10 ways to promote better conversation on your site

Every site wants it but conversation can be costly. “We want to give our audience a platform but have you seen what they are using it for?” is the cry of online news editors everywhere. And what “they” are using the comments function for, includes hate speech, defamation, insults and just some really ugly personal stuff.

And if it’s not legal liability that you’re concerned about there is the reputational damage of carrying all that “free speech” on your branded site.

The most recent incident that made headlines involved comments made on the National Public Radio website after CBS correspondent Lara Logan was sexually assaulted while reporting from Egypt’s Tahrir Square. It’s enough to make even the most seasoned editor consider flipping off the interactivity switch. But you are not online in any real sense anymore if you can’t have a conversation, so it’s more important than ever to manage it.

While free speech is protected, the sometimes-vile anonymous comments that it attracts arose out of the early web culture born from anonymity. Prehistoric behaviour that found a home at a different time. Today many site owners are reluctant to tackle the “barrage of inflammatory posts by trolls and spammers”, as they have been referred to by the American Journalism Review, because it is costly.

With newsrooms globally having been stripped down there is little chance of sparing scarce resources to manage online conversation. But apart from the time-costly method of pre-moderating comments there are other ways to promote healthy conversation online.

This is not about interfering with people’s rights to free speech – it’s about clearly defining why you want conversation in the first place [the lifeblood of news] and encouraging the type of conversation you would like.

  1. Be upfront about the rules and what the site does or does not tolerate. Set out a clear policy about acceptable use of the site
  2. Use services like Facebook Connect to ensure personal identity is revealed. This makes it far less likely for people to say unspeakable things. Require registration for commenting
  3. Encourage good comment through recognition, or reward
  4. Create a system that allows those interested in participating in the conversation to flag abuse in a convenient way
  5. Allow users to rate or vote comments up or down
  6. Allow comments to be aggregated to a user profile – serial abusers won’t last long
  7. Look at content management system options; especially the use of filters for “bad” words
  8. Look at less costly staffing options. Comments could be managed by a team of people working off-site, perhaps retired staff or freelancers
  9. Comments are not only about conversation but may be about story leads so it’s important to pay real attention to them
  10. Encourage the person who wrote the story to manage the life of it. Reporters have incredibly short memories especially when working on a daily deadline but there’s a possibility for stories to gain more depth through ongoing conversation


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