Some believe using Facebook’s comment plugin cuts down on “trolling” and other bad behavior because it forces people to use their real names, while others say it gives the social network too much power. But when it comes to improving comments, anonymity isn’t really the issue.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about Facebook-powered comments, which have been implemented at a number of major blogs and other publishers (including here at GigaOM) over the past couple of weeks. Supporters argue that using Facebook comments cuts down on “trolling” and other forms of bad behavior, because it forces people to use their real names, while critics say it gives the social network too much power. But the reality is that when it comes to improving blog comments, anonymity really isn’t the issue — the biggest single factor that determines the quality of comments is whether the authors of a blog take part in them.

According to TechCrunch’s MG Siegler, the addition of Facebook comments seems to have improved the quality of the comments that blog receives, but has reduced the overall number of them, which he says may not be a good thing — since some people may be declining to comment via Facebook as a result of concerns about their privacy, etc. A bigger issue, says entrepreneur Steve Cheney, is that using Facebook as an identity system for things like blog comments forces users to homogenize their identity to some extent, and thus removes some of the authenticity of online communication.

Although Cheney’s argument caused Robert Scoble to go ballistic about the virtues of real names online, Harry McCracken Jared Newman at Technologizer had similar concerns about the impact that Facebook comments might have, saying it could result in comments that are “more hospitable, but also less interesting.” And social-business consultant Stowe Boyd is also worried that implementing Facebook’s comments is a continuation of what he calls the “strip-malling of the web.” As he puts it:

Facebook personalizes in the most trivial of ways, like the Starbucks barristas writing your name on the cup, but they totally miss the deeper stata of our sociality. But they don’t care: they are selling us, not helping us.

There’s no question that for some people, having to put their real name on everything they do online simply isn’t going to work, because they feel uncomfortable blending their personal lives with their professional lives. Those people will likely never use Facebook comments, and that is a real deterrent to hitching your wagon to the social network entirely. At GigaOM, we are continuing to monitor how our readers are responding to Facebook comments, and we are working on the best way to integrate our existing comments with them so no one gets left out.

But the biggest reason not to rest all of your hopes on Facebook comments is that Facebook logins are not a cure for bad comments, real names or no real names. The only cure is something that takes a lot more effort than implementing a plugin, and that is being active in those comments — in other words, actually becoming part of an ongoing conversation with your readers, even if what they say happens to be negative in some cases. This is a point that Matt Thompson of National Public Radio made in a recent blog post, in which he talked about the ways to improve the quality of comments:

Whether online or offline, people act out the most when they don’t see anyone in charge. Next time you see dreck being slung in the bowels of a news story comment thread, see if you can detect whether anyone from the news organization is jumping in and setting the tone.

As Thompson notes, the standard defense for not doing this is a lack of time, and responding to reader comments definitely takes time. But it’s something that we feel strongly about here at GigaOM, and it’s something that we are determined to do, to the best of our ability — regardless of whether it is through our regular comment feature, or through the Facebook plugin. In the end, it’s not the tool that matters, it’s the connection that it allows with readers, and that can’t be automated.

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  1. Erik Bigelow Monday, March 7, 2011

    Thanks for keeping the ability to have regular comments. I now check techcrunch less because I know I can’t (ok won’t) comment anymore.

    1. I’m with you on this one. I also check TC less now and comment much less there, and I also would’ve done the same if Gigaom kept only the Facebook commenting system.

      It would be even better, from my point of view, to use Disqus, since I wouldn’t have to put my name and e-mail in here every time I comment, but I suppose you may be avoiding it so you only get comments from people who actually feel the need to write a more valuable comment.

      1. Same here. I deleted TC from my bookmarks and have made it a point to visit GigaOM and Mashable more as I no longer feel comfortable in participating in their FB comments experiment and do not feel a part of the blog posts any more.

      2. Disqus is a more democratic way of commenting when compared to Facebook. I have reduced my visits to TC by half after they implemented Facebook plugin.

    2. Exactly. Count another one as spending less time on TechCrunch, in part because of their comments system.

      Slate has been featuring Facebook comments over their own Fray comment section, and comment quality is much lower in the Facebook section.

      1. Meant to say also that the FB comments on TechCrunch seem to have lowered comment quality there. I have a bogus FB account that I can easily use to make comments, but I don’t learn enough from TechCrunch’s FB comments to even look at that section any more.

    3. I agree with Erik. I don’t read TC anymore because there’s little point to not getting the valuable feedback to a story that the comments provided. (I can put up with trolls and spam to get the useful critical comments.)

      I don’t use FB, and I have the Facebook Disconnect plugin (http://goo.gl/uSyb) installed, which helpfully removes all of the FB dreck from any webpage. One helpful effect of this is that when I visit a TechCrunch page, I don’t even _see_ the comment section as I’m not logged into FB.

  2. Facebook comments are discriminatory and should not be used for any blog that wants an open discussion. Facebook is a walled garden of people with friends and is not for discriminating folks with taste.

    1. Of course!
      When someone add facebook comments to their blog/site, they help Mark to earn even more.

  3. As I can see, facebook never filter comments – even comments in their own fanpage. By hand, atleast.

    Simply view stupid comments saying “please add me as a friend” in comments for Facebook’s own fan page updates. So how can I expect some anti-spam thing ?

    WordPress has atleast Akismet or its own algorithm to detect spams. But, as I can see, facebook has nothing.

    1. Spasm Detection indeed !

  4. Same here. I deleted my facebook account a long time ago, so I couldnt comment if I wanted too on TC.

  5. Brian Mastenbrook Monday, March 7, 2011

    Much of the discussion about Facebook comments misses or dismisses the point that some people don’t have Facebook accounts. I don’t think it’s as small an issue as has been portrayed. I personally don’t have a Facebook account. I know a number of smart people who either also don’t have one or use their account only to receive information from others. Writing off our opinions may or may not affect the average quality of comments, but it certainly means you’ll never hear the opinions of people who are concerned about Facebook lock-in. For an industry analysis site, that’s a very bad idea.

  6. fred wilson Monday, March 7, 2011

    word, word, word

    i am not going to blog about this because of my obvious conflicts wrt to our investment in disqus

    but i’ve told MG this privately

    you have to manage comments just like you have to manage people

    commenters are people after all

    1. And as I’ve said in response, I definitely agree to a certain extent. But you also have to acknowledge the extreme circumstances. Trust me, many of us have been heavily involved in the comments, but when you have posts with 500 to 1,000 or more, it’s way too much for one person to do. We’d need a full staff working on it 24/7. Not saying we’re opposed to that, but it’s not as easy as you guys make it seem — believe me, we’ve been trying.

      There’s a reason why companies as large as Google (with YouTube) can’t clean up their comments either. At a certain threshold the masses take over regardless.

      As we’ve said, FB just an experiment for now. But it’s a really interesting one how it’s working so far. I still agree that better moderation tools are needed regardless of who makes them.

      1. MG, I know you and Erick are pretty good about responding to comments — this wasn’t intended as a jab at you guys at all. And I know it can be overwhelming when you get thousands. I’m not saying it’s easy by any means.

      2. MG, I’m not sure if you have noticed that the TC comments are worst now, not many people are engaging on your posts, no discussions, also url ‘s are not hyperlinked. I see a lot less comments, cause people are not comfortable using facebook to comment, I have stopped commenting cause facebook is for my friends/family and I like to keep the tech stuff separate. I’m guessing you have heard this hundreds of times so far. But I guess the facebook comments might be getting u guys back more pageviews, ultimately thats what TC is looking for, more pageview = more Ad dollars, dont really care about readers, thats Sad. Love your posts though.

      3. Why not just partially/wholly crowdsource this task (e.g., a rating system, etc.)? This would not only reduce the perceived “problem” and reduce costs, but also strengthen ties with your core audience, making them even more valuable from an ad sales perspective.

    2. I’d actually really like to hear more of your thoughts on it precisely because you believe enough to invest in a much more open product.

      Investors are people after all, and other people don’t buy what you do but why you do it.

    3. Thanks for the comment, Fred — you are a great example to any blogger of how to engage in the comments, and the value that can come from doing so.

  7. Facebook comments is great for topics like music or movies that you don’t mind your friends and family reading about, but tech? Too niche and anything I write is going to become a turn-off to the people in my life who don’t understand/care about that stuff. Rookie move if you ask me.

    1. “but tech? Too niche”

      Speaking of niches, anybody notice, noms de plume aside, how overwhelmingly male this discussion likely is? I doubt even car sites or SI are as one-sided.

  8. I will not use FB to post comments because I do not want a FB account. I do not want to be friended, nor do I want to share or receive endless streams of minutiae and noise. If I want to hear from someone I knew 20 or 30 years ago, I will find them with various search engines. If websites will require a FB account for readers to participate in debates, they will lose a significant number of visitors.

    I think in the short term, the sites like TechCrunch that insist on this lets-hitch-a-ride-with-the-rising-star strategy will see less obnoxious comments, but that will last only until people start creating fake FB identities just for commenting (how hard is that?). In the meantime, they will take a hit on revenues, as not only will less people read the posts, but there will be less comments, good or bad, for them to run ads alongside.

  9. motionblurred Monday, March 7, 2011

    I don’t use Facebook and probably never will. I block it, along with Adsense, with a browser plugin and haven’t seen comments on TechCrunch since the change. I will also check the site less since the comments, at times, are as intriguing as the story is. You may have to dig through lousy posts to find gems but at times they can be worth it. A problem at TechCrunch is that the bloggers seem to reply to the most ridiculous of comments and leave the more interesting ones alone.

    I get the impression that they would want to get rid of comments altogether. If so, then should do as much. Using Facebook isa half measure that will end up satisfying no one.

  10. Techcrunch’s use of FB/Comments is probably the most high profile use on tech blogs. I take issue with their perceived notion that Facebook’s system has “improved the quality” of their comments. It is more likely that certain polarizing writers are now only receiving one-sided adoration which they are mistaking for “quality.”

    My biggest gripe in this whole thing is the use of the term “trolls.” It’s become fashionable to toss that around at anyone who disagrees or critiques a blog writer, much as Sarah Palin avoids dialogue and discourse by disrespectfully categorizing any of her critics (e.g. “lamestream media” or the Right Wing use of the term “Haters” with regard to anyone who offers an opinion Left of the Far Right). The term “Trolls” is a quick way to avoid the possibility that (a) you may not be right all the time and/or (b) there is another opinion in the World. Let’s drop the term.

    As a Reader, the comment section of TC was part of the personality of that site. Now it’s gone. So are many Readers (at least we don’t stay as long). For deeper insight and less hypy tech news (GigaOM, RRW, Venture Beat et al) the comments are generally more informative and of higher quality, because there is less use of hyperbole as a method to drive traffic.

    If you want to live in a tiny bubble and not take in a plethora of opinions and if your desire is to discourage a pluralistic readership, run with FB/Comments.

    1. Mathew Ingram Tom Monday, March 7, 2011

      Thanks for the comment, Tom — I agree that Facebook comments can remove some of the personality from comment threads. I often liked reading TechCrunch comments, even some of the outrageous ones. And it’s possible that using Facebook may result in less criticism, which isn’t always a good thing. Some things deserve to be criticized.

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