I have noticed a very interesting trend amongst a number of online writers, which is that they completely ignore commenters. I understand why they do this. But by not participating in the comments sections that are attached to their articles, they are doing themselves and their readers a great disservice, and along the way, missing major opportunities for improvement.
I understand why writers do this. As a fellow professional author, the finances around writing are horrible. In my experiences, monitoring and reading the comments on an article can often take 10% – 20% of the time it took to write the article. For a very popular article, that percentage is much higher. To actively participate in the comments and respond as appropriate takes substantially more effort. I have had articles where I personally posted 20 or more comments in response to people, and some of those comments were as long, thought out, and researched as much as the original article. Clearly, when an author works like this, their per-hour rate starts plummeting. After all, we get paid by the article, not by the comment!
The problem is, the audience does not see it this way. In the audience’s mind, if an article appears on a Web site, and has a comments section, certain expectations are reasonable:
- Any comment they leave, so long as it is within the boundaries of good taste, is on topic (varies widely, but to me, that means: “follows logically as a response to the original post or another person’s comment”), refrains from baseless ad hominem attacks, should be published on the site.
- Any comment which challenges the author’s basic facts and calls the article’s accuracy into question should be responded to.
- Any comments made in private to the author (email, private messaging system, phone call, etc.) should, at the very least, be acknowledged.
Now, some might ask, “who declared these to be the rules of online writing?” Well, it’s simple. These are the rules of courtesy in “the real world”. Why should the Internet be any different? Imagine that you are at a dinner party, and someone says something based on incorrect facts (I don’t know what… perhaps that the Amazon River is not very long). And when someone responds and says, “look, the Amazon River is really long, here’s the Wikipedia article on my phone that shows its length”, the person who made the comment walked away. What would you think of that person? You might think that they were merely rude, but it would not be unexpected to think of them as a coward, or someone who is afraid to admit when they made a mistake. You certainly wouldn’t think, “gee, they’ve got an awful lot of people to speak to here, I can’t blame them for not having the time to participate in this discussion.” What if this person said something highly controversial, and immediately left the room? You would think that they are a complete, utter jerk.
The New York Times has an article today blaming their inability to meet these expectations on a lack of staff. And yeah, I get it. The NYT had a huge problem with open forums, with tons of inappropriate comments being made. It’s how things go. The problem is, their current approach (shutting down comments, restricting the articles that comments can be made on) is infuriating to their readers. In their mind, comments on, say, a travel article talking about trips to Barcelona are less important than comments on Paul Krugman’s latest essay. I can see why. But the funny thing with comments is, you never know where reader-generated value will come from or what it will appear on. Maybe a reader of that travel article knows of a fantastic restaurant in Barcelona that is really inexpensive to eat at and is tourist-friendly? How many comments on the typical Krugman article are written at a level of knowledge (as opposed to knee jerk, emotional reactions both pro and con) that really add value to the discussion? It could very well be, that for the NYT, they would get more aggregate utility from allowing comments on all of their articles except the really big ones. Unlikely for sure, but possible. But they will never find out, will they?
The reality is, for any given site, there will be some articles that generate hundreds of comments, but the overwhelming majority of articles won’t (other than spam bots). What this means, is that the NYT‘s policy is greatly flawed. They should be able to open up their entire site to articles, with a relatively low overhead added to their monitoring efforts.
I recently read an article providing a technical tip. The tip was highly flawed, dangerous, and treated information that was situational as being globally applicable (it said to make certain registry changes, but those entries only existed if you had a particular kind of hardware). Many readers (including myself) responded with all sorts of follow up questions, concerns, and so on. The original author did not respond to any of these comments. You know what message this sends to the readers? That the author shoots out poorly researched articles, and when questions are raised, the author dodges the criticism because they are too busy writing another poorly researched article. The publication’s credibility takes a hit in the process, because the readers see the author’s name a lot less prominently than the site logo.
The real problem here, is the flawed business model that many publishers bring with them when they move online. And even for online-only publications, I can tell you that the economics are wrong. Any publication operating online needs to build into their financial plans the need to accept all reasonable comments and properly respond to them when appropriate. What does that mean? It means that if you are going to rely upon dedicated human moderators, there needs to be enough money in the budget to have enough of them. It also means that you need to include “responding to reader comments as appropriate” in the job title of the writers, and include an evaluation of this in the writers’ regular performance reviews. You have to have your editorial staff doing “spot checks” of the comments to see if the authors are ducking out on this responsibility. All of this needs to be factored into your financial decisions when you are setting up your business.
And many of these comments, especially the critical ones, are quite important to improving the site long term. Maybe there is a writer who is consistently producing outstanding work, and the site would benefit from featuring them more prominently? Perhaps a particular author has a bad habit of mangling facts, and is damaging the reputation of the site? Sometimes an author makes the same silly mistake over and over again, and should fix it (I used to spell “Joel Spolsky” wrong all the time, until a reader pointed it out to me, for example). There are lots of really good reasons to keep an eye on the comments, not just the author, but the editors or producers of a site as well. Does every gripe or complaint need to because “to do” item? Of course not. Do you need to fire every author who gets a lot of criticism? Not at all (and it depends a lot on the nature of the criticism, too). But complaints should be acknowledged (this is called “customer service” in layman’s terms) and aggregate temperature readers of the audience’s feelings to an author should be taken. An author who is taking a lot of legitimate heat on a regular basis… well, maybe it’s time to replace them.
Now, there are some authors that are really good about self-monitoring. And what I’ve seen is true across them, is that they happen to make money by writing, but they would be doing it in one way or another even without a paycheck attached. In fact, many, if not most of them, self-publish some thing that they see no (or negligible) revenue on, but is outside the realm of their paid writing. Not to hold myself up as an ideal example, but I can relate my personal experiences. I write for TechRepublic (which is something like 90% of my writing income), here (free, not even ad revenue), a Web site for weightlifters (I also host, maintain, and run the site at my own expense, zero revenue on it), and some additional freelance writing here and there that I get paid per-piece on. My pay at TechRepublic is the same regardless of how much I respond to reader feedback, but whenever I think about the financial end of things, I never look at it as getting paid merely to write a piece. I have been told many times by the staff that they really appreciate that I respond to reader feedback. While I hope that this comes into play in any internal decisions they make, it is not why I do it. I simply feel that all reader comments deserve to be read by the author, and responded to if they merit a response. It is that simple.
Do I sometimes get nasty comments from readers? Sure. I try my best to handle them with respect and courtesy. As a result, I see relatively few comments that I think cross the line. When I do get one like that, I simply respond to their factual assertions as best I can, always be willing to admit to a mistake and consider that I might be wrong, and state that I am keeping it “above the belt” and appreciate the same. It also helps that the articles I write are almost overwhelmingly factually based; when you stick to talking about facts (how-tos, tips, “my experience with XYZ”, etc.), there really isn’t much that people can get nasty about.
What this revolves around is the fact that a lot of people simply do not understand how to do business on the Web. They feel like the Web is great because it allows them to tweak and tune their existing business models. Old school companies like the Web because they can scale back their call centers and data entry operations, under the guise of giving the user control. And yes, that is a very real benefit to the Web. some companies are really happy because it lets them extend their reach to places that they couldn’t do business before, cut back their traditional advertising costs, and so on. But users don’t go on the Internet with the hope of doing their own data entry or to provide usage data to a vendor. They are there to save time and money. Much of the time, the needs align well. When a company’s site allows users to put in the data themselves, it is almost always faster and easier than having them call a phone number and provide it over a phone, so everyone is happy.
When a user goes to a site to read content, as opposed to reading it in a magazine or newspaper, what are they really looking for? Well, they are looking for a) convenience (fast lookup and delivery, easy access via links to related information) and b) interactivity. By following a model in which the reader feedback is throttled (like the NYT is doing), readers are left only with the convenience of reading it online. Guess what? That is a commodity. Few sites offer a unique mix of content on a consistent basis. That is why I post so infrequently here, because I don’t like to post something here that you couldn’t find elsewhere with a quick search (or would have to pay to get through other sources). For example, if I spend hours fixing a bug on a server because there are only three search results for the error code and none offered a proper fix, I’ll post the fix here (especially if I had to open a vendor ticket to get a fix). My opinions and analysis… well, this is the only place you can find them (hope you like them!), since my writing elsewhere is pretty limited in scope and generally is not opinion/analysis. What this means for publishers, is that if you annoy your readers, they go elsewhere. I don’t have to read the New York Times for anything other than their local news coverage (and hey, I haven’t lived near New York City in a while) and unique editorials/op-ed stuff. I read that publication out of sheer force of habit more than anything else (I subscribed to the email newsletter something like 10 years ago). I used to read the Washington Post as well, but when they stopped sending the newsletters, I stopped reading. That’s how fickle tastes are. I didn’t even notice after a few days that anything was different, other than having a few more minutes in my day.
What can a publisher do? Well, some are obviously choosing human moderation combined with author passivity, and it is clearly a mess for the NYT. Others choose a basic, community monitoring system combined with human moderators. TechRepublic does this, and I think it works out really well. They have a few human moderators who spot check forums, look at stuff flagged as spam, and so on. Other sites (Slashdot always comes to mind here) take it one step father, allowing users to up or down vote each other and their votes count for more after they’ve accrued trust from the community. Personally, I think that the TechRepublic system works the best. Giving the community a lot of control (Slashdot, Digg, etc.) in where content (not just articles, but comments as well) appears, how prominent it is, etc. leads to folks gaming the system. Too many people spend their time on these sites not working for the greater good of the community, but to gain some sort of advantage for themselves.
And again, publishers need to take a hard, honest look at their financials and authors. Can they afford to compensate their writers to not just write, but to spend the time reading and responding to articles? Do they have authors who have the ability to read and respond to articles and keep things professions? A “no” to the first is a sign that they need to change their business model. A “no” to the second indicates that they should consider a different mix of writers.