How do publishers cultivate robust, civil commenting communities? Commenting is the mother's milk of user generated content, deepening community engagement and encouraging site stickiness. Here are 5 ways to cultivate a robust commenting culture:
Gawker is just as interesting for the reaction within its commenting culture to pop culture events as it is for the initial post that actually started the conversation. Gawker Media publisher Nick Denton -- and his then second-in-command Lockhart Steele, now publisher at Eater -- figured it out early that a well cultivated commenting community creates an additional experience, enhancing the overall editorial product.
PerezHilton.com and TMZ, on the other hand, are publishers with robust but vapid commenting cultures (although Perez appears now to be aiming for a more serious editorial tone). Editorial subject matter often mirrors the commenting culture. Publishers of political sites that take extreme positions, not unlike the more salacious gossip sites, are probably the most vulnerable to the threat of thread hijacking.
Well argued and entertaining comments enhance any site's editorial mission. The natural enemy of the well ordered commenting cosmos is the flame. Some form of tiered commenting method is probably the best way to deal with anonymous flamers. Anonymity, for all its headaches, is the accepted practice in online commenting and that's probably never going to change.
Gawker, which in many ways is a cross between PerezHilton.com, TMZ and -- on its better days -- Vanity Fair, has a pretty complex commenting hierarchy. It began, five years ago, with the star commenter system and has evolved, after its recent traffic explosion, into a more philosophically elitist but highly effective way to manage their three biggest problems: trolls, "fanboys" and thread hijackers (Full disclosure: I am an infrequent starred commenter at Gawker). In both the star commenting system and in the further tiering the site gives greater weight to commenters that have a proven track record of relevance.
Aggressive moderation is not a bad thing. Comment moderating tools cut down on spam. Community powered moderation -- crowdsourcing as is found at sites like Slashdot -- also keeps the flamers from ruining discussions. That having been said, never underestimate the power of good old pro active, manual moderation. A combination of all three goes a long way in separating the wheat from the chaff.
Editorial can no longer remain aloof in the digital age. Online writers should participate in the conversation, if only to briefly check in and make corrections or to steer the thread's development back to the original post or even down more interesting conversational avenues. Pageview bonuses could give writers a strong incentive to stick around after the story is posted.
The Awl is very good at replying in the comments section, and their commenting culture -- civilized, funny, urbane -- reflects the interactivity between the contributors, the publishers and the commenters.
What's your comments moderation policy? Should you have one?