Why I’ve found that online communities on media sites always seem doomed to fail
I’ve spent a long time over the years working at media companies and specifically around the software and design that supports commenting and forums. Having watched the Guardian close the “You Tell Us” thread last week, I thought I might jot down some thoughts I have about the experience.
I want to say up front, I love the interactivity of the web. And I think it is a mistake that news companies currently seem to be out-sourcing a lot of the commenting on their articles out to Twitter and Facebook, rather than run it themselves. A lot of people think comments on news sites are toxic, but I’d argue that’s often because they are poorly run, and the company doesn’t really know why it has them. I certainly get annoyed at journalists who are sniffy towards “below the line” commenters, a snobbish attitude that I think belongs back when it was much harder for readers to question your pieces.
At the moment we don’t have comments on the Mirror site where I work, and I must confess it is a slight relief not to be immediately called a twat every time I press publish, but equally I find sites without comments don’t feel as alive. You know an article has had an impact when it has generated hundreds of comments.
But it is forums and communities that I wanted to focus on, with respect to “You Tell Us”. It strikes me as the latest in a long line of similar online communities I’ve been involved in, and I wanted to try and draw out a commonality that they all have. And it may not make welcome reading for those who have devoted such a long time to participating in them.
There are five communities over the years that I wanted to particularly look at – the BBC’s old Doctor Who message boards, the BBC Points Of View board, the BBC’s Archers messageboards, and the Guardian’s Talkboards and “You Tell Us” thread. They are all places that I’ve enjoyed dipping into and contributing too, sometimes as just a chit-chatty contributor, and sometimes in a more official capacity.
And this is what I think binds them together.
1. The behaviour of the regular users becomes self-limiting for the community as a whole
What I’ve seen again and again is that a hardcore knot of the community become hyperactive on the board, and this begins to inhibit new users from posting. A classic example, from the Points Of View boards, would be that someone would post saying they think Bruno was being a bit harsh on Strictly with his judging. A regular would immediately reply along the lines of “yes we’ve done this topic to death, there’s a thread from the last series here.” It’s not a welcome. It’s an intimidating conversation killer.
If you ever start saying that to the community, they immediately accuse you of lying, and say that no they welcome people with open arms. It doesn’t matter that you can see the metrics on new registrations and new posters. It doesn’t matter that you’ve done user-testing sessions where you’ve shown people the boards and they’ve told you that they’d quite like to post but they wouldn’t because it feels unfriendly. The community can’t see it.
2. The community believes they are representative of the primary audience
After a while communities like this become pretty fixed in their size, with a shared bunch of in-jokes and references. But a key thing seems to happen. They seem to begin to think and act like they are the key primary audience of the media company. Of course we are, they say, who uses your website more than us? We’re here every day, hanging out, and commenting on your programmes or discussing your articles.
It’s really hard to convey to them what an edge case they are – only a minority of users ever comment, and only a fraction of those will post more than a few comments during the lifetime of their active account. The activity of commenters and forum posters is a classic Zipf curve. I once calculated that “At least 20% of the comments left on the Guardian website each month come from only 2,600 user accounts” at a time when the audience of the website as a whole was in the order of 70 million.
3. The community consequently over-estimates their worth to the organisation
This again I have seen happen over and over. When the BBC closed the Archers messageboard, there was one contributor who was invited on the radio and insisted that corporations would kill to have the dedicated kind of user feedback on their product that the Archers messageboard was giving them about their programme. It isn’t true. If self-selecting forums were a key way of getting user insight, every corporation in the world would be falling over themselves to run messageboards.
Likewise, on the Guardian, at the time of #Nestgate [see here and here to understand what #Nestgate was] and again with the closure of “You Tell Us”, posters insist that it is going to cost the organisation revenue. With an audience now approaching 100 million online, there is literally no way that the incremental page views of a group of a couple of thousand people posting in the same threads every day is going to negatively affect the bottom line. Closing all comments might, but closing individual bits of community while making comments easier to get into for casual posters won’t.
And the business knows this, because it can see all the figures.
4. Change becomes a source of conflict with the organisation
I was Head of UX when there were several unpopular changes to the Guardian commenting system, and I was a Product Manager at the BBC when we migrated Points Of View from the howerd2 system to the DNA system. These were deeply difficult projects, not for the technical complexity, but for managing the messaging to the users. “You’ve destroyed this community”, “You don’t listen to us”, “You don’t know what you are doing” were the kind of comments I would get swamped with.
The community can’t see that they aren’t the only users of a system, or the only potential audience, or seem to remember that they’ve just spent two years telling you how shit the current system is before suddenly falling head-over-heels in love with it the second you announce it is going to change.
And in two years time it all happens again, as the same voices that swore blind they would never post again because of your changes are leading a charge against whatever tech changes come next.
That isn’t to say that development and design work was flawless. For example, I’m personally the idiot who signed off a design banner on the BBC website that was basically a big advert for Sky TV.
But, and this is important, commenting and forums are never as “mission critical” for the organisation as the community involved believe them to be. They are never a big ticket project.
And I’ll never forget that I once moved POV from being threaded to flat, and the Guardian once moved comments from being flat to threaded, and the arguments against the changes I saw were exactly the same each time – “this makes it harder to follow conversations.” It can’t possibly be objectively true.
5. The community lashes out at the people in the organisation who care most about it
Closing the Guardian Talkboards was without doubt the worst weekend of my career to date. At some point in the future, I’ll maybe write a long post about it. It wasn’t done in a way that anybody in the frontline at the Guardian would have chosen, and generated a lot of bad blood. I was pleased to note the other day that one of the “life rafts” that users scrambled to – Not The Talk – is still going.
But it also illustrated another point about dealing with this kind of community.
It is usually the staff who care most about that community that end up bearing the brunt of the abuse from it.
It’s hideously ironic. You can spend hours debating internally what you should or shouldn’t do with a user community and the software you provide for them. But at the end of the day in all these situations there’s usually only a couple of people at a media company who are prepared, or whose job it is, to front up with names and faces and enter the debate.
I’ve seen it over and over again, and usually been the chump prepared to front up and enter the discussion. It’s demoralising – as you watch a community you’ve enjoyed being a part of you turn on you and refuse to countenance any argument that their individual community isn’t entirely the same as “the big picture” for a community platform across a big media site.
I love internet communities so much
The thing is, it makes it a bittersweet experience working on internet communities. I love the interactivity of the web. I love the way it has opened up the media to more voices. And I love laughing and joking and wasting time online talking pish with a familiar bunch of users. Pre-Twitter, forums were my main tool of procrastination, as well as being something I felt should be taken seriously as a customer service channel by media organisations. But it feels like they are incompatible with being hosted by a major media site.
Anyway, that’s my tuppence. Have yours below…
You might also be interested in:
Closing Mustardland – the end of the Archers messageboard
Wonder if the future allows for a scenario that sees media sites integrating social platforms in a way that brings about a sense of community in a seamless fashion. Or would “unofficial” forum boards be the only point of contact…stuff worth pondering about.
Thanks for sharing!
Nice post, Martin. It tallies very closely with my own experience.
As an addition to point 3, in many cases I’ve seen communities launched by smaller publishers become drains on their hosts – costing way more to host and manage than they bring in revenue.
Not the Talk is just a mirror site (probably not the right technical term) now. The feeling was that it worked well as a lifeboat, but it looked too much like Guardian Talk and we’d like our *own* style. We’re on JustTheTalk.com now, still Lost, still wondering what people did last night and still obsessing about politics, football and film.
I think the community knows, deep down, how irrelevant it is to the larger organisation. Certainly on the Guardian boards there was always a note of worry in any discussion about the future – they don’t need us, we’re a backwater, it’s only a matter of time – but the bullish arrogance of any online group gets the upper hand when dealing with outsiders – we’re the best thing on this lousy site, they don’t know what they’ve got here – so, ultimately, that’s how they come across.
It’s that and the fear, too. You make friends on a community like that and if it gets switched off – say, on a Friday afternoon just as you’re leaving work, with no notice – you’re suddenly a million miles from people you talk to every day. So yeah, the fight comes out and I’m sorry for anyone who has to deal with users under those circumstances. When FU died I was in actual tears and spent much of the next two weeks chasing down former users and pulling them on to our liferaft (fubar.nfshost.com, if you’re interested in seeing a tight-knit community fending off wolves). If anyone lashed out, arrogantly decrying the seemingly high-handed nature of our dismissal, well… It’s part solipsism, part shivering self-awareness.
Here’s the bit that I don’t understand, in regards to your point #2:
If, as you say, the BTL comments/commenters are such a negligible share of a site’s overall traffic — why spend so much time, effort and (presumably) money overhauling the comments system/platform at all? Why not just leave in place the platform that the regular users are accustomed to? It doesn’t make sense to me (or most other BTL commenters) for someone to say, on the one hand, that Site X has invested a lot of time, research & effort in overhauling the commenting platform to bring users a better commenting experience but, on the other hand, be utterly dismissive of criticisms by saying, “BTL commenters are such an insignifican part of our audience that pissing them off is no big deal.”
And the response that most of the complainers on the Guardian’s site — which boils down to “you just don’t like it because you don’t like change” is patronising and wrong. When the Beta was announced, I switched over to it because I was hoping it would be an improvement. I switched back after a couple of weeks of trying to get used to it because it was an ugly, unnavigable mess. It still is and I’m afraid they’ve lost me. I’ve gone from using the Guardian as my almost exclusive source of news, on a daily basis, to only ever landing there when someone else links to it.
Not the Talk, linked to in your post, has been rebranded as Just the Talk in an effort to move on from the Guardian and encourage others without having to explain why it was called notthetalk.com. The intention is to switch off notthetalk in future.
All are welcome to join us at http://www.justthetalk.com
I still can’t do threaded converstations. And now they’re on facebook! It’s impossible to follow a conversation.
I spotted comments on a *controversial dog trainers website* recently. Such filth! Although I could do better… but that’s all attached to this person’s name now. Horrible. If you can’t do it properly, better not to do it at all.
I couldn’t even cope with changes when I was staff…
Hi Martin – you make a good point about out-sourcing of comments to social media. The race for ‘shares’ seems to assume that there’s nothing negative said, only positive; but either way, it’s beyond the ability of the organisation to exert some sort of control over the comments as opposed to their own moderation in-house.
Not very nice (in your linked article about the 2,600 users business) to link directly to 4 people’s Guardian accounts. You didn’t need to name them to make your point.
The rest of your piece regarding communities is focused on the economics of it. The point that is missed is, well, the *community* – the good feeling toward the organisation engendered by disparate people coming together to post on topics relating to that organisation. I’ve heard it said that the Talkboards you closed caused at least one marriage. You Tell Us made friends of people all over the globe and spawned several in-person get-togethers. It made all contributors like the Guardian more for providing a comfortable berth for discussion.
But that kind of good-will toward an organisation can’t be measured monetarily, so it’s with a heavy heart that I have to admit that YTU or its like will never come back to the Guardian.
Thanks for that excellent post, which also mirrors my own experience (though I wouldn’t have written it nearly as well!).
One issue which arrises from #1 is that it makes it even harder to try to tackle any issues with certain groups being under-represented in the community, especially when it’s men dominating the existing community and can’t see how their behaviour may be offputting to women.
(There may well be examples the other way round, but with most of my experience being around communities linked to electoral politics, that’s been the common pattern I’ve seen.)
No we didn’t !!! Half of us like the GUT style, and the other half like the JTT mobile style… and then the other half vanished off somewhere different entirely ! Talkboard users eh ?
Echo the point about the teams bearing the brunt… Had to provide security protection at events for the Times Crossword Club community manager at one point, when we changed that set up…
I’m sorry you got all that grief around the closure of the GU Talk. It was a bit gutting for the users, some of us had to do some actual work that Monday, can you imagine the trauma? No hard feelings from me, then or now. Shit happens.
Thanks for all your efforts, and for a very interesting post.
All the best.
Nice article Martin although with the limitation of tweets I can’t agree that Twitter is now your “main tool of procrastination”. I was once accused, incorrectly that I’d spent 36 hours non-stop posting on You Tell Us / What Do You Want to Talk About.
You’re right about the abuse handed out to staff – both journalists and moderators and of course the same posters make the most appalling threats to fellow posters.
And not only does “the clique”, as they’re called on YTU, inhibit new posters from joining, they actively conspire together to get unwanted posters banned and to gang up against writers they don’t like.
The only other point I’ll make concerns the conflict between editorial control and moderation. If as the Guardian’s Natalie Hanman wrote in Sept 2010, “I want to emphasise that Cif is, crucially, about the articles and the comments. Together they make up the complete picture of what we publish”, how can independent moderators decide which comments get published and which get deleted?
Fascinating thanks Martin. I have been one of the YTU regulars for a few years now – Leopold1904 – and I am finding it very difficult to post now anywhere on Cif with the Beta change, so rather than flounce out I am techied out until I replace my old mac mini.
Re the message boards – i only discovered them a week or so before they closed but there was a real community on there – I think there was at least one marriage!
YTU has been a useful distraction for me but not bovvered. The Cif Overlords and we posters never really understood each other as was eyepopplngly obvious when Bella popped on the last thread to say well you have your ‘twitter handles’ to keep in touch (Cif Underground and Cif Untrusted are our refugee camps).
It;s just social media gab. Apparently Salmond was crafting his victory speech on the morning of the referendum because his social media people told him he had won and won well. But in the real world. . .
Thanks to you and to Matt, largely thankless work. Someone rightly said having a teenager was like feeding a crocodile while burning £20 notes, which is what building cybergab scaffolding must be like.
Really interesting, thank you. I was around at the time of the Guardian unlimited shut down and can remember all too well some of the personal comments directed at the site administrators.
This article describes really well the dynamics of GuT as it had become then (the “closed shop” feel), and also the dynamic of NottheTalk as it is now.
Just out of interest, how much are you allowed to tell your posters when you choose to shut down a site? For instance, what you’ve written here about figures (which you can see and posters can’t), would that have helped if you’d mentioned it at the time, or would you have anticipated another maelstrom of self justifications which would have made it just not worth your while?
Good article as usual, Martin. I would agree with most of it (or most of the bits that I know anything about, which is the user end of the experience) though I think the threading/nesting paradox may be less inexplicable than you suggest.
That is, it seems to me that it worked fine on less busy threads on the Guardian but was catastrophic for conversation on really popular ones. There seems to me to be a sort of criticial mass after which it just generates incoherence. So it can work or not work according to the level of traffic.
As for the clique element of places like YTU, this is of course true. I can remember feeling a bit intimidated myself before first posting there (and I was already a regular poster on other parts of CIF)
I don’t know what can be done about that. However it does seem to me that there is something incredibly brutal about suddenly closing down a forum in which people have socialised for five years, ten years or even more (with about a day’s warning in the the case of YTU)
It is hard to think of a non-digital equivalent – the best I can do is to think of a local pub – except the Guardian (or whoever) built the pub and invited people in and waited until it had become an integral part of their life, and a real community had developed, and then one day the members of that community turn up to find it has been bulldozed overnight.
In real life that sort of behavior would cause outrage and fury and, it seems to me, that it is not surprising that it causes outrage and fury when it happens to online communities.
In fact, I think it is a bit astonishing that the media company would think that this is a reasonable way to behave.
A good read.
It was a shame to see GUT go.
“At least 20% of the comments left on the Guardian website each month come from only 2,600 user accounts”
Actually it’s even more dire than you portray, given that some posters have several accounts in a month, (something you don’t mention) not necessarily at the same time but as one is closed down, another is opened. I once managed 7 in less than a fortnight but that was nothing to one poster who could manage as many on a single Friday night.
Add to this the fact that at least one of the Guardian’s more prolific posters had her entire posting history deleted – “This Guardian Censorship of the Comment is Free historical record in almost beyond belief.” – http://abv8.me/4c4, made the historical record of many CiF articles somewhat obscure.
When some aspiring PhD student decides to research the impact of CiF, he or she’s going to find some rather large gaps to deal with.
Something I would like to say a bit more about this is:
“Change becomes a source of conflict with the organisation”
This is obviously true. But it seems to me that from the development point of view this is generally expressed as “people don’t like change,” or even “there are some luddites who don’t like change.”
But if you express this as “people find change in websites hard to cope with” it looks different.
Age is important here. Younger people are more likely to find it easier to adapt to new looks, new systems, new applications, even new social media coming along.
So for publications aimed at teenagers this may be a different issue. But to take the Guardian, I came to comment is free some years after belatedly getting online because I have been a Guardian reader since 1973, and I know that many other commentators are older than me and have been reading the paper even longer.
For us it really might be seriously difficult to cope with changes that seem relatively trivial to hip young web developers.
By saying that people are “resistant” or that they “don’t like” change the onus is put on them, as if it is their fault. But if you accept that changes an actually make it difficult for people to continue to take part in something that has become an important part of their lives then it looks different.
To continue the pub analogy above, it is as if the old local, one day is stripped out and turned into a disco/sports pub with strobe lights and the real beer replaced with flaming sambucas, and the old regulars are told to “stop moaning” (actual twitter quote from a young Guardian (sic) journo).
This is a huge subject because it covers so much more than comment sites for media organisations.
A couple of years ago I did a course on dementia studies at Stirling University and did a module on design and technology with regard to dementia. Good design can really improve the lives of people with dementia as can certain technologies.
However, it is abundantly clear that most tech is designed without a thought to how hard people with the onset of dementia, people who are older and no longer find learning new stuff easy, really anyone who is not part of the digital bubble, are going to find to access it.
Now, you might protest that cutting edge web designers can’t really worry about people with dementia who are mostly unlikely to use the products anyway. But that is just the extreme of a continuum of people who struggle to learn to use these forums and websites, and find change deeply problematic.
And as the link to the Telegraph article shows, it is increasingly not just about whether you want to comment on a Guardian article but is about whether you can deal with the authorities, pay your parking fee, do your banking. Easyjet no longer have an option to check in at a check in desk. You have to check in online.
So I think, at the very least, people should start talking about users who find change difficult to cope with rather than people who don’t “like” change, as if it were simply some sort of blinkered conservatism on their part.
For me there are two distinct issues here.
1. The overall Beta design with big blue and cerise banners, and soft grey fonts is unsightly. I am sure that the underpinnings of the old R2 website were cranky and needed rewriting. What goes on under the skin is not of direct concern to me, I am a customer who looks at the appearance and functionality of the product. In the 1950s Ford in the USA produced their best most sophisticated car to date. It was called the Edsel. To me, Beta is the Scott Trust’s Edsel. To stretch my analogy to breaking point, I am now buying General Motors.
In the 90%:9%:1% debate, while the 1 and the 9 are small in number they are constant, high volume users. The 90 are likely occasional visitors. Do you build a business by focusing on your regular trade or do you abandon them with a view to the occasional walk in off the street trade?. Many a pub has gone bust by getting that one wrong.
2. CiF and specifically YTU. It was unfortunate that YTU was closed. I can understand why; it had become the centre of opposition to Beta and by closing it the opposition went away and life became more comfortable at King Cross. The Hamsters are not paid to be abused any more than British Leyland workers were paid to be abused in the early 70s for producing rubbish cars. I found the new system dysfunctional and stopped posting. I had been a regular since 2006 with over 3.5k posts (so I am definitely a 1% er) but I just gave up as it lost all enjoyment and, unlike the Hamsters, I was not being paid to do the job.
By changing both the appearance and functionality of the website, the Guardian has lost a lot of goodwill. The problem in the end was that we 9% and 1% ers cared more about the guardianonline than it cared about us. A divorce became inevitable once the affair with the pretty App in the mobile phone department started.
“I certainly get annoyed at journalists who are sniffy towards “below the line” commenters, a snobbish attitude that I think belongs back when it was much harder for readers to question your pieces.” …
“I must confess it is a slight relief not to be immediately called a twat every time I press publish,”
The problem is that in most professions being constantly harassed, abused and put down for doing the job you’re doing to the best of your ability would be regarded as a serious workplace issue. For journalists expected to engage with online communities they’re sneered at for not appreciating the experience of being bullied and having their work denigrated – regardless of what’s happening in their lives, if they are feeling fragile, if the topic is deeply personal they are still expected to suck it up and are seen as letting people down if they don’t engage.
I think it’s important to recognise that the cumulative effect of these comments (on some, not all sites) is work place bullying and those journalists who find that abuse difficult to handle need a bit more understanding than simply being regarded as snobs, in my opinion.
But still, great article.
“What I’ve seen again and again is that a hardcore knot of the community become hyperactive on the board, and this begins to inhibit new users from posting”
This is, indeed, still the case with the Justthetalk off-shoot you mentioned. Anyone new joining will be followed around being asked who they “used to be” on GUT and anyone with slightly right of centre opinions will be mobbed or censored until they’re forced off.
This is a great insight, thank you! I have really enjoyed watching the internet community evolve over the years; the good, the bad, the ugly. It’s an endlessly fascinating study of human nature and hearing the opinion of someone who has been in the trenches is valuable. The main thing that I don’t like is the utter lack of manners, if name-calling was globally banned, for instance, imagine the verbal contortions that would happen if we were not allowed to insult each other in any form of public communication? Twitter, forums, commentary. Wait. Sorry. Might be a bit hard to do for some folks. Oh dear, I think I just name called. Sorry again.
Anyway, your insight was a fun and informative read.
I’d argue that not the talk has had some of the same problems as Guardian Talk and other media forums, only on a smaller level, due to having a much more limited number of users. Again a small group think that they are at the heart of the community, behave in a manner that is off-putting to newcomers – in-jokes, trying to guess which user a “new” user was before they “came back” with a “new” name, and a generally solipsistic view of its own importance.
On the one hand it’s great for those who belong to the central group or are outliers who feel close to that group, but it’s unlikely to grow or develop because despite its desire to be less like Guardian Talk, it only exists because of Guardian talk and is now just another small forum on the internet that can only get smaller and not grow, no matter how hard it tries.
An example of this is that a number of former users left the site over ongoing issues which either could not or would not be resolved, partly due to intransigence, partly because this sort of thing happens in forums, but is more noticeable in smaller forums. Since then, the forum has become more insular and self-aggrandising, which again is something that can be seen in larger forums as well. The notion being that the forum is better off without those who have gone, that it is friendlier – when remaining much the same as it was before – and that those who left were the cause of all problems, many of which – surprise, surprise! – still continue. This attitude walks hand in hand with former users being talked about long after their absence, which obviously goes against the notion that the forum is better of without them, but who ever said that internet communities were logical!
In short, Not the Talk/Just the Talk carries on as a much smaller outlier of the original Guardian Talk and is about as welcoming to new contributors/users as Guardian Talk was, i.e., not very. It also lacks what Guardian Talk had, a whole pile of media, news and archives behind it to visit and look through when contributing was not welcoming. It’s unlikely to fall over and “die” anytime soon, but it has a limited life span, because it has nothing unique to offer and relies on other forums for its ideas Mumsnet . The Film Unlimited outlier is probably far more realistic in what and why it is, so although smaller and possibly more insular, any new users are almost certainly welcomed and treated with less aggressiveness than they are on the larger small outlier.
Yes. To all of that, Martin. Thank you.
Perhaps something missed from the article is the churning and ebbing and flowing of users, who at one point may be the gatekeepers and peak-capped inspectors of who is allowed to enter the community and then re-emerge on other sites, after a bust-up, throwing stones at the very community they used to so adore.
There often seems to be a desperation, a panicked, feverish need to keep posting anything, as long as you forever remain there to be seen, to be recognised. Look at me, look at me. Perhaps the Louise Mensch syndrome.
The funny thing is, The Guardian panders to this.
Once, after some fairly minor change, the editor of the time set up a discussion to let people report their reactions.
The editor immediately jumped on a prolific poster and greasily, fawningly asked: “And what do you think about the changes?”
“I couldn’t care less. I just come here to post 500 one-liners a day”.
The funny thing is, once the playground is closed and the toddlers are led away screaming and choking and hiccupping into streams of snot and saliva, they do recover.
They get over it, like the death of a beloved gerbil.
You then see them, washed up on other sites, sometimes trailing figurative lavatory-paper from their previous place of worship and adoration and vendettas and loathing.
It is good that The Guardian only sees its online community as a commodity, a keyboard army on whose backs to make money.
It is just a pity that the community does not see itself as anything like the free labour the government ships to Tesco and Homebase and Asbo, mopping floors and cleaning shelves.
The trick, the stunt to make people so desperate to provide free content that they almost need grief counselling when that facility is taken away is pretty brilliant.
As for the user experience element, people also manage to adapt their behaviour after sites go paywall or change their public face.
You just find somewhere else. The internet is quite big. There are other sites out there.
So, be brave, little soldiers. Dry your eyes and put on happy faces.
You will make it. You are brave and strong and fearless.
There is a world out there just waiting to provide a home for your drivel and bollocks.
It’s difficult to argue against any of the points that you make here Martin.
One of the things that made the YTU thread so fascinating was the fact that a few of the regulars actually put in more hours and ‘published’ more words than any Guardian staff member did each week. Who could have predicted that when the Guardian first opened for comments?
The fundamental fault line there was between the ‘fulltimers’ (and they really were full time – 365 days a year, day and night) and those who popped in from time to time. Any frivolous or off-message comment from somebody who wasn’t a permanent fixture was greeted with howls of outrage and accusations that they must be a ‘far-right racist Zionist Islamophobe troll’. Meanwhile, a deaf ear was turned to some of the truly shocking (rape apologism, Jew-baiting, gypsy-baiting) outbursts from the regulars just so long as they put in the long hours of day and night chitchat.
The place was so dysfunctional – if, at times, entertaining – it’s a mystery that it was tolerated by the Guardian for as long as it was. Having said that, you have to wonder at the impact of an overnight closure to the people who were racking up well over a thousand posts a month: when you spend that much time on a forum it’s long since morphed from a diversion from the tedium of daily life in to life itself.
Hi Martin, great insights. We’re debating all of this at the moment, since our readers demand a place where they can talk to each other, additionally to comments and annotations. We don’t believe in a classic forum like http://try.discourse.org, but we’re also skeptical of something Reddit-like (i.e. http://demo2.telescopeapp.org), because people might be scared off. Now we’re scratching our heads. What would you use if you started something like that today?
The numbers quoted are interesting and if I think a little about it, there’s no reason to doubt them.
There are a few things I noticed about myself and websites that have/lack comments.
I tend not to trust media that has no comments. It feels as if whatever they’re presenting isn’t worth much, or worse, isn’t trustworthy and any commenters might point out the various problems, making writers look bad.
Websites that DO have comments, usually fall into a few categories.
The well kept gardens that punishes trolls, by making their comments less relevant, but not removed. They usually have some rating system and most likely a moderator working behind the scenes.
The careless ones, that let disqus or facebook something similar to deal with everything comment related. I’m neutral about those.
And the troll nests. The websites that allow comments but do no damage control at all. Sometimes even the moderators inflame the posters in some misguided attempt of increasing page views.
as someone who has done it, got the t shirt and still bears the freshly opened scars that the t shirt covers, your excellent piece deserves a longer response.
But as I don’t have time, I’ll just say it is very difficult but it can be done. See Dan Taylor’s comment here and in this thread:
Hi – I used to post fairly frequently on the Guardian’s You Tell Us thread, and I think that this misrepresents the actual nature of it, quite badly.
“The behaviour of the regular users becomes self-limiting for the community as a whole”.
I don’t think this is true. In fact, the opposite really. It was generally one of the more easy-going comment threads on Cif – I didn’t often join in lengthy discussions; I mainly posted requests for articles about the impact of welfare reforms. But on the occasions when I was involved in actual debates with other readers, they were usually far more civil and engaging than on pretty much any other Cif thread. It wasn’t perfect – I wasn’t perfect, either. But strangely, the more unpleasant readers were also the same ones who tended to complain about ‘cliques’. It seemed more a case of their egotism being affronted when their comments were less popular than they perhaps expected; rather than any actual coterie at work. Really – how could there be?
I do sympathise somewhat with this part:
“begins to inhibit new users from posting”…A regular would immediately reply along the lines of “yes we’ve done this topic to death, there’s a thread from the last series here.”
But in all honesty, I can’t recall ever seeing this sentiment on You Tell Us. The closest to it was probably people requesting that other readers let the subject of the middle east lie; but this was not due to superciliousness – it was because the topic invariably brought out the worst in readers, and was a pretext used to pursue long-standing (and remarkably petty) grudges.
I think this is wrong, as well:
“they’d quite like to post but they wouldn’t because it feels unfriendly. ”
Well, where – anywhere – does the counterpart to this exist on the web? Moreover, if You Tell Us was, as site staff and to some extent you yourself imply, a suggestion thread being somehow misused – then what difference would it ever make whether the thread was friendly or not? I grew up ridiculously shy – and even on the internet, for long enough would be a bit hesitant. But the onus is on those of us lacking confidence to overcome this; not on random strangers to second-guess on our behalf.
“again with the closure of “You Tell Us”, posters insist that it is going to cost the organisation revenue.”
I don’t think this one is true, either. If people said that then yes, they arguably would be incorrect – but it was more a case of people objecting to depriving readers of a genuinely open forum (presumably because it would become a hub of criticism for Beta).
I don’t personally consider it a monumental loss – but certainly, enjoy the site less because it means readers can’t discuss subjects on their own initiative anymore.
Although I’d still dearly love to know what was going on around the BBC Boards in September 2009, in the aftermath of the Russel Brand/Jonathan Ross business, in a time of ongoing change to Radio Two. The BBC closed quite a few boards then, and also seemed to take the opportunity it offered to permanently bar anything up to twenty “awkward customers” from its digital services. At a time when morning programming on R2 was being rebuilt around one high-profile presenter, even the most moderate and well-reasoned criticism of Chris Evans was being deleted, moderated, or otherwise prevented from appearing. And there definitely a case for removing offensive or personal criticism of BBC presenters, btw. Some posters could not get the idea that to criticise a show or its production values could be done without offensive comment about the presenter or named individuals. But the BBC seemed not to realise this either and treated ALL criticism as if it were libellious or personally offensive.
At the same time that even the mildest criticism of Chris Evans as successor to Terry Wogan was – apparently – unacceptible to the BBC and was being moderated off as soon as it appeared, one strange board member was allowed to get away with the most offensive and personal jibes at outgoing presenter Sarah Kennedy. Not once, but dozens of times. This person, who called himself “Scot Clout”, “Scott Nelson” or loads of variants on a theme, appeared to be able to get away with murder. People who reported his posts for offence and breach of house rules were told they were being malicious time-wasters and warned they would end up in premod themselves.
After Sarah K let the BBC in still-not-explained circumstances, people posted wondering if Chris Evans had, indirectly, been the reason for her going. This time the posters were not just moderated, they were barred and expelled. One poster barred at this time says they went several years back into his posting history to find reasons, including retro-barring posts already cleared by BBC moderators as safe to publish, It was as if some sort of Stalinist revision was going on and the boards were being manipulated to give the impression of 100% unanimous devotion to Chris Evans. within weeks of the blood-letting, the BBC Radio Two boards were closed – the very last posting ever was one in praise of Chris Evans….
Martin – obviously, I can’t speak for the NotTheTalk community, because nobody can, really, but two points:
1. It’s Just the Talk these days. Just as film moved on to make the fabulous Mostly Film website and community, we moved on to make a limpingly ironic statement on the fact that we were Over GUT.
2. Your status as ‘Lead User Architect’ has gone down in legend. Certainly I started following you on twitter as a result of your obviously honest efforts to stem the tide of despair (while abusing you simultaneously, natch, for which I am sorry). You’re part of the legend, the history.
Please, do come and join in again. That’s JusttheTalk, people.
Perhaps I should add that I don’t agree with the commentator above; there are new posters to JusttheTalk, and it remains largely jovial and entertaining; I certainly find it to be, still, one of the more entertaining, albeit obscure, corners of the internet. I genuinely laugh out loud at posts from there at least once a day.
Just over a hundred years ago, politics was pretty intense over such things as Irish Home Rule. Political campaigning depended on public meetings, and the heckling could be close to a riot. Churchill was once smuggled away from a meeting by the Police, lest he be lynched.
Few of us can be old enough to remember the time before radio and TV started to protect the politicians from that sort of response.
Social media may be bringing about a return of heckling, and the politicians don’t like it.
And a lot of the problems you describe with comment threads, such as the way a community can be hostile to newcomers, seem little different to the stories my parents told me about the factions of the W.I. and the Chapel.
They don’t make a big thing of it when you’re watching, though it isn’t hidden. A political TV programme such as Question Time is not live, and has a selected audience. That’s the world our politicians see, even as the social media start to change things.
I suspect a comment thread is not so different in content from the letters that used to be sent to a newspaper; just bigger and un-edited. And the selection of opinions in the past maybe hid some things.
And how does the snall number of commenters compare o the public mettings of the past? The Manchester Free Trade Hall had a capacity of 2500.
Great post, thanks for sharing. I was immediately struck by parallels with face to face engagement efforts by local government and other public services. I feel I’ve observed #1 occurring repeatedly in public forums run by local councils, and Mark Pack’s comment above re. gender also resonates in relation to this.
It feels as though 2 and 3 also apply. There are individuals who, through their repeated take up of invitations to ‘have their voice heard’ or whatever the strapline of the month is, come in to fairly frequent contact with officers and feel frustrated when they don’t see the changes they demand, perhaps partly because they are over-estimating the weight of their say. This is perpetuated by organisations and institutions who provide pretty paltry resources in staff time and actual funds for citizens or people who care about a service to come together and for one or more of their number to ‘represent’ them. It insanely difficult to represent a diversity of views, experiences, needs and ideas, yet this is glossed over by basic diagrams of structures which suggest it’s all so simple.
And no doubt there are thousands of public sector service staff and their intermediaries across the land who identify with #5.
I guess what we’re seeing through the online communities you have written about and the face to face interactions we have with local services are the same old power dynamics playing out over and over. I have great hope that this will change, as we learn to build systems in new ways. However we need to watch out for the behaviours you’ve described, they feel like a fairly default position which we’ve come to accept.
Great observations Martin. As someone who founded and runs a small media site (for the Isle of Wight) with a very strong commenting community (and formerly strong discussion forum) I can relate to many of the problems you’ve experienced on a larger scale.
Great read and great inside perspective.
I would refine one of your points to be: Management doesn’t usually know why they have an online community. They’re just ticking a box because they’ve heard they need to.
And while communities are usually in alignment with the values of a company, they are often not aligned with the profit model.
Very interesting article, I guess what nobody wants to acknowledge is that eyeballs are cheap online. It’s all algorithms. I used to work on a 1% figure, 1% of eyeballs will comment, and 1% of those will be worth reading etc! But big numbers impress advertisers, the big bill payers!
What the last 20 years of Internet conversations has taught us is that opinions are everywhere, but hardly worth collecting. People will always want to share their crazy ideas with you, and there can be money in it – but not as an add on to the worthless but expensive opinions found in the mainstream media.
The future is the likes of Mumsnet, and Pistonheads. The internet was always about helping every niche worldwide to connect, not getting the entire world in one room for a general chat. The future looks bright.
The soviet style heavy censorship present on the BBC & Guardian ‘communities’ are terrible examples as they are never allowed to organically flourish as these organisations have too many handwringing moderators forming the narrative to their own agenda.
By calling it a “community” you’re buying into the BS.
The reality is that most people are just letting off steam. I know for example, that absolutely nobody who counts, who has power or has to make choice or decision, gives a single flying cluck about what I think however I express it in a comment.
Having a comment section allows me – totally powerless – to at least be given the impression I count for something, even though deep down I know it’s all a complete waste of energy.
Quite often though the article itself is just plain wrong, hasn’t been researched properly, is an outright lie or exaggeration or is otherwise defective (often deliberately so). You’ll find a lot of your readers *really do* know a lot more about some given subject than the writer. This is particularly true when it comes to science reporting, which is often terrible.
Of course it too can be objectively true that both the move from threaded to flat commenting systems and vice versa are bad moves: it’s all about what the users are used to.
Even UI specialists completely underestimate how much such technical decisions impact people’s ability to use it and because of this it also influences how the communities that spring up in them evolve.
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