broken windows
Credit: By Luton Anderson on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
The topic of online abuse has been coming under scrutiny in recent weeks as society explores ways to apply the same social norms and repercussions of anti-social behaviour from real life to social interaction on the internet. In social media, the police are being consulted with regards to escalating threats of violence against women in the media on Twitter – from assault, to rape and, most recently, bomb threats – while Mary Beard is dealing with trolls by threatening to tell the offender's mother.

Comment threads on web publications, especially when related to contentious stories, can become similarly heated, but the impact of disputes between two parties can be much more wide-ranging. The tone of reader engagement can lift or sully a digital publication enormously: affecting readers' relationships with each other, the value of the published content, editorial ideas, editorial-reader relationships, commercial partnerships and website traffic.

Here we explore how and why these factors can be affected, and why paying careful attention to your community engagement – whatever the size – is essential.

Reader relationships

Readers comment on sites for a variety of reasons: to offer more information, debate an issue they may disagree with, praise the writer or subject of an article or simply to join in the conversation on a topic they are passionate about. These can apply anywhere, but at a niche publication like the entertainment, technology and media site Digital Spy, the importance of comment threads is magnified because of the nature of the topics concerned.

"Our users are very passionate and more than anything they want to talk about things they love with people on a similar wavelength," Digital Spy's product strategist and former head of community, Tom Miller, told Journalism.co.uk. When some readers don't have an outlet for those passions in their friendship groups or at work, community threads become the context in which readers can talk with people "on the same level of fandom", said Miller.

Actively having a passion or interest in the subject matter can have both a positive and negative fallout, but David Higgerson, digital publishing director at Trinity Mirror Regionals, maintains that a quality comment is one "seeking to engage in a discussion which evolves from a piece of content" and the real issue is in keeping conversations civil.

"The biggest single challenge for us," he told Journalism.co.uk, "has been how do you build a community that doesn't scare off other members of the community."

In that respect, the Guardian's community manager, Laura Oliver, compared comment threads and social media engagement to real life social situations.

"If there are people dominating a conversation, whether it's a good conversation or not, it's hard to put yourself into that conversation even if you think you've got something to contribute," she said. "It can be off-putting and it can make you feel slightly alienated from that topic or from that website or from that party you've gone to."

Modern media is like reading the news article in the middle of the town square with people screaming in my ear what I should believe about itDietram Scheufele, professor in science communication, University of Wisconsin
Closed and personal arguments or the same tired debates over familiar topics can end up driving people away from comment threads and from the website as a whole.

"There are sections where you might want it to be a niche group of people having a discussion and that can be really interesting to read because they're the people who know about this story or this speciality," continued Oliver. "That's fine, but it's more where it is the same ideological discussions being raised on a number of articles on a topic and it just seems to be an endless pattern of the same conversation."


The science of trolling

These arguments – conducted with little decorum over contentious subjects – can have more of an effect on casual readers than simply alienating them from the site.

Writing in the New York Times in March, Professors Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele explained how a study they had recently published at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Climate Change Communication found that insulting comments in an article affect the reader's understanding of its content.

Participants were given a balanced article on the pros and cons of nanotechnology with a varied tone of comments below the line – either civil, or rude. The results were not pretty.

"Our emerging online media landscape has created a new public forum without the traditional social norms and self-regulation that typically govern our in-person exchanges," wrote the professors, illuminating a trend many have recognised but few have sought to actively quantify, "and that medium, increasingly, shapes both what we know and what we think we know."

While the participants who read the article with civil comments felt no differently about nanotechnology from before they read the article, those who read a mixture of rude and insulting comments were polarised and had their opinions magnified after reading.

Analysing the study for non-profit news organisation Mother Jones, Chris Mooney likened readers' reactions to a defence mechanism: having one's opinions insulted results in an emotional reaction to preserve and strengthen the victim's sense of identity and intellectual independence.

"It appeared that pushing people's emotional buttons through derogatory comments, made them double down on their pre-existing beliefs," wrote Mooney, while Scheufele said the modern media environment is like "reading the news article in the middle of the town square with people screaming in my ear what I should believe about it".

So a balanced and considered article that outlines all the issues surrounding a topic can be completely undermined by trolls below the line.

"We chose the issue of nanotechnology because the issue has been quite unknown among the public so it was more likely that they would rely on some kind of mental shortcut to make sense of the story," Brossard told Journalism.co.uk.

"Anything for which people may have some kind of emotional response, or for which just technical knowledge won't be able to actually determine an attitude, these types of effects are likely to also be present."

When a large part of a news organisation's function is to inform the public of new or complex information, having that role distorted by negative comments can potentially impact the wider issues of public debate and an engaged, informed electorate.

We want people to challenge us and our editorial line in a friendly and constructive way Laura Oliver, community manager, the Guardian
As such, the New York Times filters personal attacks out of comment debates or the thread may be turned off altogether, dependent on how contentious an issue may be. But, as with the recent article on genetically-modified foods in which some comments were brought into the article, a little healthy, sourced and scientific debate can improve people's engagement and understanding.

"A lot of people can make what sound like scientific claims to support their opinions," NYTimes.com's deputy editor of interactive news, Marc Lavallee, told Journalism.co.uk. "Going through the comments on that story alone, you see people put up those kind of things or ask questions and other people come in with links to studies or explainers to show where those people are wrong.

"Sometimes you see that collective or cooperative search for truth or factual statements. If left a little bit more to their own devices it could quickly devolve into the types of patterns that have chilling effects on comments, but being penned in a little bit I think has a really positive effect."

For the reader, both casual and committed, a guiding hand or an 'adult in the room' to make sure comment threads abide by established social norms in real life make for a more informative, welcoming and enjoyable experience.

Editorial engagement

The effects of comments on editorial can also be wide-ranging, not least because they provide a quick and easy way for readers or sources to spot any potential mistakes.

"We want people to challenge us and our editorial line," said Oliver, "and perhaps point out, in a friendly and constructive way, where we might have missed something. On reporting or other things too, because we're accountable and that's part of us being open."

Beyond that, a higher degree of engagement is useful to the editorial team in terms of sourcing stories and understanding the readership better.

"I'm a big fan of taking comments and using them as reaction articles," said David Higgerson, "or feeding them into editorial conferences to say 'this is what people are saying on this story' and looking at ways that we can evolve what people are saying into content that we can produce further down the line."

Most of Trinity Mirror's regional sites feature a comment box alongside any live blogs they may be running, said Higgerson, through which readers can offer new information or ask questions about the events being covered, a tactic Oliver said was also used at the Guardian.

"It's a very good way of letting the user shape the way that we deliver news to them," continued Higgerson, "because we're chasing the stories that they care about – which is what we've always done as journalists."

People associate what they see in the comments as a reflection on the brandDavid Higgerson, digital publishing director, Trinity Mirror Regionals
This broader topic of communities and user-generated content complementing original stories is a regular theme of modern newsrooms – CNN's iReport, the Guardian's Witness and third party platforms such as Scoopshot being recent examples – but the reader-writer relationship may also become abusive around contentious issues.

"We'll always remove it if it's hurtful or personal to the writers," said Miller of his work at Digital Spy. "They shouldn't have to put up with that kind of thing and if we go back to the days of editors letters there's no way that an editor would ever publish that so we don't feel obliged to. If someone is just a bit irate because we've made a mistake or they've misunderstood something then we'll step in and correct them either as a moderator or as the author."

The website is a shop window

Despite comment threads not being produced by the organisation that hosts them, they are still published by that organisation and therefore can reflect back on the host site.

At Trinity Mirror, Higgerson described how one of the regional titles ran a story about "overseas patients" who would visit the UK from abroad, receive treatment on the NHS and leave without paying their bill. The comment thread quickly devolved into xenophobia, anti-immigration rants and general themes of prejudice, he said. The title received a lot of complaints and reports via email about the comments from readers, but there were no opposing voices in the comments.

"If you looked through the comments you would assume that that's what everybody thought but it's much more likely that people saw just how negative and off topic the comments were and chose not to get involved," he said. "So it can have a very negative impact on the site."

Not only were the comments driving readers away from the discussion but it was having a potentially damaging effect on the site, and the commenting facility was removed.

We're taking a broken windows approach to annotationsZach Seward, senior editor, Quartz
In another example, comments may be left open on a report about a fatal car crash for the purpose of tributes, but people will begin speculating as to whether the driver was speeding almost immediately, he explained. Regardless of whether or not that is the case, publishing negative or dismissive opinions about a local death when a family is grieving reflects badly on a local news site.

"That's not the sort of discussion thread that we can tolerate in our role in the local community," Higgerson said, "and the danger then is that people see the brand as being very negative and critical when its not the brand at all, it's the people commenting on there. But people do associate with what they see in the comments as a reflection on the brand itself."

Tom Miller echoed these thoughts when it came to Digital Spy, believing it to be especially relevant to a smaller publication with a committed and engaged readership.

"Negativity always impacts the tone of the site on the whole," he said. "When people talk about Digital Spy they are talking about the content and the audience who are commenting, so we are careful about which comments we choose to publish."

Creating a positive environment for community and engagement to flourish gives readers a reason to come back and drives traffic, a factor that the website can use to attract commercial partners.

"It's not a great advert, if you will, for other readers or web users who enjoy participating on other sites if we don't make it as welcoming as possible for them as well," said Oliver.

If the publication is your home, then comment threads are the party you are hosting. Business site Quartz, which launched last September, introduced comments to its site this week in the form of paragraph annotations. One of Quartz's senior editors, Zach Seward, told Journalism.co.uk how the team was taking a sociological approach.

"You may be familiar with the theory in sociology of broken windows," he said. "In an urban environment, disrepair can lead to further disrepair and crime. One effective technique for reducing crime is just to make conditions in the city better so people respond to that in a positive way.

"We're taking a broken windows approach to annotations. If we allow for abusive commentary we're only going to beget still further abusive and even worse commentary from there."

See this article on Journalism.co.uk for some practical ways news organisations are working to improve the quality of comments and the overall experience for commenters and other readers alike.

Update: This article has been amended to show that professors Brossard and Scheufele's work was conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, not George Mason University.

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