Thoughts on invisible comments 2.0

The other day, Bobby Ross Jr. wrote a rather provocative post entitled, “In CAIR of the NYTimes” which was a follow-up post after one of his all-time button-pushing efforts, which ran with the headline, “An Okie asks: Is RNS the new CAIR?”

However, while the original post drew 36 comments (many of which were quite enlightening and the result of some constructive criticism both ways), the sequel, for some mysterious reason, received no comments whatsoever from GetReligion readers (unless you count an exchange between me and Bobby about the lack of comments).

Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

I mention this for the following two reasons.

First of all, your GetReligionistas have paid attention to emails from readers who have requested that we add some kind of system that allows readers to express their feelings about posts with some kind of simple click-on icons that say “Like” or “Dislike.” Often, we are told, people want to express their agreement with the subject of a post, but don’t have a specific comment to which they want to sign their names.

Well, that tweak in the software is in the works. In fact, since turnabout is fair play, it looks like we’ll also be able to have “Like” and “Dislike” buttons on the comments left by readers, as well.

Second, I have always been interested in the types of of posts that always seem to draw bushels of comments and the ones that draw the sound of cyber-crickets. This is actually a very important subject in digital journalism because many editors are starting to make editorial decisions (including the size of paychecks) based on the number of clicks and comments generated by specific subjects and writers.

That’s a bit frightening. I mean, if you can get Episcopalians, Mormons, Lady Gaga, Vatican II and theological disputes about gay rights in the same post, you are going to digitally reap what you have sown.

I addressed some of these matters in a short presentation a few years ago when the Religion Newswriters Association met here in Washington, D.C. Click here to tune in on that. That led to a GetReligion post that ran under this rather cynical headline: “How to avoid comments at GetReligion.”

Anyone who has helped run a weblog linked to religion news will recognize some of the concepts discussed in that post. Here is a refresher course on the fine art of avoiding comments.

* 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 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 here I go again. Are there any additional bullet points that veteran GetReligion readers would like to add to that list, especially those of you who are journalists linked to religion news, blogging or communications work for religious groups?

Come on, speak out. Or not.

IMAGE: From Wikimedia Commons

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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://mikecrowlsscribblepad.blogspot.com/ Mike Crowl

    Read your posts every day. Just don’t always have a comment to make. Sorry!

  • John Willard

    One of the things that keeps me from commenting on GetReligion is the generally high quality of the comments.

    When I see Jerry commenting on a post, bringing in outside information and URLs twenty minutes after a post goes up, it can make me feel a bit inadequate.
    :)

  • Bill R.

    First, the obligatory webcomic (xkcd).

    Often, we are told, people want to express their agreement with the subject of a post, but don’t have a specific comment to which they want to sign their names.

    This sentiment resonates with me. I usually only comment when I either i) have new information to add to that in the post or ii) want to challenge someone else’s analysis of the information. The former doesn’t happen very often (I am not a journalist, and most of my expertise is in physical science, not religion/politics/public life), and the latter unfortunately lends itself to controversial topics.

    That said, some of my favorite posts here at GR concern foreign religious (especially Christian) news. I am fascinated and delighted by posts like
    this one by Brad on China’s Christian awakening. Incidentally, tmatt posted the first comment in that thread:

    Once again, note the intense interest of American news consumers in the coverage of foreign news.

    Sigh.

    I liked the post, and I appreciated the story it linked to, I just didn’t have anything to add or argue. So, in conclusion, I’d just like to say that a lack of comments does not necessarily indicate a lack of interest (although it probably does imply a lack of controversy).

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JOHN:

    Be brave. You can do it.

    Link to a funny YouTube or something.

  • Jerry

    Your example is a classic. And your request for input gives me a forum to put down what I’ve been thinking in some detail.

    First many of the 36 comments were part of a debate between Bobby and Bob Smietana about that article with many posters, myself included, entering into the debatge. So the first post was a very interesting debate about whether or not the news story had a flaw.

    The next topic was, as Bobby put it, characterized by “once again”. I read it and felt that I had nothing to add and did not post anything.

    That leads me to characterize the GR coverage of a story as having three dimensions. One is the original story itself. Another are the purported journalistic sins that the story committed. Then, perhaps, there’s a third access which is the news outlet in question.

    If the story is interesting to many, say claims that the Pope is in favor of using condoms so that embryos can be created in the laboratory followed by harvesting of stem cells to cure lesbian womenpriests, then you’ll get a lot of comments from those who are drawn to such topics as iron filing to magnets. If the topic is not a hot button one, then people are often not motivated to post.

    If the story and the sins have been covered here repeatedly, then people tend to think “oh another one” and not post.

    And if the GR post is a followup to a story that has the same sins committed by the same media outlet, I at least think that the dead horse has been beaten enough and typically won’t post.

    Sometimes I think you get into a rut or perhaps that a topic fits into your particular biases and so you tend to do a lot of reviews on the topic. One example is Muslims treating Christians badly. Another was that you were all over claims that President Obama’s faith office was being used for politics but did not comment on his revised rules for that office which leads me to believe that your biases are showing in what you choose to review or not review.

    Switching focus quite a bit, I’ve noticed and I’m sure you have that some posters, myself included, tend to repeat ourselves when one of our hot buttons are pushed. There are Catholics who almost always comment when there is a news report which mis-characterizes the Pope or their beliefs. I’ll weigh in when a story or a poster does not reflect on the complexity of Muslim beliefs. Maybe the media is often bad on certain religions and issues, but I think you’ve tilted the balance wheel a bit too far on occasion.

    To bring this somewhat long winded discourse to an end, the best way to engage me personally is to find something I know little about, such as the stories about Buddhism and abortion, to comment on. That will engage my interest immediately and often send me to try to learn more about the issue.

    The second way to engage my interest is to avoid “media outlet X did the same thing wrong again” posts.

    And, for what it’s worth, I try to say “I’m glad” when I read a post about a story done well. From a psychological perspective, positive feedback works much better than negative and to improve coverage, lauding well-done stories is very important.

    PS: John Willard, I’m retired, a “religion omnivore” and love telling people exactly what I think so I am a frequent poster. But I really enjoy reading informative and provocative posts so please don’t feel inhibited because of me. I’ve learned quite a bit from posters who comment on a topic I know little about or who provoke me into doing some research. Often I’m wrong in my belief that the poster was wrong and eat my words before I post them (or even sometimes afterwards).

  • http://mikecrowlsscribblepad.blogspot.com/ Mike Crowl

    Bill R…thanks for introducing me to xkcd which rather sidetracked me from reading your comment – for several minutes.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JERRY:

    Actually, the faith-based post No. 1 was about lack of coverage of the accusations, if I recall.

    The coverage of Obama’s new doc has actually been quite good and much appreciated, although I have not seen something specific to praise.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I was a regular reader before I became a GetReligionista, but I only commented a handful of times. I’m trying to remember now why that was.

    I probably shared some of John’s hesitancy to comment on subjects where it seemed like others knew much more than I did. Also, being a journalist, I’m sure I worried about saying something off the cuff that would live in the bowels of Google forever. (Obviously, I had to get over that hang-up in a hurry when I joined GR!)

    But I was a big fan and a daily reader even though I didn’t comment much. If only I’d known how much the GR contributors appreciate every comment. :-)

  • Ben

    I have always been interested in the types of of posts that always seem to draw bushels of comments and the ones that draw the sound of cyber-crickets. This is actually a very important subject in digital journalism because many editors are starting to make editorial decisions (including the size of paychecks) based on the number of clicks and comments generated by specific subjects and writers.

    But I hope you aren’t letting comment levels impact your decisions about what to cover on GR. You’re non-profit, right?

  • Jerry

    The coverage of Obama’s new doc has actually been quite good and much appreciated, although I have not seen something specific to praise.

    I think you can get trapped by the current format which is a full post or nothing. How about an occasional post with stories that you feel this way about or short notes on other stories? Or maybe there’s another way of highlighting stories that don’t merit an entire post? That might include “important stories we’re watching”?

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    I’d be curious if news sites are experiencing a decrease in comments because of Facebook, Twitter or personal blogs. I’m more likely to post something funny or “fun” on facebook and then we tend to discuss it through comments there instead of where we find it. I’m seeing sites that create headlines that will share well (whereas, a few years ago, everyone was talking about headlines that are searchable). It’s easier to share fun or weird articles rather than thoughtful, obscure articles.

  • Passing By

    The like/don’t like buttons will be helpful.

    I read almost every post with the comments, but often don’t have anything to say about the journalism. I’ve cynical about reporters (there are reasons), so your posts about good journalism are especially helpful to me. They’re also enjoyable often enough, but don’t leave me with any particular comment other than “yes, I thought that was good/interesting/worthwhile reporting”.

  • Karl Humphreys

    I agree with Bill R. Unless I disagree, or I have a point to make I usually don’t leave a message. I didn’t really think my opinion meant that much to anybody.

  • http://www.magdalenesegg.blogspot.com Rev. Michael Church

    Okay, confession of sins time: I only leave comments when I disagree.

    It doesn’t have to be a big disagreement, and often amounts to nothing more than a suggested clarification. And I’m a little embarrassed, since the accurate, on-target stuff is what I come here for, just like anybody else. But upon sober reflection, I have to admit that the good on-target stuff stands by itself, and doesn’t seem to call for comments.

    The warped psychology that makes me act this way probably affects other readers, and explains why your occasional praise of good religion reporting doesn’t attract so many comments. We all admire solid journalism, and want those who practice it to be praised; but when shown examples, our only reaction is to nod with approval. Or, soon, to push “like.”

  • Julia

    xkcd

    What a great cartoon. We don’t need to shoot the computer screen like Elvis shot out his TV screen – we can talk back to the computer!

    Very often I have nothing that seems worthwhile to contribute – doesn’t meant I don’t find the post and the combox interesting. Also – I don’t really get the sports thing. I’m sure other regulars don’t get other subjects.

    I think the push for clicks is behind the move towards salacious and contentious articles in on-line news.

  • Martha

    For myself, often to comment on a news site you have to register or sign up or subscribe, and that’s often too much hassle for a one-time, one-off comment.

    So I don’t register, and I don’t log in, and I don’t comment even on stories where I’d like to display my ignorance to a global audience. I’m sure other people also find the jumping through the hoops just to add a line of comment too inconvenient to bother.

    I wonder if that affects the “number of clicks”?

    It’s easy to comment on here, and I do appreciate how much work all you wonderful people put into this valuable site (no sarcasm at all). Long may you flourish!

  • Jim

    “like”

  • John Penta

    In my case? Chalk it up to a fear of search engines.

    I’m training…not to be a lawyer, but to work in the law field. And, yeah, any modern litigation demonstrates the perils of letting your thoughts get posted where they can be accessed with a Google search. Or even stuff about you. Anything you may have ever said will be used against you.

    It saddens me, really. Because often I want to comment, but I’m scared to.

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

    tmatt,

    Comments are only one measure among many. Does GR use any analytics tools to track page views, shares on FB/Twitter, or RSS/email subscribers? Web design and social media is part of my role with InterVarsity, and I would be happy to recommend some free/cheap tools if GR is interested. Just email me.

  • Norman

    I agree with everything that’s been said. I normally don’t comment unless I have something to add that no other commenter has said yet. Often I’ll wait a day or two and hope that somebody else says what I want to say more gracefully than I could say it myself.

    I wonder how the “ljke” button will work out for comments. These work well on partisan sites where the majority wants to- and expects to- defend their turf. I’m thinking of sites like The Catholic Herald here, sites with a clear point of view. I’m not usre if they are good on an open site like this that features more free-ranging discussion.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Commenting is not necessarily the sign of a post’s significance, or of its impact. Some very good posts (on any blog) will generate minimal comments because there’s nothing really to say. Others more naturally generate comments – and one of the ways of doing that is take a strong position on something controversial (but only one).

    And there’s the rub. Silence can mean a lack of interest, or it can mean a very good post, but one whose effect will not be seen in the comments it generates. It’s part of what makes blogging a game of nerves I think.


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