Is it Time to Give Online Discourse a Rethink?

By equal measure, comment sections can be either the most important part of your online presence or the first thing you want to throw out. Is the problem the technology—or could you simply do better?

There are certain sites you visit where you read only about half the article…and stop.

These sites (one of which has a name that rhymes with “Trollitico”) have endless engagement and users deeply interested in the issues being discussed. But there’s a problem that’s obvious from reading these discussions: The comments are toxic to the point that you wonder if you should put on a hazmat suit before jumping into the fray—or if you should at all.

If you’re running an association, I can tell you right now that’s not the kind of engagement you want with your members. It destroys goodwill indirectly, because even though you’re not making the comments, it reflects on your brand name.

So, when someone adds a comment that’s filled with venom and ad-hominem attacks, whose fault is it, anyway?

It’s Your Fault

Last month, the business website Quartz, which previously shunned comments, added paragraph-by-paragraph annotations that work, in practice, like those on the writing website Medium. Senior Editor Zachary Seward credited a 2011 article by technologist and blogger Anil Dash for providing the seed of inspiration for adding the commenting system.

Dash’s article, the headline of which we won’t repeat here because it uses a profanity (effectively), points the finger at a lack of oversight as the problem behind toxic online comments, saying that moderation is required for large communities: “When people are saying ruinously cruel things about each other, and you’re the person who made it possible, it’s 100% your fault,” Dash writes. “If you aren’t willing to be a grown-up about that, then that’s okay, but you’re not ready to have a web business. Businesses that run cruise ships have to buy life preservers. Companies that sell alcohol have to keep it away from kids. And people who make communities on the web have to moderate them.”

Many associations are well aware of this. They have community managers, employees focused on moderating and maintaining the quality of the discussion to encourage positive engagement. But smaller associations may not have those resources.

Quartz’s system keeps this in mind, relying on heavy filtering to ensure that the smartest points are the ones a casual observer sees. Could a different system help you?

It’s the System’s Fault

While critics like Dash persist, others are more likely to place the blame on technology, saying that the systems that we’ve created for ourselves—such as Disqus and Facebook comments—are poorly organized for encouraging quality conversation.

Although it may seem like comments are a lost cause in some corners of the internet, some people are thinking of ways to improve the level of conversation.

Branch, launched with the help of Twitter cofounders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, is one of the more high-profile attempts to raise the bar for online discussion, allowing people to create a conversation about anything—whether or not it’s tied to a comments page—and share it later. For associations, there could be a definite value to this: Earlier this year, the Online News Association used it as a collective brainstorming tool.

Discourse, a still-under-construction online community platform, has the benefit of a founder, Jeff Atwood, who knows a thing or 10 about valuable comments. See, Atwood founded an online community called StackOverflow, which allows users to offer advice on technical problems. One big site already using the platform is the pop-culture blog Boing Boing, which ditched Disqus in favor of a Discourse forum system, moving comments off the article page entirely. While not available to the public yet, nonprofits will want to keep a close eye on this one—the company plans to make it easy for such users to create a community using the platform for free.

Gawker Media’s Kinja, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach to the first two, in the form of a CMS essentially designed to work like a giant comment thread. Any user can create a blog in the platform, and it works well as a farm system for the company. Gawker’s journalism is often catty and tough to cozy up to, but it’s setting the tone for how to do comments right.

Even so, this may not be enough to convince some people that comments are worth keeping.

Do We Need Them at All?

Here’s the fascinating thing about Quartz’s addition of comments—after it added them, PandoDaily writer Hamish McKenzie posted an article-length comment arguing that Quartz made a mistake by giving into the incessant need for comments.

“Now, Quartz is just like the rest of us—seeking to capitalize on ‘feedback’ from readers instead of preserving its previously pristine reading environment,” he wrote.

Associations don’t necessarily have the luxury of offshoring the conversation about their industry, or maybe they simply prefer offering a closed community as a member benefit. On the other hand, your association might decide that it shouldn’t grasp at every straw—leaving the conversation to happen to outside your walled garden. If that’s the case, it might be best to focus your energy on curating the conversation rather than being sucked into all the parts, good and bad, that come with running the community yourself.

Both approaches have value, but it’s up to you to decide which one’s most valuable to you.

So, here’s a challenge for you: What would you do to improve the discourse on your online platforms? We have a comments section below. It’s not as cool as Discourse or Branch, but hopefully, we can get a good conversation cooking.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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