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Summary:

Some newspaper publishers have said that introducing Facebook comments has cut down on offensive commentary and boosted traffic. But it’s worth remembering that Facebook is not the cure for bad behavior, and that handing over comments to the social network means relinquishing control over something important.

When Facebook launched the ability to embed Facebook comments on third-party websites, a lot of publishers saw it as a life-saver: not only would it improve traffic by exposing their content to others on the social network, but Facebook’s “real names” policy would also cut down on trolling and bad behavior. And some newspaper and media sites have seen a big traffic boost from implementing Facebook comments — including several that were profiled in a recent post at the Poynter Institute, such as the Los Angeles Times, which has credited Facebook with improving its web results. But it’s worth remembering that Facebook is not the cure for bad comments, and that handing over comments means relinquishing control over something important.

In his Poynter post, Jeff Sonderman notes that the L.A. Times has noticed both a decline in name-calling and other bad behavior from online commenters, and an increase in traffic as a result of implementing Facebook comments on its blogs. Jimmy Orr, the online managing editor at the newspaper, said that he suspects the better quality of comments is a result of Facebook requiring real names from its users. “Trolls don’t like their friends to know that they’re trolls,” he told Poynter. The newspaper also saw 5-percent growth in the number of unique visitors since it implemented Facebook comments.

Orr says that the L.A. Times has had what amounts to a laboratory experiment going on with respect to comments, since its news stories are still published with its existing in-house commenting system — which allows pseudonyms — and its blogs have been using Facebook comments. As Sonderman describes, the news stories frequently get long, argumentative comments using racist language and expletives, whereas the blog comments on similar issues are much more restrained:

A similar post on the Times’ LA Now breaking news blog, which uses Facebook Comments, drew out some disagreements, but the commenters were generally well-mannered and stayed on the topic of the post.

For some, anonymous comments have value

But not everyone believes in the value of requiring “real names” as a way of ensuring harmony in online comments: As a recent article at NetNewsCheck describes, the news site Cleveland.com, which is run by the same company that owns the Cleveland Plain-Dealer newspaper and its sister publication the Sun News, has decided to continue allowing anonymous comments — despite the fact that it was the target of a $50-million lawsuit from a local judge related to comments that were incorrectly attributed to her.

Why would Cleveland.com want to do this? Editor-in-chief Denise Polverine says that the decision was driven by a desire to have as many viewpoints represented as possible, something that requiring real names might deter, and that the site also sees the value in allowing anonymous tipsters to alert it to stories. The editor in charge of another news site — Ohio.com, run by the Akron Beacon-Journal — told NetNewsCheck that some of its biggest news stories have come from such anonymous tips, “so we don’t want to discourage people from sharing information.”

Some have also pointed out that when it comes to contentious topics, many people are happy to make offensive or distasteful comments with their so-called “real name” attached (although since determining actual real names is not an easy task, these types of policies often just involve “real-sounding” names). Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast, for example, wrote recently about some offensive reader comments at the Fox News website that appeared after an atheist appeared on one of the network’s shows, encouraging (among other things) the shooting of atheists.

Real names can also exclude valuable viewpoints

We’ve written before about the virtues of anonymity both when it comes to reader comments and elsewhere — such as at Facebook and Google+, both of whom pursue a real-name policy despite the obvious impact that doing so has on dissidents and other marginalized groups. Although removing anonymity (or pseudonymity) can remove some of the trolling and flame-wars that consume comment threads, it also risks removing opinions and viewpoints that would never be expressed if the commenter had to put their name on it. There are any number of valid reasons why someone wouldn’t want to do this.

There’s no question that integrating Facebook comments can provide a traffic boost for publishers and other websites, simply because the social network is so huge. The Huffington Post has credited Facebook integration with generating a huge amount of traffic and comments — the site said that within just a few months of implementing Facebook Connect logins, it saw the number of comments almost double and traffic from Facebook climbed by 500 percent. This kind of boost is the carrot that the network uses to convince publishers that Facebook comments are worth offering.

But that carrot comes with a stick, or at least a downside, and that is the fact that Facebook ultimately owns one of the most important elements of your interaction with your readers: namely, the interaction that comes with reading and responding to comments. Obviously you can do all the same things with those comments as you would have previously, but Facebook controls what happens to them — how they look and function — and it also more or less controls the data behind those comments (although sites can export that data and use it internally). What happens if Facebook decides that the content of a comment doesn’t meet its standards?

Should you outsource your customer service?

As Reynolds Journalism Fellow Joy Mayer noted in her recent report on newsroom engagement, which I wrote about earlier, interacting with readers is a crucial element of what publishers have to do now, and she encourages newspapers and other media outlets to require that writers “own” the comments on the stories they write. She also notes — as we have in the past — that one of the best ways to improve the quality of your comments is to engage with readers in them, not to outsource them to someone else.

In the long run, handing comments over to Facebook may increase traffic, but it could also make it easier for publishers to simply ignore their comments and not engage as much as they would have otherwise. Why should they, if Facebook is handling them? This is a little like a retailer outsourcing their customer service to an outside firm: it might take a frustrating element of the business off their plate, but it also hands control of a crucial element of customer interaction over to a third party.

The bottom line is that when publishers feel attracted to the carrot that Facebook offers with comments, they should be sure to think about what they are giving up as well.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Jeremy King

  1. “Real names can also exclude valuable viewpoints”

    With millions of people commenting on sites, I personally doubt that one person who “cannot” comment without using a fake name is going to be missed. Someone with a real name will surely have the same viewpoint. I don’t see any of the arguments for using fake names as valid.

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    1. Interesting that you frame this as “real” or “fake”. According to Google, your nickname is “fake” if it’s not the one on your driver’s license. You do understand that Lady Gaga is fake using this criterion, yes?

      “Real names” do not guarantee civil behavior any more than using a pseudonym (think Mark Twain) guarantees uncivil behavior.

      I have grown weary of reading comments like these, 99.9% of the time from men who seem to have no ability to understand what it might be like to been stalked or raped or of simply being a minority.

      I highly recommend danah boyd’s writings on this topic. And then there’s mine, of course. http://wiredpen.com/2011/08/05/google-facebook-and-online-identity-the-problem-with-real-names-and-why-it-matters-to-you/

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      1. Good points, Kathy.

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    2. Oh. And Facebook’s real names policy is a Joke of major magnitude. I know from personal experience because of the trolls on my FB page (not profile, page).

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      1. Vadim Lavrusik Friday, August 19, 2011

        To your point, “a joke of major magnitude” isn’t research. It’s anecdotal, as you say. We work hard to make sure the majority of our users are using their authentic identity, while at the same time taking into account that the system isn’t always perfect, which is also why our Comments system detects FB profiles that may not be legitimate.

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      2. @ Vadim: You may work hard, but what counts is results, not efforts. For example, I know many businesses which use profiles instead of pages, and the names don’t sound half-real for a person. And they have the profiles for years. How can you dream of weeding out fake names of people when your system doesn’t pick up a sizeable restaurant franchize.

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  2. Hi, Mathew, you missed a downside: you don’t even *see* the comments on TechCrunch, for example, if you’re using Chrome with FB Disconnect. There was a thread on, I believe, Google+ about this. [Note, if you access TechCrunch via an incognito page in Chrome you'll see the comments.]

    I’m very wary of claims like Orr’s – “Trolls don’t like their friends to know that they’re trolls.” I’ve not seen any research that backs up the opinion. Anecdotal “we don’t have as many trolls since implementing FB” stories aren’t research. They’re anecdotes (and the bane of journalism, IMO).

    I do not think that news organizations — which should have public service as part of their purpose for being — should privilege one system (proprietary to boot) for interaction. Given that I don’t *see* an opportunity to comment on the LATimes when I go there with Chrome, it looks like that’s what they have done. This is BAD business, IMO. If FB was “one” system but not the “only” system, that would be a different story. See http://skitch.com/kegill/ft8e4/latimes-chrome

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    1. Vadim Lavrusik Friday, August 19, 2011

      I’m not sure what you mean by “privilege one system” as comments platforms are usually one system, whether that’s disqus, wordpress, or something else. Also, you’re excluding the point that the comments are exportable by the organization.

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      1. You privilege one system if you only allow comments from one site with one registration setup. This site is allowign me to validate myself from a variety of different sites.

        Forcing the use of just one site, especially a site that deliberately excludes through policy, like Facebook, means some people cannot comment or won’t be able to speak freely.

        If Faebook is one of the options, it’s not privileged, if it’s the only option? Your privieging Facebook and excluding those who don’t, can’t or won’t have an account at Facebook.

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  3. This is a very well written post. Facebook commenting is great for 13-28 year olds, but what happens to the people who think Facebook is a joke? I have no interest in sharing my viewpoints on GigaOm, TechCrunch, Etc…to my friends from college. Why would Facebook have the monopoly on my comments?

    Great post.

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    1. Thanks, John.

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  4. Personally I never post a comment that requires a login through another site. Talkin about getting stalked and compromising personal information…

    Also sites that only allow third party login comments only attract people who love attention for what they post. To the exclusion of people who prefer not to be ‘on stage’. Some people just don’t care to have their name on everything. Some people just like to be more private.

    By excluding this ‘Private’ crowd, comments will always be by the same type of people and automatically exclude other viewpoints.

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  5. I’ve used this pseudonym since for ever and don’t hide my url – Hell, nobody online would know me if I didn’t post as PXLated – I love reading comments. In a lot of cases they provide more insight then the post. Since Techcrunch went with Facebook, I have once visited their site. And what’s funny, I haven’t missed a thing. Comments should be open and the trolls just managed.

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  6. I’ve used this pseudonym since for ever and don’t hide my url – Hell, nobody online would know me if I didn’t post as PXLated – I love reading comments. In a lot of cases they provide more insight then the post. Since Techcrunch went with Facebook, I haven’t once visited their site. And what’s funny, I haven’t missed a thing. Comments should be open and trolls just managed.

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  7. One important thing to say is that Facebook is block, in a lot of company intranet. Employees read news in the office computer. I have to stop using TechCrunch and other news web sites like BBC (since they implement Facebook too deep in their site and now doesn’t work right in my corporate restricted internet).

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    1. Thanks, Moya — that’s a good point.

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  8. This was a good article, made more credible by the fact that GigaOm does a good job with article comments and allowing anonymous posts without requiring a real name.

    I think sites should continue to allow anonymous post and just monitor them closely. I agree with Mayer’s opinion of writers owning the content. This approach seems to work well for this site.

    For example, Mathew Ingram’s involvement with the comments on this article and any other article that he publishes creates better points and conversations within the comments about the article itself.

    Commenters names do not matter, it’s what they say that does.

    As for lewd comments, profanity, name-calling, etc., etc… There’s a simple cure. The publisher should simply not tolerate it and make that known, and also make it known what’s done to prevent it. For example a publisher could state something along the lines of:

    “We monitor our comments closely. Profanity, name-calling and other irrelevant comments will be removed immediately. In addition, the commenters IP address will be logged and will no longer be able to comment on this site.”

    Keep up the great stories GigaOm. I stay tuned due to your original stories and excellent writing.

    Kind Regards.

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    1. Much appreciated, John — thanks for the comment.

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  9. With open commenting the average of all comments was crap, but the standard deviation was large enough to included at least a few useful or insightful comments. This is a result of everyone being able to comment, a larger pool of people and opinions.

    With closed comment system the average quality of the comments improve but the standard deviation will be so low as to exclude any truly useful or insightful comments. This is a result of fewer people that are part of a self-selected sub-population that enjoys social networks.

    The end result of facebook comments is average comments, which are useful to no one except those looking for pats on the back or the ego-boost of a metric to judge reader numbers.

    I certainly wouldn’t be commenting here if it required a facebook, or similar, account.

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  10. Facebook wants a part of China so it makes sense its strategy is to oblige people to put their real names.

    Unfortunately for 20% of the people on earth (even more), they cannot say what they want to say.

    I believe that anonymous comments should be allowed in the same way that Quora allow me to post an answer as “anonymous” if i don’t feel comfortable with revealing my identity.

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  11. I have actually published, a little while long ago, a study on a scholarly journal exactly analyzing reader comments on news websites.

    At the time, only the Wall Street Journal, among top newspapers, required real names for reader comments. Facebook’s comment feature wasn’t around yet at that point.

    The results on that study clearly showed that the quality of comments at the WSJ was significantly better than those in every other paper, showing that requiring names did directly relate to “better comments.”

    And as many people were participating in those discussions, which didn’t seem to show readers being “turned off” by the name requirement – just those that didn’t believe enough or were courageous enough to stand by their own comments.

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    1. Thanks for that info, Danny.

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    2. Mary Hamilton Monday, August 22, 2011

      I’d be interested in seeing this study. Did you control for other factors? What makes you so certain that requiring “real” names was directly causing “better” comments?

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    3. Linking a name to a comment is not the issue for some of us. The idea of linking it to a very personal Facebook account is disturbing. I await the first court case of stalking due to comments made on some site that some mentally unbalanced individual did not care for. Not everyone sets their privacy settings well.

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  12. I used to be a regular commenter on few sites, including Techcrunch. But ever since they’ve switched to FB comment platform I stopped participating in discussions and eventually stopped reading the site altogether.

    The fact that my real identity should be connected to a comment that has absolutely nothing to do with with my personal or professional life keeps me from utilizing FB logins. It’s a marketplace of ideas not personalities.

    If your site has lots of trolls maybe you should evaluate the content policy and write in a way that does not encourage pointless noise and fanboi slapfights.

    I applaud those who place value on pseudonymity.

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  13. Sorry but ‘Real Names’ is not the issue. It’s a red herring. Any commenting product can enforce login with FB and force ‘Real Names’.

    The real issues for real media companies (real meaning they are interested in profiting from their content and their audience – and have a real strategy team and product team who focuses on long term view rather than short term shiny objects) are as follows:

    1. Do they own the branding
    2. Do they own the data
    3. Do they own the the customer relationship (e.g. when a user logs in, are they able to KNOW who the user is and REACH them for newsletters, offers and other *business* activities)
    4. Are they able to customize and differentiate the experience to tailor it for their unique community needs (ever major brand has it’s own style – mcdonalds doesn’t work for everyone). If all your competitors are using the same vanilla system, there is no point of differentiation
    5. Are they able to integrate single signon so that when you log into the site you are ALSO logged into the comment system in a *seamless* way. Major media don’t appreciate silicon valley b2c companies leveraging their audience to grow their own user base and engagement numbers
    6. Cross integration into OTHER onsite experiences such as trending content, forums, community streams, live blogging, moderation dashboards etc
    7. Are they able to leverage their investment into those other on-site products into the comment product. E.g. Plugins written to modify the Forum product behavior can/should be usable in the comment product and vice/versa
    8. Control over the bad word filters, spam filters
    9. Game mechanics to drive more desirable behavior and curtail negative behavior in ways that go WAY beyond ‘real names’
    10. The ability for users to log in with other social networks – each who have important user bases/contexts (Twitter, Google, Yahoo, etc)
    11. Most importantly, the ability to SHARE to MULTIPLE social networks so that they can not just get return traffic from FB, but ALSO from Twitter
    12. Aggregation of conversations from other social networks so they can get a COMPLETE view of the reaction to their content.

    On and on…

    Reuters, ESPN, NBCU, Washington Post, Turner Sports, Rainbow Media, Newsweek/Daily Beast, NYmag and many others have made this calculation and PAY for their comments from Echo because they understand that the business of publishing means owning your own platform and leveraging social networks as distribution. Not the other way around.

    “Nothing is more expensive than Free”

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  14. Charlie Anzman Saturday, August 20, 2011

    I literally stopped commenting on sites using Facebook comments as they implemented them. I can see the positives and negatives but I honestly think Facebook has pushed the envelope on a number of fronts, going beyond ‘smart’ to a potential social problem. I don’t have that issue with other start-ups or Google+. I think Facebook seriously needs to be more transparent and engage their own audience.

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  15. .@beacongal MOAR info on #facebook comments for news orgs http://t.co/Z41gmHsM http://t.co/iynHX6aD http://t.co/h0XoPDFq

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  16. A5. Handing comments over to Facebook is a double-edged sword http://t.co/h0XoPDFq via @mathewi #jrcchat

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