News and interaction: what we know about online commenting systems?

During the Newsgeist we discussed  commenting and other forms of interaction in online space. Not surprising, but sad, was the lack of knowledge about the academic research around this domain. Thus, I’ll now summarize some of the findings I’ve found interesting and try to point what these mean for practitioners.

The rise of the Norm

A common challenge mentioned was the poor quality of contributions. One explanation of the quality is that participants perceive a specific norm in the site; that is an expected behavioural pattern. The norm rises from several things together, including naturally the previous contributions. However, researchers have highlighted that the user interface is also to blame here.

Sukumara et al. (2011) use experimental setup to quantify the impact of previous comments and site context impact comments written. They show that while reading the previous comments, people observe what is discussed and how, and thus their own comment reflect on those prior it. They also present significant, however small, effect on the framing before commenting. Manosevitch et al. (2014) confirm these observations on the impact of the overall context in commenting sites.

Thus, the conclusion from these few papers: we can fine-tune the interface to improve the quality of commenting (see e.g. Faridani et al., 2010; Kriplean et al, 2012). The new tools on peer-ranking have and social filtering have been found useful in many environments (but, recent results presented in ICCSS2015 suggest that social filtering might feed the trolls, make them more active. Thus, another approach; emphasising on interactions; requires a good look.

And the fall of the Interaction

It seemed that many of the news organizations didn’t try to be interactive and present on their comments sections. Instead, they leave it alone and then are surprised that it does not produce diamonds. Journalists aren’t the only ones to blame, Weber (2013) observed that overall the comments are what’s known as singleton type, not interacting with other posts. Researchers have recently examined commenting online news in-depth and in collaboration with news organizations tried to change these behaviours. And the outcomes have been positive.

Diakopoulos & Naaman (2011) did one of the first studies I’m aware in this area where they examined commentators and editors experiences on comments. They suggest that commentators consider comments useful, especially for social interaction – like receive different perspectives and the community perspective on the news story. They go further on understanding negative comments and management strategies. The primary outcome from those observations is that online comments can be considered as journalistic content and thus certain rules apply for that.

Going further, Diakopoulos & Naaman (2011) already discuss approaches to moderate the content; on different kind of flagging and moderation, but also participation from the staff and the journalists. Stroud et al (2014) show that they key is to have the writing journalists involved and Diakopoulos (2015) argues on social curation made by the journalists.

Back to reality

In practice, there are several limitations on the success of comment sites. The time required to manage the system is a clear challenge. Maybe the return of the time invested is not high enough. However, I suspect there is something more deep on this. Traditionally journalist have been able to set the agenda and have a big say on public discourse. New media and comments sections limit these opportunities and create new threats (e.g. Stromer-Galley, 2000). Technical solution nor improving interaction in the online space will not solve the challenges related to the social role and status.

However, if putting emphasize on the comments, the academic work highlights the importance of being present on the comments section as an active participant, not just a passive observer. This includes explaining journalistic decisions, responding to criticism and remarks and even engaging the audience. Steensen (2011) has discussed this practices as “cozy journalism” – a tough piece to hard-core news staff?

Cross-blogged on Science & Industry, my personal blog.

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