Last week, we asked Post commenters to take a look at the Comments Lab, an experimental site created by our colleagues at The Coral Project that showcases the features available in comment systems and details the research that’s been conducted around each feature.
Within five hours on a Friday afternoon, we had more than 1,000 comments on the post. Not a set of shrinking violets, our commenters.
So we read all of the comments to pick out which features were of most interest to our commenters. There were some striking patterns.
The topic that came up most was moderation of comments — by our count, 143 of the comments submitted discussed this issue.
Some users questioned how The Post moderates its comments (the answer: Moderators are on the job 24/7, and they manually review comments flagged as spam or offensive). Some said they would prefer that Post moderators hand-select comments that appear in the comment sections to raise the quality of discourse. Others, such as those who replied in this comment thread, say pre-moderation stunts the flow of conversation and the growth of community.
At least 100 comments discussed commenter profiles, including public profiles that could be used to understand another user’s previous comment history. Such a history would be “good for reading more from those you like, spotting trolls and paid hacks, and at time to “reminding” others what they have said in the past,” said commenter Just a Voice.
Other users asked for the ability to search previous comments — theirs or others’. And a vocal set of commenters called for the ability to delete comments from their history to make browsing that history easier.
No surprise, many commenters were concerned about trolls: finding them, curtailing their influence, and banishing them from threads. Trolls came up in at least 94 comments.
Heavier moderation is the answer, said user bmwilcox, who laid out a plan for moderators to review newly created accounts and send warnings to users whose comments were flagged.
Commenter ArchNME disagreed: “It’s better to have a broad spectrum of ideas represented, and to be able to counter those ideas by replying with better ones rather than simply censoring.”
Some commenters, like BrianX9, said requiring a user to subscribe in order to comment would help ward off trolls. “That would sharply reduce the ‘Trump is evil’, ‘no, Clinton is evil’ banter that clogs up many threads,” he wrote. About 15 more posts discussed restricting comments to subscribers.
Commenter Ken Russell suggested a user-voting mechanism be implemented to suss out trolls. About 56 comments contained some discussion of adding up/down voting or a dislike button to give users more ability to express disagreement with a post. Some users, of course, would push the dislike button on the idea of a dislike button.
Requiring that users submit their comments using their “real names” would be a “natural deterrent against trolls,” said commenter garyvalan. “You should be able to stand behind your statements and also be held accountable for them,” said commenter DanielKinske.
Other commenters disagreed, citing safety concerns — “I used to sign my real name and then some seriously deranged person took issue with a post I made and started harassing me IRL,” said lostinthemiddle — and a desire for privacy, to separate their online discussions from daily life and relationships.
Nearly 60 comments discussed some element of the anonymity debate; 11 comments explicitly supported requiring “real names,” 24 comments signaled opposition. (Interestingly, a recent study by sociologists at the University of Zurich found that some who offer harsh criticism online are happy to have their names attached to it.)
In 83 comments, users either asked for more tools to filter comments or praised the ones they already have, including the popular ignore-user button, which hides comments from a specific user.
At least 54 comments discussed changes in flagging and reporting comments as a means to improve quality. Fifty comments debated using a reputation system, perhaps including badges, to rate commenters. Thirty-six comments suggested that news organizations improve their communication with commenters, including prompting reporters to engage in comment sections. Some would like to be emailed when their comments receive replies.
Not counted in the analysis were 144 comments submitted by Washington Post employees and comments that didn’t mention a specific commenting feature.
You can dig more deeply into the data if you’d like: A (mostly) de-duplicated set of main ideas from this comment thread have been organized by topic on a Trello board.
And let us know what you think: customize your own Comments Lab and put a link to it in the comment thread below.