Brilliant Reader Comments


The Reader by Jean-Honore Fragonard

We were reading the Business section of the New York Times… a column by David Carr (‘The Media Equation’) on the foolishness of corporate pay plans which reward newspaper executives for demolishing their own businesses. That column is here. It’s well worth reading.

Because we wanted to link to it, we put down our hardcopy NY Times, brought up the online edition, and somehow wound up engrossed by the reader comments. Good Lord, we thought, what a relief from the fever swamp over at the Wisconsin State Journal what a refreshing batch of thoughtful comments, we thought.

Why DO some online reader forums attract brilliant reader comments? How do they build an audience of astute — even gifted –commenters, when many other online forums — most — do not?

Look at this on-line comment, reacting to the David Carr column mentioned above. Richard Williamson of Dallas,TX says:

I have always been mystified by the rarified ranks of the uber-execs who command these kinds of salaries in any industry. It seems to be some kind of club like Skull & Bones that once you are admitted, you are set for life. There is no success or failure that will affect your extravagant wealth one way or the other. In fact, the rewards appear to be proportional to the damage you cause, as if the board is worried that you might feel embarrassed and need a few more millions of dollars to soothe your bruised ego. OWS has shown that I’m not alone in feeling like a scullery maid at the Palace of Versailles — grateful to be employed but clueless as to how my master’s world actually works.

Agree or not, this reader is responding to the column, he’s not bickering with other commenters. The sentence about feeling like a scullery maid is actually brilliantly written [at least that’s what we think].

Now look at this comment over at host.madison.com. A reader — let’s call him “Bill” (not his real screen-name) says,

yeah gilley, because it’s all those in the Wisconsin mint that are going to be impacted by changing dollar bills for coins. What a dope.

That’s Bill’s whole comment. Bill isn’t discussing the article; he’s insulting another commenter, gilley. This might be fun for Bill, but it’s certainly unrewarding for every other reader. Now, gilley may return the insult.  If others also join in with off-topic insults, it all quickly becomes worthless. And a great many discussions at host.madison.com do become worthless.

What could help this? How could the frequently-terrible discussions of madison.com develop into something more like what happens at nytimes.com? Let’s compare:

  • New York has a moderator who reviews comments before they appear. The moderator doesn’t edit, but he or she may dump comments. Off- topic or purely insulting comments never see the light of day. Madison may have some policy or other, but off-topic and back-and-forth insults are unfortunately routine. Moderating slows things down, may cause resentment, and is certainly costly. Probably no one likes to have their own comments moderated. On the other hand, it’s the only real way to eliminate those annoying other people, the comment trolls.
  • Use of real names. New York encourages people to use their real names and city,state locations. In Madison standard practice is to choose an anonymous screen name “CDV1244” with no hint of location. Real names almost certainly raise the general level of discourse, although there are abundant reasons for people to comment pseudonymously, such as not losing your job.
  • New York gives the comment reader 3 sensible ways to subset and order the comments for reading. You can choose “All Comments” (self-explanatory) presented in the order posted.  Or, you can choose “Highlights” to see a subset of comments chosen by a NY Times editor. Lastly, you can choose “Reader’s Recommendations”… our favorite.  Readers can give an easy one-click ‘recommendation’ to others’ comments as they read them. The “Reader’s Recommendations” list shows what readers are recommending. In contrast, Madison comment readers have no options for choosing or sorting what they’re reading. Comments are always presented in ‘reverse chronological order’, ideal for people who read books and articles backwards .

There is simply no doubt that the comments at the New York site are an order of magnitude better than at the Madison site. The likelihood of finding brilliant commentary from readers is very high at the New York site. At the Madison site it’s less likely. Is this because Madison or Dane County or southern Wisconsin doesn’t have thousands of very bright people situated in a range of classes, professions, and perspectives? That ain’t the problem.

To see the problem, look at the Madison site’s main pages where the “Most Commented” stories and opinions are constantly (and foolishly) promoted. The “Most Commented” discussions are almost invariably the worst discussions, because they are filled with excited comments by the same serial commenters, rebuking other commenters, “refuting” something someone else just said, and rapidly building a pile (presented in reverse chronological order) of highly repetitive comments. Why exactly would a reader care to plow through this in hope of finding something?

What to do?

Madison:

  1. Get software that enables “Reader Recommendations.” 
  2. Hire moderators. Moderators don’t need to be expensive hires; they just need to recognize off-topic and insult… not that hard, not that expensive.
  3. That’s all.

But can Madison Newspapers do anything? Parent company Lee Enterprises continues to lose money. Just days ago, Lee Enterprise reported a revenue decline for the year… a 3.3% overall loss. Their digital advertising revenue, however, was up 23%. Could building the premier site for serious public dialog in Madison, Dane County, and southern Wisconsin be a savvy long-term business strategy? There’s no one better positioned to do so.