Dark Secret of Blogging #7: Comments are Content

Aug 24, 2012

Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates values his comments as much as his own insight.

This isn’t controversial anymore. We know that a strong community is a huge asset for any site. And as I mentioned previously, the Argo-blogger’s use of her crowd is going to be an essential component of her site’s success. But if we accept that comments are content (or more accurately, that community is content), what does that actually imply?

Answer: It implies we treat comments as content. And what are some of the things we do for content?

Content gets assigned.

Bloggers who’ve put in the investment to build a strong community can use their community as a tool to further their reporting. The image that illustrates this post is a feature from the blog of one of the best community managers I know, the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. Every week or so, he writes a post called “Talk to me like I’m stupid.” In it, he asks his community to offer their best explanations of a concept he’s struggled to understand (how do nuclear bombs work? what are financial derivatives all about?). Then he chooses a winning explanation to highlight. Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum sometimes employs the same tactic. Lifehacker’s Hive Five is another spin on the technique.

Assigning stories to the community is Crowdsourcing 101, of course. Talking Points Memo showed us how this was done, and won a Polk Award for the deed. ProPublica continues to carry the torch, using a distributed crowd to dig into big stories. But I start with the Ta-Nehisi Coates example to demonstrate that you don’t need the excuse of a giant investigation to take advantage of the wisdom of your crowd.

Content gets curated and promoted.

Remember that part about how Ta-Nehisi Coates follows up his content assignments by actually highlighting the best comment as a post on his blog? In the beat-blogging world, we call this “hoisting” comments. Making the voice of the crowd a clear part of the main stream of content on the site is an excellent way to reward participation and encourage more of it. And crucially, it’s often great content in its own right, regardless of its origins.

Content gets edited.

Years ago, online editors used to shirk responsibility for their comments sections with what I call the “‘Thar be dragons’ dodge.” As NiemanLab’s Joshua Benton describes it:

They say “the lawyers” tell them they can’t edit out an obscenity or remove a rude or abusive post without bringing massive legal liability upon themselves — and that the only solutions are to either have a Wild West, anything-goes comments policy or to not have comments in the first place.

“That’s not true,” Benton goes on to explain, “and hasn’t been true since 1996.” (Read that whole article for a well-informed, super-readable summary of the relevant case-law that permits you to rule your comments with a heavy hand without adopting legal responsibility for the comments you leave behind.

A great discussion online is a well-pruned discussion. The single most notable thing about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ relationship with his community is that he’s right in there, in the thick of those comment threads, mixing it up with his community, setting the direction and tone of the conversation, removing unhelpful contributions and encouraging helpful ones – all the stuff an editor does. Go back to the end of that first “Talk to me like I’m stupid” post I linked above and check out his update:

Guys, I’m going to prune the comments just a bit. No one’s said anything offensive. But these threads tend to go long. I want people to have to press “Load More Comments” as little as possible. Sorry for the inconvenience. No disrespect is intended.

!!! He went and deleted perfectly inoffensive comments, because he wanted to up the signal-to-noise ratio in the conversation! He edited the discussion. Did you know you could do that?

All the best communities I’ve seen online involve editors who don’t hesitate to remove whatever they don’t find value in. I like the convention they’ve developed on MetaFilter – when editors delete comments, they leave behind a little bracketed note to the community; e.g. “[few comments removed - please act like you like this place]

On occasion, I’ve described our ideal Argo-bloggers as being activist community managers. But I’m starting to think the label “community manager” leaves something to be desired. “Community editor,” and all it implies, might be more apropos.