How Facebook comments do/don’t increase/decrease* trolling for news websites [*Delete as applicable]

 by Martin Belam, 24 January 2013

Whether news sites should or shouldn’t use the Facebook comment plug-in or Facebook identity seems to have been a recurring theme in the last few days.

The Nieman Journalism Lab called it a “movement”, which seems quite a grand term for two sites announcing similar but different things on the same day, but both Politico and TechCrunch are opting to move their commenting systems away from Facebook. At the very same time, waves were being created in the UK as the newly-relaunched Manchester Evening News shifted to a commenting system that required users to have a Facebook account. At the heart of all this is the old canard — would forcing users to comment with something closer to their real identity reduce instances of trolling?

It seems to me that what Politico and TechCrunch have in common is a stubborn belief that the quality of debate underneath their articles would improve if only they could find the right commenting platform.

At Politico, Dylan Byers is putting his faith in technology:

“Disqus gives you the ability to up-vote and down-vote comments and thread responses. By default, high quality comments will filter to the top, and poor quality ones will not show up on the page.”

A view immediately debunked in the first comment left on the piece, where Adrian Lowe pointed out:

“That’s if people actually vote for them. And if people are trolling in voting, then low quality comments will be seen at the top. So, ‘by default’ high quality comments will not necessarily rise to the top.”

You only have to look at the green and red arrows on the MailOnline site to see how sometimes it is the scum that rises, not the cream.

TechCrunch’s attitude to their below-the-line contributors was made clear by the image they chose to accompany their announcement: “I miss you asshole

They seem to be ascribing the behaviour of their users to the platform they employ, not to the way they are goaded into commenting by the articles they write. As my ex-colleague Meg Pickard says:

“If you write a provocative article, you can expect people to be provoked.”

The Manchester Evening News move is in the opposite direction, hoping that a shift to using Facebook identity will improve the commenting experience on the site. There’s no doubt that restricting people to only using Facebook identities will exclude some users, but David Higgerson wrote an eloquent personal blog post about the shift: “Much ado about Facebook”.

“Most of the people who have complained…seem to come from a starting point that news websites should allow free-for-all comments on all stories, and that the ‘community’ can say what it likes under any name it likes. I don’t see it like that.”

My own experience with using the Facebook comments plug-in under news content was within the Guardian Facebook app. I had rather hoped that by opening two commenting threads underneath each article — one on Facebook, and one on the Guardian site — we’d be able to prove once and for all whether one or other led to better interaction. In the end, it appeared that actually the tone set early on in a comment thread looked like it influenced comments much more than anything intrinsic about the format or identity system used.

There’s no doubt that software design and features do influence community behaviours, but not as much as decent community management and personal engagement from journalists does. In 2011 my friend Mary Hamilton wrote a very thorough blog post looking at the responsibility of news organisations to not just provide a commenting space, but to also participate and join in that space:

“If you don’t set examples of good behaviour, or reward [commenters], or empower the regular visitors to police their community by telling them the rules, your community will make its own rules, and chances are you won’t like them.”

She described switching tech platforms in search of an answer to bad community problems as akin to “laying Astroturf over an unkempt, unmaintained garden because you don’t like the colour of the wildflowers.”

She also said:

“The news industry can’t simply automate away its duty to respond to users. Small publishers and bloggers for the most part understand this, and — more crucially — so do our users. These are human beings at the other end of the internet, talking in our spaces, and we need to start treating them that way.”

Still, the golden rule of newspaper website comment systems is “Don’t be a dick” — and no technology choice can enforce that.

Full disclosure: I used to work at the Guardian, and worked directly with Facebook whilst I was there. I currently provide some design and consultancy services to Trinity Mirror who publish the Manchester Evening News.

1 Comment

Despite what they're saying, I have the suspicion that TechCrunch's decision to move to LiveFyre may have more than a little to do with LiveFyre supporting login through (TechCrunch owner) AOL's identity system than the success or failure of using Facebook.

Notably, LiveFyre is also the standard on all other AOL-owned sites. One wonders if TechCrunch's "it hasn't worked" is a bit of a red herring...

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