How to improve comments and digital community: reader ideas

On Friday, a week after The Washington Post announced a partnership with The New York Times and Mozilla to build an open-source digital community platform, we asked commenters what changes they would like to see in The Post’s digital communities.

The thread of responses stretches more than 500 comments long, a productive exchange packed with insights.

Two topics surfaced repeatedly, both aimed at improving the level of discourse: 1) whether Post moderators should curate comments more heavily, and 2) whether The Post should require commenters to publish under their real names.

“I use my real name, and I think others should, too,” said commenter jfschumaker. “It gives a comment more credibility if you are willing to say who you are and stand behind what you write.”

But some commenters said that the anonymity offered by screen names lets them speak without fear of retribution.

“I am the only person with my name in the entire U.S.,” myownreality wrote. “I do NOT want anybody to be able to find me, find my phone number, my address, where I work, and assorted other information.”

Commenter binxboll said The Post should take a heavier hand in curating comments, advocating “a system in which editors choose a few high-value, on-topic, non-anonymous comments to highlight as “Reader Responses” that are automatically displayed below an article. There could also be a freewheeling, relatively unconstrained comment system that the reader would have to deliberately click on to view.”

But Contoof would rather use the comment threads’ ignore functionality, which allows users to hide contributions from selected commenters. “Blocking people that YOU dislike is YOUR responsibility. I don’t want WAPO making that decision for me.”

In fact, most of the points made by commenters had counterpoints, many posted almost immediately. SpeakEasy3 wants to do away with replies to comments: “Most of the hateful, disrespectful, and distasteful comments I see are replies.” But acl nyc took the opposite tack: “I love the conversational aspect that having a reply button allows.”

Even the ignore button, which is among the most popular commenting features The Post has launched, had at least one detractor. “I have never used the ignore button — not once,” said TrialNError. “I like the rough and tumble — if someone is just calling names which is frequent — i just move on to other comments.”

Among the other suggestions offered: adding a block-quote function to allow users to reference a previous comment in a reply, increasing the size of user avatars and comment display text, allowing the collapsing and expanding of all threads with one click, and creating a hashtagging paradigm that would let comments be viewed by topic. We’ll be evaluating these and other ideas as we gear up for our partnership and as we continue to iterate on comments here at The Post.

What ideas did we miss? Drop us a line in the comments section below.

Greg Barber is The Post's director of digital news projects. Find him on Twitter at @gjbarb.
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