IN COLLEGE, the bulletin board in the student center can be a handy tool for most students looking for what’s happening on campus. If these bulletin boards aren’t well kept, they become a clash of posters all screaming for your attention but none of them getting it. Blogs and news sites that have sprouted up all over the internet are much akin to these bulletin boards. Although blogs can be a great way for people to pool information about one topic in particular for public use, wild or obnoxious commenters looking for attention can make it difficult to sift through content and find valuable information.
For website owners, there are a few steps you can take to make sure the comments on your site are valuable.
On your site you want to foster good discourse, and eliminate bad discourse. Some websites will be completely void of comments. This often makes readers feel as though either no one is reading the blog, or that publishing their ideas would be like throwing their thoughts out into the void. Although web-surfers want to comment on a blog, they don’t want stupid comments in return. No one wants to get caught up in some argument about religion that makes everyone feel bad or be lost among guys posting links to dirty websites. People want intelligent comments that are stimulating and informative.
When running a website it is very important not to filter out comments that intelligently disagree with your perspective. Although it may be tempting to get rid of that one person who always seems to bring up a good argument against you, that person is important for you and your readers. For your readers, this contribution provides a different perspective that allows them to see a particular topic from different viewpoints, and also encourages them to provide their own independent thoughts. You want your online forum to be a discussion rather than a rally toward your cause.
. . .Unless the point of your website is to rally around a cause. The purpose of some websites is to give a unified view. Understandably, the website for the Jim Carrey fan club or Baptist Church of Raleigh exists so that people of a similar set of personal values can organize. On these sites you wouldn’t want someone bashing Jim Carrey, and thus you would want to filter out comments that come from people of a different viewpoint. However, assuming you are creating an objective and informative blog, you should be encouraging an intelligent, friendly, and independent environment for your readers and commenter.
A personal favorite of the obnoxious archetypes is the expert. An expert knows everything about everything, and has found that online forums are the best way to demonstrate his intellectual superiority. His posts will usually start with credentials such as “after working as a developer for 15 years” and will be much longer than anyone wanted them to be. A variation of this person is the corrector, someone who will pull out his old Microsoft 95 manuals (which are probably immaculately cataloged) just to prove you wrong.
Another recognizable archetype is the arguer. This is the person who rolls around the internet looking for a fight. Maybe they had a bad day, or maybe they are looking to practice their debate skills, but either way they’ll comment on an article and drop a virtual time bomb waiting for a fool or fellow arguer to pick up. Sentences may include, “Ever since this presidency everything’s gone down the drain”, “It’s a myth, just like global warming”, or “Texas is just better than everywhere else”. Arguers have a talent for making all the other contributors to your website arguers also, like they’re carrying a contagious disease.
Someone who is more subtly contemptuous is the policeman. This commenter will monitor the entire conversation and stick in his own snide remarks from time to time about the flow of the conversation. Usually he will point out how someone had already made that point or sarcastically deride someone’s attempt at contributing. Sometimes he tries to play the good guy and will say something like, “Hey there’s no need for that kind of language”. What is problematic about the policeman is that he doesn’t really contribute anything to the blog, but is regulating idea traffic in a discouraging fashion.
One of the most recognizable obnoxious archetypes is the shameless self-promoter. This is the guy that hops from blog to blog looking for opportunities to either compliment his own work or post links to his own site. Often times there are attempts to link the article with their website, but often they will post their link with little regard to whether or not you care. As a marketing coordinator it’s hard to rebuke these people and not be a hypocrite, but they’re still pretty annoying.
Often times a direct approach to your problems is a good one. Some websites have sent out notices to their commenters by placing a statement in between the article and the “comments” section. The statement is usually a plea asking for only constructive comments. Other websites will post a comment from the administrator on a particular thread saying there have been poor remarks. Both of these approaches are a way of directly letting the obnoxious archetypes know that their behavior will not be tolerated.
Directly managing comments can be tricky though. If you were to send out a notice to everyone saying that wild or obnoxious comments should be stopped, you’re drawing attention to the problem which is what the commenter want. A notice would validate their activities to the commenter and to the public at large. By paying undue attention to a puny enemy, you look puny. The longer it takes to correct the problem, the larger the problem seems. In fact, directly approaching these bloggers may only attract more inappropriate comments to your blog.
This is not to say that you should never directly manage the comments on your blog. If there is an offensive or hurtful comment on your blog, it would be wise to delete it quickly. As a blog or news site you want to encourage people’s cooperation and maintain a good reputation. A nasty remark can discourage people from spending time on your website, but also associate you with that one person’s negativity and ignorance. If something offensive is posted, get rid of it quickly.
A better solution is to create an environment where people want to make good comments. If a blog or news site is just a meaningless collection of people with ideas, then there is little sense of connection, and frivolous remarks can easily be thrown around. However, if there is a sense of community and belonging, there is a sense of ownership for the comments being made, and the environment becomes more conducive to a free exchange of ideas. More than anything, you want people contributing with their input, rather than siphoning attention. As a result, it’s extremely important that you make your blog or news site into a community that people feel a part of.
The first way to do this is to identify those posting and commenting. Blizzard Entertainment, who created World Of Warcraft, decided recently to identify all forum posters with their real identities rather than using anonymous pseudonyms or character names. They hope that “Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven’t been connected before”. Blizzard isn’t the first online forum to do this, and nor do I think they will be the last.
The reason identification is a useful tool is because it makes people to take ownership of their words. You would be much less likely to write something derogatory if it had a chance to get back at you. With complete anonymity people are given the freedom to use online forums as a way to vent their feelings with no chance of the world figuring out who they are. Websites like college ACB and juicy campus served this purpose to college students who were frustrated by the social scene at their university. Many of these sites have been shut down as a result of the offensive comments that were posted on their forum, and you don’t want yours to be next.
A policy that some news sites have taken is asking their commenters to make a payment in order to post. The Sun Chronicle in Attleboro Massachusetts requires all posters pay 99 cents as a “membership fee”. Although it is a small price, there is still a sense of sacrifice that comes with the payment. As a result, each comment has more value and the only people who will be posting are the ones who feel strongly about their ideas. The greater a sacrifice that an individual makes for an organization, the stronger a commitment they are making to it. A sacrifice made for a blog or news site demonstrates a commitment to the contributions they’re making to the site.
Requiring a payment to comment does have some disadvantages. Many people don’t want to pay money, and would rather just forgo contributing their ideas than distribute their credit card information. Although the amount of obnoxious commenters has dramatically reduced at the Sun Chronicle, so has the amount of comments total. News articles are still being published, but there is little feedback about the public reaction to it and little feeling of interaction between readers. Although making people pay to post may clean up comments in online forums, it discourages the community of readers that you were trying to create.
One practice that many blogs have been doing is requiring that all commenters make a profile before they post. This could be seen as a time sacrifice, but more than anything this allows websites to keep track of the people who are mouthing off. Even though registered users don’t have to specifically identify themselves, they can have their account terminated which would hopefully send them a message. Creating a division between commenters and non-commenters can be an effective method of cleaning up your content.
This practice ties into exclusivity, which is another method of filtering out unwanted comments. Rather than allowing any one to put their ideas on your website, you can screen commenters and only allow people to post based on their reader profiles. This has two strengths. First of all, it filters out all bad comment, because there is a direct relationship between their liberty to post and their interactions with the rest of the community. By implementing this policy you can include the people who provide good feedback on articles, and exclude the people who don’t. On some blogs, it is clear that some commenters don’t even read the article before posting; they just wandered in and blurted out whatever was on their mind. Exclusivity can make sure this person doesn’t get onto the wall.
Second, it furthers the feeling of community and builds a connection between people. Facebook was able to box MySpace out of the top social networking spot by offering exclusivity and selective membership. If a blog site did the same it could make people more comfortable, knowing that they’re only interacting with other respectful commenters. This might also allow for a greater feeling of community and interconnectedness. Regular readers of a particular website can identify one another and have some basis for interaction.
However, exclusivity also has its own disadvantages. By only letting select people comment you diminish the openness of the forum and exclude a lot of ideas that people may have. Facebook has the advantage of being a multi-purpose social networking site. Since the utility of blog commenting is fairly low, there is less need for exclusivity. MySpace had problems with people observing profiles or collecting personal information of those they did not know or trust. Although commenters are putting their ideas out for public display, there aren’t any safety issues that would encourage them to be part of a more exclusive community.
More than anything it is important to keep a good reputation. Not only will a good reputation allow you to keep a good readership, but it will also deter obnoxious remarks. If someone were to comment on a New York Times online article with a crude comment, it would be a shameful move on that person’s part. Yet there is less respect for the Leesville Gazette online, and a similar remark would not be rebuked as harshly. The prestige of a blog can be the same way.
This often relates to the quality and professionalism of your articles. If readers feel as though they are gaining valuable information from your website, then they will feel more pressed to give back to the publication. Also, content that is clear and grammatically correct will encourage commenters to respond in kind. If your articles have any crude comments within them, that’s an invitation for crude comments. This is a cyclical process. Strong articles contribute to a good reputation which makes for better feedback and stronger articles in the future. This in turn boosts your reputation and the cycle keeps going.
The importance of reputation extends even beyond that. Groupthink is a powerful force in today’s society and how you are perceived by others makes a big difference on the trajectory of your readership. If people feel as though you are slipping, the amount of people who want to visit your blog can quickly diminish. Word of mouth is a powerful form of advertising, and making sure that you are associated with good articles, comments, and experiences is a must. Making sure obnoxious commenters do not ruin your reader’s experiences is vital.
THE INTERNET can be related to a big bulletin board, where everyone is constantly posting thoughts, ideas, and advertisements. On our blog, we have to make sure all comments are purely constructive. If you’re trying to limit your websites comments to quality content then you could address the commenters directly, impose personal identification, ask for payment, or use exclusivity. However each of these methods comes with its own disadvantages. Choosing which one to use is your own choice.
While writing this article, it’s always a possibility that we missed some other tips. Feel free to share it with us.