Well, it's happened again: A newspaper Web site has invited reader participation and then been shocked—shocked!—at the vitriolic and coarse level and quality of discourse.
This time it's the Arizona Daily Star's StarNet.com, which, like many other forward-thinking newspaper sites, is now letting readers comment on stories. Good idea. But as has happened to so many other papers that have run into problems with comments, StarNet didn't take all the steps it could to avoid problems. This isn't brain surgery: There are well-established ways to enable user comments and put some safeguards in place to keep them civil and interesting. To wit:
1. Require registration and reader log-in. StarNet got this one right. If you ask for registration and a valid e-mail address, it a) frustrates the drive-by crazies who will post anything that comes into their head because there's no hurdle to doing so; and b) provides the newspaper with a way to identify participants so that, if need be, they can be admonished or banned from the site. It also forces the readers to accept a member agreement that can further be used to enforce good behavior. The trick is to make sure the account has to be confirmed by the user through an e-mail address. That extra step tends to filter out some of the real nuts.
2. Put a profanity filter into place. StarNet seems to have missed this one, and thus is upset by the language being used in the comments. Big miss. (In fact, StarNet seems to have deliberately allowed profanity and then put a profanity filter in place for the reading of comments—you can choose to filter out comments that contain dirty words. Huh?) An upfront profanity filter forces people to calm down a bit and be more articulate—and keeps everything suitable for a family newspaper. Wikipedia has handy lists of profanities and ethnic slurs—in multiple languages, no less—that can be used as a basis for a profanity filter.
3. Add "report abusive comment" links to every comment. StarNet missed this one completely. This lets the audience pitch in to help moderate what goes on in the comments. If something untoward happens, somebody will report it. That saves the wear and tear of constantly monitoring the comments. However...
4. Somebody should be monitoring the comments. Not editing them, not moderating them; just keeping an eye on what's going on and acting immediately to zap anything that's untoward and to notify members who get out of line. Setting the proper tone for behavior in a comments area goes a long way toward enforcing that behavior: If participants see that the conversation is intelligent, they'll tend to keep it that way. If it gets coarse and full of trolls, they'll behave accordingly. Think of a comments area as being like a local bar: If it's well-lighted and classy, it will attract a better crowd than the dark, nasty biker bar down the street. (The design of the comments area makes a difference, too: soft colors and rounded edges seem to work better than harsh, hard lines.)
As I said, this isn't rocket science; most of it is common sense. And a lot of sites have been handling comments with great success for many years. The best comments areas wind up being of high quality and are largely moderated by their participants. If you put the right measures into place, that's what you'll get. It's amazing how many newspaper and media sites fail to understand this.
Update: Here's another newspaper site that doesn't get it.