57 Comments

Summary:

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.

  11. Always enjoy the author participation here at GigaOm. Your comment streams are usually a lot more civil and enlightening than most on TechCrunch.
    I will not homogenize my commenting with a Facebook sign-on. Site owners need to moderate, bitch-slap, delete when necessary.
    It’s as simple as this — You reap the comments you allow.

  12. The underlying issue is an interesting one, but I don’t think it’s a viable long-term option for blogs/etc. For one, you need readers (especially the contributing reader) more than they need you (i.e., your content as opposed to other content out there), at least from an ad sales perspective. Barriers to participation deters new readers. These and other drawbacks will all likely negatively impact your bottom line. Weighed against what is gained (probably, very little), it probably doesn’t make much sense.

    Plus, this idea has been attempted many times (Various blogs; Blizzard tried it on a huge scale with Real ID; etc.), but each has ended up retreating fairly quickly.

    1. “For one, you need readers (especially the contributing reader) more than they need you (i.e., your content as opposed to other content out there), at least from an ad sales perspective.”

      Yes. I used to comment and read on ZDNet. But some months ago ZDNet changed their commenting system, which made it hard to follow threads. I not only stopped commenting, but stopped using the site altogether.

      I would never comment from a FB account, and if that is my only way to comment, I’ll probably just avoid the site altogether.

  13. @PeterBeddows Monday, March 7, 2011

    I just finished adding my response to @msuster’s “Bothsidesofthetable” blog on his reasons for staying with DISQUS to manage comments on his blog. We are also staying with DISQUS now: In a nutshell, here’s why.

    I’ll resist the temptation to repeat my full response there detailing a related experience I had yesterday in responding to an article posted by @vwadhwa on TC about “Why Silicon Valley Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Returning Home”, using the Fb comments feature.

    Suffice it to say that I discovered, first hand, that the comment post automatically gathered data from my Fb profile to display above the comment ~ none of which was inappropriate or damming in any way but it was irrelevant to the response and I felt the action was intrusive ~ and secondly, the auto-posting back to Fb of my TC comment resulted in people replying to my post within Fb instead of within TC, hence those replies did not trickle through to appear in the original TC article comment stream thereby cutting the posters’ comments off from any response from Vivek Wadhwa and likewise cutting Vivek off from ever seeing, and responding to, those other comments.

    I consider this latter issue to be a particularly limiting element in gaining useful and usable feedback to posts made relying upon Fb as the comment management option and reason enough to not replace DISQUS.

    If you hanker after reading about my specific experience, you can do so here: comments here yet suffice it to say that from an awakening experience, you can do so here: http://disq.us/1d0zv7

  14. Anonymity is not just for calling names and being unprofessional – though that tends to happen.

    I enjoy the fanaticism and the passion that comes with an anonymous name! People actually say what they feel without holding back. That’s not the case when they fear their friends might see their comment and be taken out of context.

    Social groups, anonymous or not, seem to ostracize and point out the trouble makers – real name or not! So the only think facebook protects against – is real, hard, and passionate responses.

    I think I’ll take the bitter with the sweet, otherwise I’ll wind up with something bland and unsatisfying.

    1. Thanks for the comment — I agree that anonymous comments are often more freewheeling, and often more enjoyable as well. I think anonymity is a bit of a red herring, actually — there are plenty of people who make worthwhile comments anonymously, and plenty of people who use their real names and still say terrible things.

  15. I don’t have facebook, am not going to get facebook, and that’s just that. I’ll comment with a good honest comment when I feel strongly about an article.. I’ll even create a log in if the topic is really interesting… but never facebook.

  16. Ted-san Inoue Monday, March 7, 2011

    I fully support the use of non-anonymous comments. The signal to noise is out of control in most message comments to such an extent that I’ve given up reading comments. I am not interested in reading 97 people trying to out-pun each other or otherwise impress us with their wit while three people try to hold an intelligent discussion. Yes, that’s part of the personality of the comments, but unlike obnoxious people talking loudly in public, I can’t just walk away and hold a conversation elsewhere. Anonymous posts drown out intelligent public discourse with pointless drivel.

  17. Rich Griese Monday, March 7, 2011

    Facebook comments will begin to change the internet world.

    Sites will choose if they want to be know of as sites where REAL people comment, or continue to be a place where anons lurk. When you go to your local town hall meeting, and you want to make a comment, you generally have to say who you are. In a democracy we have the idea of the belief in the freedom of speech. I don’t think this applies to the idea of making public comments anonymously.

    The way comments have evolved so far, they have mostly evolved (and I should mention that the computer industry is actually different, but this applies to the news, politics, and religion sites more…) into a den of hate and trolls.

    When I see people making comments like “if I can’t post as anon I generally will post less…” I think GREAT! That will reduce the clutter on the internet. I personally only want to read posts that people are proud to associate with their real life persons. So anything that reduces anons… I am all for.

    Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

  18. In case you haven’t read this one yet…
    Zuckerberg’s stifling and twisted vision – http://bit.ly/g3qCDl <– Great post by Lauren Weinstein

    1. Thanks — that is a good post. Appreciate the link.

  19. Glad you kept the regular comments.

    I will no longer comment at Techcrunch. I would guess that FaceBook comments are mandated by AOL and Techcrunch probably doesn’t have much say in the matter.

  20. For me the greatest problem with facebook comments is that facebook is slowly herding the internet into facebook. The internet is the internet because it is so open but slowly and surely facebook is assimilating it
    in a next few years you might see blogs, websites etc become part of facebook can only be accessed if you are logged into your facebook account.

    1. Maybe but one could substitute AOL or MySpace at certain points in time. My personal feeling is Facebook will implode or become less important at some point – we currently don’t know what will upset/replace it but something will.

  21. I used to visit Techcrunch everyday but I will find my tech news at other sites that don’t force me to use my facebook identity if I wish to comment.

    When I make a comment, in regards to a blog post, it is specifically written for the readers of that particular post. No-one else.

    Cheers Don

  22. Nice article. I’m new to GigaOM, but I’m enjoying it and plan to stick around. Personally, I love Facebook for what it is and I use it daily, but I much prefer not to have my FB identity attached to the various sites I comment on. It not about hiding my identity; it’s just about keeping my interests separate. If there’s something I want to share with FB friends, I will.

    Kudos for keeping the option open!

  23. James Barnes Monday, March 7, 2011

    The notion that Facebook Comments is some kind of quality assurance standard is quite frankly laughable. The notion that everything in our ‘social graph’ can fit into Facebook is hilarious. The notion that leading tech blogs are embracing Facebook Comments for anything is astounding.

    Facebook is the Fisher Price Internet.

    1. I think that the idea is that by attempting to eliminate anons that we can eliminate what used to be called “telephone tough guys”. You know… those folks that are unbelievable rude and hostile when they have the anonymity that the telephone provides. The folks that post the most horrible and vile things because they are anonymous. I for one, and all for it.

      Cheers! Rich Griese

      1. I can see the reasoning behind it Rich. And that authentication of commenters is hugely valuable for some sites (like this one).

        I just don’t think that Facebook Comments is the answer.

  24. Slight tangent, but in the UK it is perceived (rightly or wrongly) that moderating comments can make you liable for comment content. A lot of UK news orgs are hands off for this reason, see http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/04/08/user_comments_ruling/ for 2 examples of recent cases.

  25. Dave Harrison Tuesday, March 8, 2011

    Gigaom:

    How strongly do you feel about this? http://www.myspacecondos.com
    Maybe if people “owned” their comments like Facebook “owns” their profile data they wouldn’t treat comment threads like a vacant lot, but instead would treat it like their own front yard.

    Dave Harrison

    1. @Dave Harrison. Strange idea. The only people who post sign boards in their front yard are businesses, folks selling their house and loonies.

  26. Maggie Mason Tuesday, March 8, 2011

    “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.”

    I agree with this to an extent, especially when you consider moderation, which is like keeping a public space free of graffiti so it doesn’t attract more casual defacement. But I think a much bigger factor than comment participation is the tone you set with your content. If your content is arrogant or uncivil in some way, readers respond in kind. In fact, they amplify.

    1. You are right, Maggie — the content does determine the tone in a lot of ways. Thanks for the comment.

  27. Negative comments, esp on newspaper sites, will not be immediately civilizes (a subject I’ve written about extensively) simply because of Facebook. The amount of comments will indeed go down, but the initial problems–of managing community well–will not be changed.

    Using Facebook login as a default for managing community is like using a piece of software for weeding out offensive words: you end up with ridiculous situations like not being able to mention Dick van Dyke because two of the words in the man’s name are “offensive” as per the program…

    However, I think more about the issue of knitting all the pieces of ourselves together under one blanket entity that does not necessarily have my best intersts at heart. Let’s face it: Facebook’s business model is to gather as much info as possible and to sell it. To FB, it’s all data–to us, it’s our identities. And that disconnect might indeed lead to some very bad selling of identities. Most people don’t understand that small issue.

    1. Good points as always — thanks for the comment, Tish.

  28. Sounds like a clear type of whiner is emerging… the “i won’t read Tech Crunch any more cause they the comments aren’t good any more…”. Pretty sad. Seems the kooks are saying that they only read tech crunch for the anon commenters. they must have been anons cause if they were REAL people the name link would have linked to to their blog, and then these folks would have been reading their blogs. Oh, they couldn’t cause they were all anon with no links and no blogs.

    Someone should do a study, and start to analyze the commenters. I generally only read comments of people that have a link to a blog. I generally just ignore anons. I mean, if someone doesn’t have enough to say to have a blog, and doesn’t respect themselves enough to link their blog to their comments, so that when I read a comment by someone I can link to their blog…. I generally assume they are a 13 year old kind hiding in their parents basement.

    Cheers! Rich Griese

    1. The first paragraph of your post sort of underscores the legitimate complains about the new system (in addition to suggesting that a certain level of irony is at play here). No offense, but I don’t think I’m going out on a ledge to suggest that by starting off by stating, “Sounds like a clear type of whiner is emerging…” you are sort of flame/trollbaiting. Your last sentence, “…13 year old kind of hiding in their parents basement” sort of does the same thing. To each his own, but I consider those types of comment to be deep in the spectrum of “low/no value” on the signal-noise scale.

      Were you to put yourself in my shoes, wouldn’t the fact that a real name is associated with such a comment exemplify that there is no necessary correlation between it and the quality of comments? Doesn’t that sort of lend some degree of validity to folks upset about the issue? If we step offline for a moment and look no further than the current tone of political discourse in the states, matching a name with a comment/opinion does in no way confer quality, or establish even a meaningful threshold for value.

      For the record, I agree that a more rigorous study on this issue would be interesting.

  29. Wendell Dryden Wednesday, March 9, 2011

    When I first started reading TechCrunch – maybe 3 years ago? – I noticed that some people, displeased by a post, stated they were never going to read TC again. Since, over time, readership and comment numbers only increased, I didn’t know what to make of this.

    I liked TC a lot. As a non-techie, uber-newbie to Everything web 2.0, I found it interesting. But about a year ago, I changed my mind. It seemed like there were more troll-baiting posts (posts that said things like “women are no good at…” or “only stupid people are poor…”). Or maybe I changed. Who knows? In any case, I left (mostly after a stream of non-tech-related anti-wikileak rants) and I haven’t been back.

    (Though I’ve had the cravings – and as much for those crazy comment threads as for the articles. I swear, giving up TC is like giving up smoking, except there’s no patch.)

    Anyway, what I wanted to add was my perception that TC’s troll problems were, um…. part of an environment the site carefully nurtured. If they’re serious about going the other direction (smaller and smarter) then adopting this Facebook comment things is a good idea. But for it to work, they are also going to need to curb some of their more wild-eyed, Jerry Springer posts.

    :)

    Sure, it got out of hand. Some parties do when they get really big.

  30. My chief concern is the ability to store comments in my WordPress databases. Aren’t comments that valuable to your organization that you at least want to have that level of control?

    I see that some orgs are cherry picking new posts to add the commenting engine to. Which means that I can either choose to display both WP and Facebook or just one or the other. It’s a bit of an ugly scenario to move in this direction and possibly loose some things in the process.

  31. I’m not currently using facebook comments as i’m fine with what i currently have, but i can see the benefits in how it promotes traffic, as comments are shown on the commenters walls.

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