Over the course of the last two years, I’ve had the chance to meet with hundreds of traditional media company executives. Often, when talking about social media, one of the first “mental” hurdles that needs to be cleared is negative user comments. In merchant reviews, directory publishers are often afraid of negative ones especially as it pertains to advertisers. In news comments, newspaper publishers are challenged by negative, sometimes aggressive readers. Certain types of news will inflame passion, attract “trolls” and become hard to manage. It’s sometimes an ugly world out there with racism, homophobia and misogyny.
But if you thought this only happens in traditional media websites, think again. Some of the “new guys” are facing the same problem. Last week Engadget, one of the top gadget blogs, had to turn off their commenting system to cool off troll attacks. Quoted in VentureBeat, Engadget’s editor Joshua Topolsky said:
“We have a huge readership, but the vast majority of our readers do not comment. But we’ve had an influx of new readers due to our iPad coverage last week, which blew away our previous [traffic] expectations. Unfortunately, we’ve also had an influx of readers who are very trollish. (…) They’re not coming here to talk about technology. They’re coming to incite arguments. They’ll post things like ‘VAIOs suck, Macs rule,’ or ‘Macs are gay.’ They’ll go off-topic and get racist or sexist just to be inflammatory.”
Engadget flipped back the comment switch after a couple of days and made a few changes including an option to “switch off the comments entirely if you don’t want to deal with them”. They also laid down a series of ground rules for community participation and provided answers to frequently asked questions.
Now, don’t think comments/reviews are going away! If consumers are not doing it on your website, they will find ways to express themselves elsewhere, on their blog, on Twitter or on Facebook. And you’ll need to start aggregating content back to your site (like Google is doing) to improve your user experience. User comments/reviews are very valuable and they serve to build your community, especially if they happen directly on your site.
In any case, I believe a solution will soon be found to this problem and it will come because of strong identity systems and social graphs. I foresee a time when everyone will log-in using a “real identity” provider. Real identity systems make people more accountable. The other angle is the social graph, i.e your network of “friends”. Logging-in with a “real identity” provider will allow you to see comments from your network of contacts in priority and extend to a few degrees of separation. So, not only will people use their true identity to comment and contribute, they will also see the participation of their social graph first. Consumers will always have the choice to see everything and your friends will be able to recommend comments from strangers to you. Chris Sacca at LeWeb thought we would soon get rid of douchebags because of that. The big question here is: will the non-exposure to external viewpoints create groupthink? Solving one problem might create another…