TOPICS > Nation

Taming the ‘Wild West’ of online comments

April 20, 2014 at 1:59 PM EDT
More and more websites are including online commenting as a feature for their visitors. But sometimes the comment boards become venues for rudeness and insults. These comments can influence how a reader perceives the story. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with web experts who help manage online communities and comments in different ways.

HARI SREENIVASAN: If you read about politics on the internet, then you’ve probably read comments like this:

COMMENTER #1: Can you imagine what the Bill of Rights would look like had Liberals written it?

COMMENTER #2: Hey, genius, liberals did write the Bill of Rights, and you knuckle draggers should be thankful they did.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And if you like to visit sports websites, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to read this:

COMMENTER #3: Why is it that Duke gets all the best white basketball players?

COMMENTER #4: Why do you post something so stupid? And pointless?

HARI SREENIVASAN: But what about a site about movies:

COMMENTER #5: Movie stupid. The actress is ugly and boring.


COMMENTER #6: You are obviously deaf if you really think Taylor Swift who cannot hold a note, can sing better than Carrie Underwood?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Or even science:

COMMENTER #7: Peer review should not mean statistical morons.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s comments like these that have turned the Internet into a veritable Wild West of rudeness, with abrasive and often completely anonymous commenters hijacking online conversations. Even a cooking blog like Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen isn’t immune. She now has 5-6 million visitors a month, not all of them polite.

DEB (READING COMMENT): Thanks to following this, I totally wrecked my eggs. Needless to say, I won’t be back!

DEB PERELMAN: I would say, that the bigger the site has gotten, the more off-hand or inappropriate comments have come through.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Comments have become a staple of the Internet. They’re used almost everywhere, from newspaper articles to online retailers, in part because they help keep people on those sites longer and increase ad revenue and product sales. But being able to say whatever you want with little to no consequences has left web publishers and bloggers wondering what to do about offensive comments on their sites. For Deb Perelman’s blog, there’s a simple solution.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what do you when you get a horrible comment?

DEB PERELMAN: Delete it. Don’t think twice about it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But for some sites, like Reddit, it’s a bit more complicated. One of the biggest sites on the internet, Reddit is a sprawling network of online communities that is almost entirely comment-fueled. Users post articles, photos, and links they find online and then create giant discussions around them. Erik Martin is Reddit’s general manager.

ERIK MARTIN: I think we had a hundred and twenty-something million unique visitors. And we do about a million comments per day.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A million comments per day. So, comments are fairly integral to Reddit’s infrastructure.

ERIK MARTIN: Absolutely.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how does Reddit manage a million comments a day?

ERIK MARTIN: We don’t. I’m we can’t—we couldn’t possibly manage a million comments per day. We try to step in as little as possible.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s not just about being rude. Comments can actually affect how you think about what you’re reading.

Last year, researchers released findings from a study on what they called “the nasty effect”. Two groups of people were shown a web article about nanotechnology—basically tiny machines. It’s not something you’d expect people to feel strongly about. At the end of one version of the article, the researchers made-up civil, polite comments, and at the end of the other, angry and insulting comments. The researchers found that the group that had read the version with negative comments came away with very strong, polarized feelings about nanotechnology after reading it, regardless of whether or not they knew much about it in the first place.

So, what are the solutions? Some sites, like Popular Science, are removing comments altogether. Others, like, are only allowing people to comment with their real names through sites like Facebook. The idea is that people are less likely to be rude if their real name and photo are attached to what they say. But Erik Martin of Reddit says anonymity has value.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What are some examples of, uh, anonymity helping, uh, a discussion?

ERIK MARTIN: If you’re a, you know, 15 year old kid in a family that is not very open mind—open minded about your sexuality, if you are someone who’s trying to figure out a very difficult health situation, if you’re thinking about, you know, switching careers, It’s very dangerous, sometimes, for you to comment with your real name.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The solution may lie somewhere in between total anonymity and real identity- with commenters who consistently use a nickname or pseudonym. Ro Gupta is the vice president of business development at Disqus, a commenting service used by more than 3 million websites, including the NewsHour’s.

In 2011, Disqus compared three groups–anonymous commenters, commenters with consistent nicknames, and commenters who used their real names—and then measured how often those groups posted comments and how well other commenters reacted to them.

RO GUPTA: The conventional wisdom, again, was real names was going to probably win in terms of quality, and that anonymous would probably win in terms of quantity; and it turns out, actually, that middle group of pseudonymous commenters was—scored the highest on both.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What is it about anonymous commenting that allows it to devolve so quickly?

RO GUPTA: You know, I think one of the reasons, um, completely anonymous commenting can be an issue is that it’s just not tied to a sense of community norms or, you know, or standards in any way.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That seems to be the grand bargain that Facebook came with—is that it’s verified. I know who you are. I know who your friends are and you’re going to be more civil if this is connected to your reputation.

RO GUPTA: Well, I think there’s a place for that. We’re not saying that it’s, um, it’s a bad thing to be able to use real names, real identities It’s just that giving users that choice turns out to be very important for getting the highest quality discussions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In addition to identity choice, Disqus offers tools to screen and flag offensive words and allows users to vote comments up or down. But it leaves it up to individual website managers to use that information in moderating discussions. And it’s that element of human engagement that experts like Erik Martin say software can never replace.

ERIK MARTIN: No one says you have to have comments. Um, I think if you are going to have comments, you should—you should care about them and you should, you know, be active in them and you should, you know, invest time and resources and people in making them, you know, the communities you want.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Although Reddit tries to avoid overseeing the comments on its site, it has posted guidelines on commenting etiquette and it allows its users to moderate the discussions they’re involved in—an activity which has become a daily routine for Deb Perelman. Every day she reads every new comment that’s come in from readers of smitten kitchen–and in some cases, she responds to them.

DEB PERELMAN: I try to read everything that’s come in since the day before. And that won’t just be on the new articles. That will be on anything that anyone’s commented on any one of the 850 recipes in the archives.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, I could comment on something you wrote about four years ago and you’re going to see that—

DEB PERELMAN: And it will probably start with, “You probably aren’t going to read this,” but I actually do. I think it’s like they think they’re speaking to like a corporate wall, and then when a human being is like, “Hey, I’m so sorry. Let’s walk through this.” All of a sudden it just totally softens the conversation.