Technology

Moderating comments: lessons from the Daily Mail

Moderating comments is a pretty blunt instrument – either a comment appears or it doesn’t. For some people and some sites, that is fine because it suits their site and moderation preferences. However, it doesn’t suit everyone. For example, suppose you want to encourage discussion on complicated or sensitive issues but your threads are dominated by abrasive and content-light comments?

One alternative is to take a much more generous view about what comments get moderated but, even leaving aside any free speech issues, that can quickly get into difficult areas of judgement and controversy. Where should you draw the line? Libellous? Abusive? Content-free? And are you happy that your judgement on these issues is going to be right and reflect what your readers want?

It certainly can be done – and I’ve been involved in several sites which have, by and large successfully, drawn the line at abusive comments. But it still can leave comment threads clogged up with messages that don’t add much to any sense of discussion and it’s no surprise that some people look for alternative approaches.

The Guardian‘s Comment is Free is one example of a site that gives a small amount of extra weight to some comments. If the author of a piece responds in the comment thread, that comment is highlighted. LabourList, despite the initial controversy over its moderation policies, had a smart approach – mark some comments as “trash” and then let each individual reader decide whether or not to view those in amongst the other comments.

A different approach is that of the Daily Mail, which lets people rate comments and then view the best/worst rated comments. Although this is an approach often used, it has a major weakness as one of today’s stories on the site demonstrates.

The story is about Baroness Scotland and her cleaner: “I didn’t show Baroness Scotland any passport, says housekeeper in sensational new allegation”.

Here are two of the comments from the story, one amongst the best rated and one amongst the worst rated:

I am an immigration lawyer employed by the Immigration Advisory Service, a charity providing representation to people in a similar situation to Ms Tapui. On these facts, Lola is entitled to stay in the U.K. She has established family life here as the spouse of a UK national. Whilst, strictly speaking, she should return home to apply for a visa to rejoin her spouse in the U.K, the House of Lords has said in a recent case (‘Chikwamba’) that that should be unnecessary. If her home is here, with a U.K. national, then her stay should be regularised. She really should have got some legal advice and this would then have been a non-story.

and

I was going to say “New labour new lies” but, unfortunately, its “New Labour same old lies” – History will have a lot to say about this nasty bunch of Socialist /Marxist fools.

One is pretty much content-free abuse, the other throws a new legal light on the story which hasn’t been otherwise covered in the story (or indeed in other coverage I’ve seen).

But you can guess which is the one from the best list and which is the one from the worst list, can’t you? For on almost all Daily Mail stories the best-rated comments are those that agree with the Daily Mail view of the world and the worst rated are those that don’t, regardless of the actual content of those comments.

There are the occasional exceptions, usually caused by a Daily Mail story receiving an influx of non-traditional Daily Mail readers who disagree with it, comment on it and vote up/down comments based on this outside view. But those are very much the exception for, unsurprisingly, it is usually Daily Mail readers who most read Daily Mail stories.

There is an additional problem with the Daily Mail system, in that the comments tend to be published in large batches several hours apart. As the best/worst rating is based simply on volume of votes, this means that any comment which appears in the first round of published comments is much more likely to dominate the ratings.

There is a new solution slowly coming over the horizon: the use of comment systems which integrate with social networking, such as Facebook Connect. The more someone’s comment is linked up to other information about them, the better the quality of comment generally. Comments with photographs, real names and easily viewable by friends of the commenters (e.g. through their Facebook Wall) tend to be lighter on the dismissive abrasiveness.

These moves towards greater integration of comments with the rest of your persona – and a persona which is increasingly one based on who you really are – give grounds for cautious optimism about how matters will develop in the next few years.

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