Openness, transparency, and community: The future of commenting on the web

Image credits: Visualization of the first 22 hours of comments on Obama's first weekly address by Flickr user boltron-
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It's not often that I find something in the comments on a major news site that's more interesting than the original article. But that's exactly what I just came across--and it's a comment about comments. How meta. The background: NPR did a story about comment sections on the web. The brief summary: Negative words get more attention. Different sites have different ways of dealing with that fact.

Here's the comment that got my attention:

D Scully (DScullyDScully) wrote:

Matthew Murrey (NPR_Check) wrote: "This was an interesting enough story, but the glaring omission was the lack of reporting on how NPR decides which posters to permenantly ban and what comments to ding in its own online comments section...How about a follow-up report on exactly how these removals are made and who has the final say-so."

- Or, you could just call I did. The community and NPR (those who reign over the boards) have different views on how the site works. The community seems to think that the boards are for discussions...occasionally the sharing of ideas...sometimes, even the hopes of reaching an understanding. People who can't participate in a civil discussion, tend to get reported by the community a lot.

The people who oversea [sic] the boards, admit that they don't really read the comments. They don't really like to see discussions. So, to them, if you are carrying on a conversation (engaged in discourse) it is looked at with the same disdain as if you were trolling. It doesn't matter if the discourse is civil. It's sort of impossible to find and make friends by posting a single post and fleeing, but they prefer it.

The remainder of the NPR staff seems to think that we are supposed to be conversing.

Thursday, May 27, 2010 7:31:59 PM

I don't actually know for certain what NPR's policy is. This and other comments on the article got me thinking about the subject. But I'm not a regular commenter on that site, so it was news to me that they might take such a heavy hand towards their contributors. And maybe that's the rub--are commenters contributors? Or just passersby with a keyboard?

In this case, it sounds like the commenters want to be--and believe they are--a community. Scully's first paragraph sounds like a happily running, largely self-policed community. But the site hosting them doesn't behave as if it interested in fostering community.

Obviously (or at least I hope it's obvious), feels the complete opposite. We want you to be a community. We want you to not only comment on posts, but start new discussions with one another. Meet new people. Learn new things. Change the world, one collaborative step at a time. It's the open source way.

But should that be the default for the entire web? Is complete openness always the best way? Are there valid reasons for completely closing comments (as a policy, not for specific posts) on a news site like NPR? What about the heavy policing implied in this comment? At the very least, shouldn't it be more transparent--visible comment deletions, and reasons given to banned users?

The NPR story that spawned this comment suggests that the web is beginning to evolve to answer the problems involved in an open forum. But I think the real answer lies in this quote from Lila King, a senior producer at, who says the only solution is to have an actual person participating in the discussion. "Really, it's the human touch," she says. "It's actually staying inside the conversation and being active and highlighting comments that we think editorially are really interesting or significant. Set the tone for what you hope the conversation will be."

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mdgreaney's picture

As Web 2.0 has matured over the last decade (matured? Maybe 'got older'...) I've seen an increase in the diversity of policies. Seth Godin has no comments on his blog, just pingbacks. I can imagine a comments section would quickly become too big for a one man band to have any useful input into. So he encourages his readers to start new conversations on their own blogs, based on his posts. I think this is fair enough. Stephen Fry recently posted that he was stopping all comments on his blog (or that's how I understood it). His motives are more to do with the kind of trolling we all see all over the web.
I think that different sites require different policies. General, very popular websites like Stephen's, and national newspapers', attract so many people who just want to rant, troll or provoke (BBC, Daily Mail are two well-known examples). More specialist sites like this one generate more discussion, rather than angry missives.
I've found I've stopped reading the comments on most sites, but those I do still read are on those specialist sites (where there is a common passion which overarches the various specific differences of view).
I think the 'web' has found that ubiquitous open comment is often not as productive or interesting (or essential) as it first appeared. As a web user and a blogger, I think this frees me from a) feeling obliged to offer commenting facilities, and b) excessive trolling, spamming, useless provocation. It helps sift the message from noise, and I hope this trend for more consideration of policy continues.

ColonelPanik's picture

Openness, transparency, and community is the best
definition of the web I have seen.

Comments and replies can get pretty out of hand sometimes.
Nutjobs abound and real wacko's are so common that
we almost don't notice them these days. Most of the
sites that I visit are using a moderated comment system.
That seems to work but it is more work for the site personnel.

If you are not Open there is no Transparency.
If you are not Open you are not part of a Community.

Michelle Tackabery's picture

Ruth, you asked, ". . .should that be the default for the entire web? Is complete openness always the best way? Are there valid reasons for completely closing comments (as a policy, not for specific posts) on a news site like NPR? What about the heavy policing implied in this comment? At the very least, shouldn't it be more transparent--visible comment deletions, and reasons given to banned users?"

I can't agree the way can be a default for the entire web because defaults are, by definition, just another box, aren't they? I think the tone has to be set by the writer and content of each piece and/or the voice of the particular channel (forgive my marketing-speak). Godin and Fry are interesting examples; their logs are true web "logs" of their thoughts that just happen to be public, and the commenting community takes place elsewhere due to the burden of moderating that community. Which has to be acknowledged -- open and transparent is HARD work. In their cases, the work was getting in the way of their content, and their larger work was suffering. Those authors made a choice to close comments so they could divert their labor to something more important to them.

But to quote a Penny Marshall movie, "hard is what makes it great." Authors on the web, be they single authors or site publishers, have to address their individual responsibility in a similar way--and so do readers. I read a ton of "weblogs" that continually invite discussion, and the "post" continues with the community involved - the author just gets the ball rolling. Those authors then take the responsibility of dealing with the crap that goes along with the web - and in many cases, the community bears some of that load, too. Flamers gets kicked out.

A news organization like NPR does itself a disservice when it ignores the community created around its content, especially when its publicly funded. I consider this a crucial mistake! But I believe in the better benefits of transparency -- even if it's hard work. Not a lot of online publishers feel the same way.

openuniverse's picture

i know for technical comments especially (and most articles contain some kind of technical information, or information that can be technically wrong,) comments can be a priceless addition to the value of the article.

i wouldn't say comments are a vital standard, but they're a de facto standard, and i think they're generally better than nothing instead. plus they're usually at the bottom so- just like you don't have to watch tv stations you don't like, you don't typically have to scroll down to the comments, either.

Shawn's picture

One editor[1] of the NY Times said that 9 out of 10 letters to the editor are nothing but complaints. The other 10% had a compliment to go with their complaints.

People feel more motivated to complain than compliment; it's the nature of the beast.

[1] Unverified story.

dragonbite's picture
Open Minded

For consumer products and the like, comments from actual customers can provide a great too either in favor of or the detriment of a product. I find I usually go straight to the negative comments and try to find the "common thread", or something similar in the issues they have and figure out if it is something that will effect me or not.

This, though, is best when done by a 3rd party site. Theoretically, the company putting out the product is on the same footing as the people complaining about it and the possibility of the truth coming out is better. If nothing else, in part because may company self-commenting is pretty obvious.

In most places, though, comments should be seen with a purpose. Do you want to promote discussion on a subject or just try and get more hits?

Depending on the site's view on comments determines what kind of comments will be made.

If a site approves or denies comments so only actual dialog takes place and not mindless blather then the amount of mindless blather they have to go through should be reduced as these types of people see their comments not making it onto the page.

On the other hand, if you let anything go, then people will test those limits.

One thing that I think makes some difference is when they have to have an identity associated with themselves. It makes some people accountable for their comments (not all, but some).

I find I am more willing to read a non-anonymous comment than an anonymous one.

Patrick Vernon's picture

I can't agree the way can be a default for the entire web because defaults are, by definition, just another box, aren't they? gifts for wife