Have you tried building an online community and failed? Do you ever wish that you could improve the level of discussion, civility, and value generated in your comments sections?
There’s a smart way to go about building an online community to engage, understand and please your audience.
Andrew is a writer, editor and storyteller based in New York City. He currently runs the Coral Project at Vox.
The Coral Project is open source, made by and for publishers. Their mission is to develop tools and strategies to help bring publishers and their communities closer together and create a more healthy online dialogue.
The project was created as a collaboration between Mozilla, the New York Times and the Washington Post with support from the Knight Foundation.
“From the beginning our goal was to figure out how to bring journalists and communities closer together, what is the place for comments in that, how should we think about engagement and communities…… The overall question we kept coming back to – are the comments just a bad job we should destroy or is there hope in this space yet?”
In this article you’ll learn the specific mindsets and steps required to start building a supportive and healthy community around your work.
Let’s start with some context: what went wrong with comments sections?
In their early days, the idea of online comments sections was greeted with much optimism.
Many felt that they would become a digital version of “letters to the editor” – and allow a healthy two way communication between author and audience.
In recent years though, comments sections have become notorious for trolls, spam and hateful content. If that’s one of the reasons you disabled comments, you should read our guide on stopping comment spam on your WordPress site.
Andrew himself wrote that the comments sections had moved in people’s minds from being an empty box on a website to a “viper-filled pit of hell”.
Why did this happen?
Andrew suggested that the problem is societal, strategic and technological.
“This is not a new problem. To think that it is, is to not know our internet history”
As a project, Coral’s starting point was to dive deep into the 30 years of online community history – trying to get insights from what went wrong in the past to show the was forward in the present.
Internet comments as we now know them were developed in 1998 by Bruce Ableson.
He built the system for his blog, hoping to develop a conversation between him and his audience.
“From the very beginning there has been sexism, racism, abuse, spam harassment and trolling on the internet. We’ve seen this in the history of Usenet, The Well… other internet spaces….. A lot of the problems we see today existed then. It just didn’t exist on the kind of scale we see today – and crucially the technology then wasn’t built in a way to amplify and grow at all costs, therefore making it easier for this system to be gamed and rewarded”
The problems of bullying, harassment, ignorance and bigotry are obviously not created by the internet – they are societal problems.
“Even if we could fix it on the internet tomorrow by clicking our fingers Thanos style – it wouldn’t remove it from society. The internet is a real other place in many ways, so this is a social and cultural problem on one side”
Now we get to the strategic problem.
A lot of publishers come to Andrew and ask if Coral has technology that can fix their problem.
When asked for specifics they say that there are people being horrible in their comments sections – and ask if Coral can get rid of it.
“To which I reply….. Let’s say it’s gone – now what? What do you want out of these comments?”
They usually say that their ultimate dream is a comments section that they never have to read or bother about ever again and that they can ignore completely.
“If that’s your strategy – why don’t you never have comments? Why don’t you never talk to your audience? Why don’t you stop listening to your audience? Just broadcast at them from a distance and hope they like it – and if they have any ideas or corrections you can just stick your fingers in your ears”
That is a strategy – but in a digital world not an optimal one.
Should You Shut Down Your Comments?
Although the majority of publishers still have them – several big names have closed off their comment sections entirely. Reuters, Popular Science, The Verge and many others have taken this approach – and encouraged their readers to take the discussion on to social channels instead.
“They had no vision for it and abandoned them. A small number of people came in and yelled and this put off others from joining”
Andrew used an interesting analogy: If you walked into a coffee shop and everyone was standing on tables screaming at each other – would you stay? If the coffee shop was known for this, would it stay in business?
This mismanagement is what lead to them axing their comments entirely. Because they didn’t understand what they were for and how to nurture them in the right directions – the numbers stayed small, the quality deteriorated and they put off potential quality commenters.
“Comments aren’t the only answer to everything – if you believe you have a better strategy then great. I don’t think every publisher should have comments – and I certainly don’t think they should have comments everywhere”
So who should have them?
“Those who want to think about what it means to host and own your own community with flexible tool vs handing all that over to Facebook and Twitter – where you don’t own the data or community. They are the ones who are monitoring and measuring the most direct relationship with your most engaged community members”
Facebook groups can be a great way to prototype and connect with people, and you should definitely be on social platforms for marketing and outreach. But should you hand over your community entirely to them – or should you truly make your audience your focus?
Andrew pointed to YouTube and Twitch stars who fanatically read and answer their comments to the point where it even dictates their content.
This makes them far more approachable to their audience who feel seen and acknowledged – and is a key part of their appeal and success.
Read our guide to WordPress community plugins and themes to learn how to add a community element to your site.
Many publishers haven’t embraced this mentality yet though.
“We’re in an old broadcast mentality on the internet. A lot of publications today – especially legacy publications – are essentially printing their newspaper on top of a screen. It’s just printing. Rather than thinking this is a digital space how do a digital spaces change the nature of information? If you’re not listening to your audience why should they listen to you?”
The fundamental problem that Andrew sees with publishers is that they have no real vision or strategy for what they want out of their audience conversations.
They start building online communities because they think that they should, but without a clear idea of the “why”.
Finally there’s the tech problem.
A lot of publishers come to Coral with the idea that it’s better to just leave this to the experts – by which they usually mean Facebook.
“This happens a lot less now after things like Cambridge Analytica – now people understand Facebook isn’t the haven of wonderfulness that we thought it was”
Facebook’s business model also favours behaviour that isn’t good for news or journalism.
“Facebook’s goal is to keep everyone on Facebook – that is their number one, absolute goal more than anything else. They make money from you being on Facebook, they do not make money the moment you leave… Everything is geared towards never clicking the link, never go out, comment on the headline and never read the piece – which is very bad for journalism and the level of conversation”
Facebook, YouTube and others also value engagement as a metric above all else.
“Engagement is higher when people are angry and hate each other. They’re screaming at each other, coming back and forth, spending more time, posting more replies”
These are metrics that the platforms optimise for, leading to systems that are optimised for polarised, terrible interactions.
This is really bad for publishers and society in general – so why would you surrender your community interaction to third parties who want to just keep everyone on their platform and keep them angry?
Facebook and Twitter also actively reward poor online behaviour.
“This particular comment is getting a lot of engagement – so let’s highlight it. If someone says something extreme, obnoxious or abusive….. If Facebook doesn’t remove it it’s going to climb higher and higher until everyone sees it. You’re rewarded for being unpleasant”
And what about the people responsible for keeping the conversation civil and productive?
“The moderation controls for Facebook are lousy. All the money and resources go to the things most people use like the commenters space”
So now we’ve looked at the problems, let’s consider some solutions.
What are Coral doing about it?
Andrew and his team at Coral work on three different goals.
- Help people to understand the social and cultural background
- Give newsrooms strategy, training, and workshops to help them understand what to do
- Build technology and tools that are the opposite of Facebook
“We don’t gather data to sell data, we don’t have ads, our goal is not to keep you here at all costs, we don’t try to keep you addicted. We also invest heavily in what we believe are the best moderation tools and interfaces in the world to help control the conversation in a meaningful way”
When Comments Sections Make Sense for building Online Communities
The first question we need to ask ourselves – what is the role of community in our mission?
How does a meaningful two-way dialogue fit into:
- Journalistic goals?
- Mission goals?
- Audience goals?
Social media, Google forms, comments sections – all have their uses. It’s up to you to determine exactly the right mix and balance for you.
Everywhere or nowhere?
“There is a big gap between everywhere and nowhere in the middle. I give permission to close comments on some stories – in fact please do you should. What you should do is figure out your resources, goals, and a promise you can keep around the conversation”
Andrew gave some examples of different community models:
- Having comments on one story a week
- Daily or weekly roundups of top stories – like a virtual town hall
- Q&As with journalists/writers at certain times
“Really think in a more flexible way – what are you trying to do and what are the benefits for you of community?”
Maximising the potential of communities
A lot of the work of running communities often just feels like removing the bad – rather than highlighting and leveraging the good.
If you get your comments section right – it can bring a lot of benefits to your brand:
“You can get new tips, sources and ideas. Commenters will have lived experiences in the communities you serve and topics you cover to help improve your reporting. You can create a loyal audience who can be a part of improving your coverage”
Business and Revenue
“Commenters spend more time on site, click more links, and give more shares – usually about 7x more than non-commenters. They’re also far more likely to be subscribers, stay subscribers, stay loyal”
“People will support each other, answer their questions, be entertaining, share perspectives – really be part of the experience. They can show what it’s like to live some of the topics that journalists cover….. People also share their feelings and emotions”
What can we do to improve our existing comments sections?
“One of the best things we can do is to highlight best practices. If we’re looking for new ideas and tips then let’s feature those – which we have a way of doing very quickly – and making the best thing visitors see the best comments chosen by the journalists. You can highlight it on social media and say ‘hey everyone look at this interesting comment and conversation’
Andrew mentioned a comment from the Financial Times that went viral the day after Brexit – it got more than 30,000 retweets.
The Financial Times reached out to the commenter and took them on as a guest columnist.
“We can highlight and bring forward these voices, highlight when the comments make our work better. For example thanking commenters when they make corrections. We can feature them on our newsletter. One of the fastest growing newsletters at the Washington Post is called Read The Comments – and showcases the best comments from the last week”
All these strategies make it clear that community is at the heart of the reporting, and let us highlight the best as well as removing the worst. The combination of carrot and stick is what will really build a great community.
Andrew’s Key Takeaways
At the end of the interview – I asked Andrew to sum up his most important advice for publishers.
“What I recommend to publishers of all sizes, but especially small publishers – first you need to be clear on your mission. Before you make any decisions about technology or strategy on a single piece or idea, really be clear on what your mission is and what do you do?”
From there you can start to think about what specific role conversation and community can play in this – and how can you encourage the right kind of conversation.
“The second piece to be clear about: who are you serving with that mission? What can the role of those people be to help you fulfil your mission more effectively?”
Then try different things. When building an online community – some things will work and some won’t, as every audience is different.
You need to test, experiment and see what works and what the right mix is – but the key point is not to undervalue this space and overlook the potential for your business.
“Think about this as different kinds of engagement and conversation. Try something and see how it goes, whether that’s on social media, your own space or some combination. Look at it from a thoughtful perspective and be clear – here is the conversation, here is why we’re doing it, here is what we expect, and here are the lines of what we will not allow. Then you need to enforce it, see if you can build a conversation and watch where it goes”
Hopefully you’ve got some good ideas about what you want out of your community and how you can get there.
It might not be an easy ride but Andrew gave a strong case for the benefits of getting this right.