How to avoid comments at GetReligion

258Troll sprayOut there in cyberspace, insiders seem to be doing some fresh thinking about their love-hate relationships with their regular readers and frequent comment-part writers (including trolls). I took a stab at that topic the other day here at GetReligion, so you can click here if you want to see that.

Why does this matter?

Actually, a very serious journalistic subject is looming in the background.

Editors, advertisers and other principalities and powers are starting to judge the worthiness of weblog work (and ordinary online journalism work, as well) by a new standard — the number of comments that a post receives. In other words, a post that gets 193,290 comments on the faith journey of Britney Spears is much better, much more worthy of financial support even, than a nice essay on the future of ancient Christianity in war-torn Iraq, which received 4 comments. Make sense?

At the same time, high comment counts are not everything. I mean, many of those Britney comments probably focused on Madonna, elective surgery and, well, never mind.

Meanwhile, the online “commentocracy” is also a major force in the world of American politics, especially, at this point in time, on the left. But the dynamics between editors, the world of online statistics and the realities of bomb-throwing fans and trolls remains the same. Here’s an interesting passage in a piece by Daniel Libit at The Politico. In the first sentence, add the word “religion” right after the word “culture” and you can see what I am thinking.

Across the Web, political sites (along with those dedicated to other mainstream distractions like music, culture and sports) are accumulating such a mass of reader responses that it is changing the very nature of the online exchange. Unique commenting communities, cultures and hierarchies have formed at various sites, distinguished from one another by the province’s ideology, protocol and professionalism.

Web sites ranging from the smallest of blogs straight through to The New York Times are struggling to discourage spammers and bomb-throwers without tamping down the larger, productive give-and-take.

Writers and editors have become obsessed with comment tallies (even if many don’t deign to read the comments themselves), which have become a favored, albeit unreliable, barometer for determining editorial success and tapping into the political zeitgeist.

“I’ve seen great blog posts and great articles that get zero comments, and some of it is the writing,” says LATimes.com Executive Editor Meredith Artley. “I also see people try way too hard to get comments. I think it’s nice to engage at every turn but the number of comments you get on a story and blog post isn’t everything. We have to tell a lot of new bloggers that here. They get upset after a month or two that they are only getting a
handful of comments a day.”

Here at GetReligion, we are well aware that certain subjects cause more comments than others, including the work of trolls that like to set straw men on fire — thus driving up comment-page statistics. Some cynical readers out there may even believe that this leads to lots and lots of GetReligion writing about clashes between lesbigay Episcopalians and conservative believers in California. If Mormons are involved, that’s even better.

Trust me, we would avoid some of those stories — if the mainstream press didn’t devote so much ink to them.

We also know how to avoid receiving comments on GetReligion posts and what we have learned, frankly, often makes us depressed. We realize that this is a comment on the nature of cyberspace communities, but all we have to do to avoid comments is write posts that:

* Praise the work of mainstream journalists. Negative writing inspires more debate.

* Focus on trends in Judaism, Islam or other faith groups that (in U.S. media) are not all of that powerful or viewed as out of the mainstream.

* Try to call attention to journalistic issues linked to foreign-news coverage about religion.

* Openly seek calm, informative feedback from readers about how to solve a journalistic puzzle that really needs to be solved.

So if you want to throw cold water on a comments board, all you have do is write a post that praises a mainstream news organization for its insightful coverage of an important event on the other side of the world, while also asking for feedback about the issue that’s involved.

Right, that’s the ticket.

So, what can editors in cyberspace do to improve their statistics, while covering the hard-to-cover subjects that we all know are important, but are not as sexy as, oh, stories that are about Britney or other easy subjects?

Right. Sorry. I just asked for feedback again about how to improve coverage of crucial religion issues on the other side of the planet. My mistake.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://paulwilkinson.wordpress.com Paul Wilkinson

    I had a blog for a few months at e4god.com, but the whole site got spammed to death and was shut down early this month. It’s unfortunate that we find ourselves in the present situation, but despite the downside, it’s encouraging when mainstream media like USA Today joins the ranks of those accepting comments, as they did about a year ago. Vox populi is becoming normative with the new technology. I think eventually print media will catch on and increase the space given to letters to the editor.

    Some sites certainly elicit a large number of comments from both regular and occasional readers, but there are also some great sites that contain buried treasure waiting to be discovered. Engaging in dialog on those sites is just as exciting — and certainly more intimate — than getting into a war of words (and doctrine) on the more popular ones. I’d rather be one of a small handful of posters on a lesser site, but know that it’s getting seen and could change someone’s life, than to be comment #337 in the middle of a major verbal battle that will never get read by anybody.

    And hopefully a computer somewhere can be programmed to at least monitor that people are staying on topic.

  • http://www.truyoo.com Shaun G

    I’ll reiterate what I wrote in the earlier post, since it’s self-promotional and all. But still relevant.

    Media sites that accept reader comments currently have few ways to effectively combat trolls and other abusive users. E-mail address bans don’t work. IP address bans don’t work. Even complaining to ISPs doesn’t work.

    But Truyoo (www.truyoo.com) gives sites a way to ensure the good behavior of their users. In fact, it offers a Good Behavior Guarantee: “If a Truyoo user violates your site’s terms of service — you get $1, and they get banned for good.”

    With Truyoo, media sites can greatly reduce the time they spend policing user content.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to have a troll-free Web?

  • http://notyourvidas.tumblr.com Josh

    I find this really interesting here because there has been a somewhat similar conversation going on over at another blog I frequent, Blazer’s Edge. I know that this is a sports blog, but I think that some of the ideas that have come up are still a little related. This was a post about ideology of the site and why the comments are good. This one was just a reminder about keeping comments on topic, related to some of the problems mentioned here about high comment counts sometimes being unrelated to the actual subject of a post. These last two are only partially related, but it’s a two-part look at a potential guide for giving media credentials to sports bloggers, which relates a little to the looming journalistic subject mentioned (Part 1, Part 2).

  • Mark Ruzon

    Well, what do you guys want to get out of producing GetReligion? Popularity in the short term or a lasting impact in the long term? Doing both is more luck than anything else.

    As a religious person, I am personally more interested in the long view.

  • Jerry

    There are some topics on which I have nothing to say because you said it all. Maybe a voting button for those of us who want to say “nice job” but don’t want to clutter the comments section?

    As you imply, popularity is not necessarily related to quality. If you wanted to be stars in the blogosphere you could limit your coverage to anti-abortion gay Mormons supporting McCain who have a beef to pick with conservative African pro-Obama Anglicans who claim to also be Wahhabi Muslims on the topic of pro-birth control married basketball playing starlets who claim to be Catholic priests:-)

    So sometimes striving for quality means that you’ll be speaking to a small audience and I think there’s nothing wrong with that.

    One thing that you might consider is to look for link partners. What other web sites or blogs are covering a similar beat as here? Or maybe you could find some high quality web sites might like to link to specific stories such as the Muslim/Cairo one?

    Trust me, we would avoid some of those stories — if the mainstream press didn’t devote so much ink to them.

    I do have one critique: following the MSM coverage. I think it’s a mistake to be beholden to the popularity of a story. Rather, I think it’s a good idea to cover the less popular stories that stand out in other ways.

  • http://www.chipsmith.blogspot.com/ Chip

    One way to ensure that you get comments is to title your post “How to avoid comments at GetReligion.” :)

    I am most likely to comment on GetReligion when I disagree with the post. If I don’t think that I have anything to say that adds to the conversation, then I won’t leave a comment.

    In your list of the type of posts that don’t get comments, many of them are about topics that I don’t have much knowledge. Your audience is not primarily journalists, although it is always great when journalists show up in the comment thread. When you ask for feedback about journalism issue, I don’t feel qualified to answer. When it comes to stories about religions other than my own, I don’t know if the story “got religion” because I know I don’t “get” that religion (at least not with the depth necessary to add to the conversation)

    So, what can editors in cyberspace do to improve their statistics, while covering the hard-to-cover subjects that we all know are important, but are not as sexy as, oh, stories that are about Britney or other easy subjects?

    Well, I would suggest that the writers at GetReligion pay little (not none, but little) attention to number of comments on a post, because I don’t think that’s a good measure of the success of a post. Of course, since you are not driven by advertising, having statistics probably does not matter to you nearly as much as it would to the editor of a newspaper. Not being a journalist, I don’t know that I have any advice about improving statistics. But nobody has really figured out to pay for journalism in the age of craigslist.

  • FW Ken

    I stopped commenting here because of the toxic nature of some comment threads and also, being a non-journalist, I’m not sure I have that much to contribute. However, I do read most of the postings, so you should get “credit” for holding my attention, even if I am not up to doing battle with trolls.

    Blogs used to be rated by the number of visitors, and I still see site meters in a lot of places. That seems a better measure of success than number of comments. I think you can even distinguish number of individual persons (probably really IP addresses) from number of site hits, and also number of times an individual page is read.

    For the rest, I agree with #4 and $5 – work for the joy of the work. Rewards/recognition will come in the long run.

  • http://blog.lestourgeon.us Brian LeStourgeon

    This is a great site. I read everyday and only leave comments when I think I have something productive to offer. Keep up the good work.

  • http://www.millennialstar.org Ivan Wolfe

    Ditto to #8. I enjoy nearly every post, but often don’t feel like I have much to say. Keep up the great work, though. The complainers, I think, just prove you’re on the right track.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Another ditto to #8. Regarding your current request for feedback: how much English language media do you review from Israel and the rest of the Middle East?

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Excellent post. Comments are a strange thing – PZ Myers’ posts on his blog about communion bread have received 2000+ comments, but most of them are atheists and theists calling each other playground names, and substantive comment(ary) is virtually nonexistant – and what is there is impossible to follow because of all of the name-calling posts. ESPN regularly gets 100′s of comments on their articles – and they are usually some form of “Go USC!” vs. “Go OSU!” I read a number of blogs that make me thankful for the low entry costs of publishing on the web. Then I read comments like the ones I mentioned, and I start to wonder if the entry costs ought to be a little bit higher.

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  • http://www.northlandcatholic.blogspot.com Ray from MN

    If I see more than 20 comments on a post, I almost never would bother to make my own comment, figuring that by that number, the discussion would have degenerated into fights between two or more of the commenters and knowledgeable readers would not be reading the comments any longer.

    Or, somebody would already have made my point and I don’t want to waste my time reading all the comments to see if that were so.

  • Karen

    As a reader, I appreciate papers or magazines, such as Salon, that designate “editor’s choice” comments; I am more inclined to read into the comment section if someone has already sifted through the mass for the good bits.

    It’s disappointing that comment counts are gaining in importance as a quality marker. I, myself, rarely make comment.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Considering that 95-99% of a site’s visitors do not comment, comments are usually not a good indication of much of anything.

  • Chris Bolinger

    …I start to wonder if the entry costs ought to be a little bit higher.

    My point exactly (in a comment to a previous blog post).

  • Jerry

    I like the idea of editor’s choice comments.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    NPR’s On the Media had a nice segment Friday about comments and those who comment.

  • Dave

    I have no problem adding on to a long list of comments; I know the diligent participants will scan it. What I don’t do, unless the discussion is still white-hot, is pursue a post onto the second page of GetReligion. That is my “event horizon” (physicist’s joke).

    I choose not to reveal my full name because I have an unusual last name and my wife has gone into a sensitive profession. But after an adult lifetime of writing letters to the editor, I compose as though my full name, address and CV were attached to every comment I make. I suspect I’m not the only one; you’d expect a religious blog to draw folks with a moral compass.

  • Julia

    doing battle with trolls

    I read your blog every day, learning lots, and getting better at resisting the temptation to get drawn off-topic into arguments with trolls or correcting misinformation in a comment.

    The number of page views seems to be a better measure of your impact. Perhaps you could have an icon to click (as on Amazon and other sites) indicating whether the post was worthwhile/useful to the reader or not. You’d probably get lots of responses from people who would otherwise not comment because of agreement or having nothing to add.

  • Chris Bolinger

    after an adult lifetime of writing letters to the editor

    Sorry, Dave, but I had to smile at that. I had this mental picture of you toiling away day after day, year after year, writing letter after letter.

    I remember when getting a letter published in the WP or a magazine like US News was a big deal. Those days are over. They’ll let anyone post a comment on a blog…including me.

  • Dave

    Chris, your image is pretty close to my early twenties. ;-)