Over the last few years, comment systems have become ubiquitous across all web content. Indeed, in many places the humble forum has been pushed out in favour of it’s more exciting and accessible cousin. There’s even one at the bottom of this article. There are a lot of advantages to giving your readers/fans/cultists a simpler method of feedback, but one look at many comments, for example those on YouTube, will quickly reveal a huge problem with the users of such systems. Namely, their tendency to be terrible.
It might be tempting to simply treat managing your comments the same way that you manage your forum, but in my experience this produces bad results. The differences in the medium creates a difference in the message. Comments necessarily attract more “drive-by” posters, who simply wish to drop in, express their opinion and then disappear into the night. This ease of engagement is a double edged sword, because while your users are more likely to participate, the quality of their participation is likely to be lower. The many “soft modding” techniques that you might use on a forum, such as a sense of community peer pressure and a positive forum culture are utterly useless in the face of a medium that simply bypasses them. Consider this: a commenter is not only more likely to have not read your rules but to not even be aware that said rules exist. The simplicity of the system also means people are more likely to sign up. While this is great for the size of your userbase, in the event of a controversial post you can be faced with a vicious hydra, spewing foul posts faster than you can chop off it’s many heads. A cursory inspection of any number of comment systems will reveal hundreds of users who simply sign up to hurl abuse at the writer, the site staff and whoever else happens to be in the line of fire.
Fortunately, these problems are far from insurmountable, but comment systems do require a more proactive approach. In the absence of soft modding techniques, your moderation team will be required to get their hands dirty more often. Be active in the comments, so that your returning posters have a touchstone to remind them that they’re dealing with real people and more importantly to remind them that their comments may be moderated. Where appropriate, try and steer tricky conversations away from negative areas and flame wars before they happen, rather than letting them fester. Bear in mind that (depending on your user turnover) users are far less likely to show moderators respect when they have never seen them before and have no sense of community. It can be tough to find the right line of intervention, keeping conversation healthy without stifling it, but with practise and a few inevitable mistakes you’ll find the balance that’s right for your community.
While I’m generally not in favour of deleting posts on forums, it’s a more useful tool on comment systems. Forum threads tend to die off on their own, whereas a comment thread sits on an article in perpetuity, an article that is just as likely to be read years from now. Leaving toxic comments up also increases the likelihood of flame wars and grudges being revived much later when you’ve stopped watching the comment thread as closely. If you’re OCD about deleting posts (as I am) you can try the system I use: if a post is problematic I’ll infract it first (to keep a record of it) before either deleting it or moving it to a hidden “Trashcan” forum. This prevents scenarios where at some point down the line you have a problem with a repeat offender but can’t quite remember what problems you’ve previously had with them. People who spam abuse or shock images can simply have their posts deleted. I would still advise caution when deleting posts however, as nothing kills a community faster than the belief that reasonable posts could be wiped at any time. Why bother to put any effort in if your posts could be deleted simply at the whims of a capricious admin?
This article may sound overly negative, but there are huge positives to comment systems that vastly outweigh the negatives. Implementing comments can make a huge difference to your site traffic, and introduce a vast number of new users who would simply have no interest in using a fully fledged message board. If you can tame the negative users, you’ll also be amazed at the thought and wit that people will put into the more “disposable” medium of comments. It’s also a simple fact that comment systems are the fastest way to receive feedback from your users/zealots/apparitions about the content that you’re creating. For good or ill.
Still, I’m sure the comments on this article will be nothing but positive and I will be overwhelmed by the heartfelt sentiments contained within them.
Guest post by Patrick Groome. Patrick is the Administrator of the Penny Arcade forums. Penny Arcade is one of the most popular and long running gaming webcomics and organizer of the PAX gaming conference.