An open-source tool called Talk is being rolled out on The Washington Post website starting today (6 September), to help reimagine the online commenting experience for both the newsroom and readers.
The tool is developed by The Coral Project, a joint initiative from Mozilla, Washington Post and The New York Times, initially supported by the Knight Foundation and funded by the Democracy Fund, the Rita Allen Foundation, and Mozilla.
Talk is currently live on three sections on washingtonpost.com – business, politics and The Switch blog. Over the coming weeks, it will become more widely available on The Washington Post, and other organisations such as Fairfax Media titles in Australia will start using it.
The tool, which launched in beta in March and is currently on its third version, can be installed by any newsroom using the available documentation, and more features are being added regularly.
Talk's features were designed to improve online commenting for both moderators and commenters. For example, readers are able to view their comment history, mute unwanted commenters, and sort comments under a story by different criteria.
The tool also allows moderators to direct the conversation below the line with a question on topic, and provides them with a badge on their profile to make them easily identifiable by readers. Flagged or reported comments include context to help moderators understand the reasons behind users' actions.
Talk's plug-in structure allows organisations to tweak the functionality of comment spaces, for example making them look different or more restrictive for various stories on the site. The Coral Project is also providing assistance to organisations who want to use Talk or help build it further.
The features for Talk have been developed based on academic research conducted by The Coral Project into online communities, as well as interviews with 150 newsrooms in 30 countries and surveys with different types of commenters.
One of the main findings has been that although trolls and abuse are one of the issues with online comment spaces, the "root cause is that news organisations very often approach the space without any strategy or understanding of what success could look like", said Andrew Losowsky, project lead for The Coral Project.
"If you don't know what you want and a comment can only be acceptable or bad, you're not able to signal to anybody what you are looking for and engage in rewarding the best that comes in," he told Journalism.co.uk.
"If you were collecting food for a food pantry you could place a cardboard box onto the pavement, walk away for a couple days, then come back and hope that people have put food there. Probably what's going to happen is people are gonna through rubbish into the box.
"Instead, you could stand outside a supermarket and write on the box what you want, and if people throw rubbish you can take it out. But if people put food in it, you can write on the box what kind of food you might like to get, and if people understand what you're asking for they might come out with that and give it to you."
Most newsrooms' strategies for online comments have had more in common with the first approach, Losowsky added, and The Coral Project has been focusing on making comments "part of the journalistic mission" as opposed to just looking at them in isolation.
Talk can be used by itself, or as part of the collection of tools developed by The Coral Project to improve online comments.
The suite includes Ask, an open-source tool for receiving user-generated content and contributions from readers during scheduled events, currently used by 13 newsrooms, and a comprehensive guide on best practices for building online communities.
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