< The Thorny World of Online Comments

Transcript

Friday, December 30, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

Last month The New York Times overhauled its online commenting system, much to the chagrin of some of its readers. The changes included threading comments so readers can reply directly to one another and the creation of a trusted commenter system, which allows users with the elite Trusted status to post to the site immediately without being filtered by a moderator.

The resistance to the new system might have more to do with the general resistance to change online than with the system itself, but the fact remains that Comments sections online are some of the least innovative parts of the Internet, and websites still haven't figured out a good way to deal with them.

Rebecca Rosen is an associate editor and blogger at The Atlantic. She says more than a decade in Internet Comments sections continue to be terrible.

REBECCA ROSEN:

I think the promise of the Internet is the ability to have these wide-ranging conversations that reach so many people, But  right now we have a system were the post really has its place on the pedestal and then the conversations with everyone else are relegated to kind of this long list at the end of the post. We haven't really figured out a way to have that back and forth in a way that's easily digestible for other readers and for the authors of the posts themselves.

BOB GARFIELD:

And a lot of that has to do with the noise within the Comment threads. You've got trolls in there with malice or inanity just to get a rise out of the readers, You've got ideologues who use the opportunity just to flog their world view, irrespective of what the original post even was about. You've got assertions made –

REBECCA ROSEN:

Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].

BOB GARFIELD:

- with certainty but no evidence whatsoever, actual paranoids and obsessives.

REBECCA ROSEN:

Anytime you have user-generated content, you're going to have some bad apples. But if you look at a site like YouTube, it doesn't matter how many bad videos are on YouTube because there are filtering mechanisms that allow the good videos to rise to the top and allows viewers to go find those videos easily. It's not really about getting rid of the noise. It's about finding the signal and elevating it. That's the challenge of building a better comment system.

BOB GARFIELD:

We're only about 15 years into this whole comment ecosystem. It strikes me that it hasn't changed a whole lot.

REBECCA ROSEN:

That's right. I think this has been one of the neglected problems of the Internet for two reasons. One is that having a wide- ranging conversation among large groups of people is not an easy thing to do. I haven't really seen it work well off the Internet, and I've only seen it work well on the Internet in a few instances.

And the second thing is I think that for a lot of places creating good comment sections has just not been a priority for their developers. Building better content and promoting that content have really been the priorities of magazines, newspapers, other websites.

BOB GARFIELD:

Probably the best way that sites so far have found to denude the comment sections of, of nonsense is human monitoring.

REBECCA ROSEN:

Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].

BOB GARFIELD:

But that's, you know, tedious and expensive, I guess.

REBECCA ROSEN:

Right. I think there is basically no replacement for some kind of human editing. But there's the open question about whether that monitoring needs be done by someone on the staff of a publication or if it can be done by the community where they vote up and down comments and really do act as that same filtering mechanism. I think it also can build a community of commenters that can encourage over the long term more interesting conversations because people begin to know each other and people can develop cultural touchstones and jokes and things like that. So I think that having some kind of human input for filtering comments is useful. It just doesn't necessarily have to come from the publication itself.

BOB GARFIELD:

You have some best practices. Who's doing what you really like?

REBECCA ROSEN:

One system is the Reddet or Slashdot system where you have these communal voting mechanisms, and good quality conversations kind of coalesce around the top comments.

On our own site at The Atlantic, the

commenters on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog are regarded as kind of the cream of the crop, and it really draws people to our site because the conversation is so interesting.

That said, it's a lot of time on his part to edit and curate the comments section to bring it to that level. So that's not necessarily something that's widely replicable for other sites and blogs.

BOB GARFIELD:

Rebecca, thank you very much.

REBECCA ROSEN:

Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:

Rebecca Rosen is an associate editor and blogger at The Atlantic.