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Jun. 7 2010 - 8:14 am | 443 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Do Facebook-driven comments kill trolls?

Ever felt the need to chime in on a subject, only to digress after seeing that the comment thread had already devolved to name-calling and mud-slinging? Many civil and useful comments are probably not posted every day on sites where comments have become the armpit of the site.

I spent a bit of time looking for suitable comment quotes to illustrate this story… but ended up leaving the really illustrative once on the offending pages.

So, check out the comment threads on Yahoo! Buzz for live evidence that commenter anonymity (screen names and avatars) can create an atmosphere where valid debate and discussion of an issue is overwhelmed by shouting, name calling, and antisocial behavior. I’ve shown some of the tamer comments below:

keep talking Robert, you’re looking dumber by the second…
Does you mommy know you talk naughty online?

Let the right wing nuts jobs be racist in 5…4…3…2…
And let the conspiracies fly…

god – And let the narcissistic, egomaniacal liberals try to antagonize them because it is their sole source of energy in… -Ah, good work.

What makes a particular site’s comments devolve into the cesspools, while other sites (such as True/Slant) are more civil? Is it comment moderation? Curation? User votes up and down? Something else?

Generally, those comment management techniques can certainly help. A commenter is less likely to be the first to be destructive if the comment quality on the post or site is already high, or if low-quality comments are hidden. An online version of  the broken window theory, which states that communities with buildings in disrepair – even one broken window – are more likely to see increasing vandalism; fixing that window can forestall additional smashed windows.

Of course, there are other factors at work. One theory that should be given credence is that online anonymity contributes to delinquency in the same way darkened streetlights make it difficult to recognize vandals and lawbreakers in a city. The use of screen names and avatars, such as those in Yahoo! Buzz, gives each commenter a degree of anonymity, and as a result, commenters may feel that there are few repercussions to what they say. But is that the sole reason for crappy comments? I’m not the first to ponder this topic, nor will I be the last. Mathew Ingram posted a few months back on the anonymous comments debate and includes several links to various points of view.

When I’m asked about comments, I often say that to me, comments and the ability to interact through them are like democracy. Most people support democracy and its various principles, even though in practice it is frequently ugly and brutal and betrays some of the worst elements of humanity for everyone to see (Winston Churchill said that democracy was the worst possible form of government, except for all the others). So it is with comments. And just as anonymity has a broader purpose in a democratic society — whistleblowing, for example (a point Topix CEO Chris Tolles made), and keeping a check on arbitrary authority — I think it has a purpose in comments and online communities as well.

Regardless of your point of view on anonymity, however, a simple fact remains: using a public profile, and one’s real name, tends to make nearly everyone think twice about their comments… resulting in a more civil tone that makes the work of moderating and curating comments much easier.

So using Facebook Connect or oAuth (using Twitter or other social media credentials to log in to a site and present an online identity while on that site) can be very helpful to websites wishing to generate a highly civil, educated commenting atmosphere. It’s not the only tool, and it comes with a few costs (beyond implementation, not everyone has a Facebook or Twitter account, so it can present a barrier to some folks) but it’s certainly worth exploring in any website’s strategies.

But wait – that’s not all. As Salon magazine has pointed out,

The problem is that once an online discussion space gets off to a bad start it’s very hard to change the tone. The early days of any online community are formative. The tone set by early participants provides cues for each new arrival. Your site will attract newcomers based on what they find already in place: people chatting amiably about their lives will draw others like themselves; similarly, people engaging in competitive displays of bile will entice other putdown artists to join the fun.

Don’t wait til after you launch to worry about comments!

True/Slant gives users a choice of registering via Facebook Connect or by creating a unique user name, which doesn’t need to be your real name, but also uses comment curation to elevate the comments that contribute to the discussion.

As True/Slant Contributor Colin Horgan noted,

people – even internet trolls – seek some form of legitimization, even if it’s for a fairly anonymous opinion posted online. Better still that the recognition comes not from fellow commenters, but from the site itself, because then one’s voice is even louder and carries more weight.

The simple act of curation can help encourage the good commenters and act to discourage those who already know their comments will be hidden to most readers.

So real names alone are not the solution… a well-thought-out, comprehensive, and active comment strategy and daily attention to comment threads is just a start.


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