on Comment Is Free - 5,000 - seem positively generous. In fact, a recent discussion about what changes should be made to Comment Is Free turned up some users asking us to reduce it.
One deeply cynical reading of the limit would be that it was designed to provoke a backlash. It is relatively trivial to change the line of code that says:
10 LET max_num_char=400
10 LET max_num_char=800
and announce that you’ve listened to audience feedback - whilst neatly side-stepping any other issues that have been brought up by the users.
More fairly, if you are going to impose a limit, there really is only one direction of travel you can go. The BBC can increase the limit a couple of times until the fuss dies down. What it couldn’t do was put a limit of 1,000 in, and then gradually shave characters off until they got to the sweet spot that speeds up their moderation process, but doesn’t cause community outrage.
Robert Peston has explicitly cited cost as the reason behind the change, and moderation efficiency is presumably the reason.
It is in many ways quite a simplistic argument that shorter comment length makes for faster moderation, since it assumes that the community is going to behave in a certain way. There is a risk that with a shorter commenting space people are blunter at getting to the point, possibly increasing moderation, and it isn’t going to take long for BBC users to come up with some short-hand to indicate that they are chaining several short comments together into one long one. That may, in fact, increase moderation complexity.
Whatever the outcome, the 400 character limit will change community behaviour, which is always impacted when you introduce a functional change. Your software, to a certain extent, dictates the shape of your community interaction, which is why it is one of the most delicate areas to design and program for.
At the Guardian, for example, we recently made a small change to the commenting platform. To reduce page weight and loading times on the heavily viewed live blogs, we switched off the ability to “see all comments” once there were more than 500 of them.
Unfortunately the Readers Recommend community relied on that piece of functionality to be able to view all comments and do a CTRL+F search to see if their track choice had already been nominated. Inadvertently, whilst 99% of the Guardian’s user base didn’t seem to notice the change at all, the software was totally disrupting one of our lovelier bits of niche community interaction. We had to go back to the drawing board to find a new solution.
Back at the BBC, Giles Wilson updated his blog post about the changes on Friday to directly address the issue of comment length:
In my original post I said I thought a character limit made for sharper comments, and I do believe that, but I also want to emphasise that it’s certainly not our intention to encourage people to dumb down their contributions, as some of you fear. Others say that the changes will make debate harder.
We are trying to maximise the editorial value of contributions but we do not have unlimited resources to do this. Since it’s less efficient to moderate longer comments than shorter ones, length is one of the factors we are taking into account. Making these changes is not an exact science. It is something we are keeping under review, though, so please don’t think that your complaints have gone unnoticed.
I’d say “Watch that space”.
Incidentally, if you are interested in the history of the BBC’s blogging efforts, then in 2007 I wrote a series of blog posts describing their development up to that point - “Blogging at the BBC”