Next month will be the fourth anniversary of the weekend in 2008 when I sat out on my patio with my laptop and began banging out what was officially launched as Talk of the Sound on September 1, 2008.
At each approaching anniversary, I like to take stock as to where the site has been and where it is going. Reader engagement is always an important part of that reflection.
Adding an up/down voting module to the site is a sort of "next step" in the evolution of reader engagement on the site where you, the reader, can vote on the quality of a particular article or comment. The criteria is intended to be the value of the contribution to the site -- the clarity of the writing, the quality of a particular insight, the tone. Articles and comments that are useful, well-written and informative get voted up, articles and comments that are self-indulgent, rambling rants get voted down. You, the reader, are recommending what you believe other readers will find interesting and worthwhile and helping them avoid drivel and dreck.
For now, in Phase I, any reader (registered or not, logged in or not) can play around with the buttons but there is no immediate impact but the scoring that other readers can see (+2, -1) etc. If you click a thumb there is no immediate change but if you wait a few seconds and refresh the page you will see the score change. A particular user can vote once on each comment and article.
In Phase II, the scoring will have meaning and only logged in, registered users will be able to vote. During this phase I will be implementing changes that will be noticable:
1. Disable nesting of comments. Each comment will stand on its own beneath the original article. If I understand this module correctly, the comments will be sorted based on their score but I can't be sure until I "un-nest" the comments. If people still want to have a nested discussion -- a back and forth -- they have the option to use the forum section for that.
2. Enable the "dimming" feature for unpopular comments. Perhaps the most important new feature. I can set a level, such as -5 or -10. If an article or comment gets enough negative votes and falls below a certain level it is "dimmed" so that readers will only see the comment if they click a specific button to open it up. This is a form of group punishment for "bad" comments and will both give readers a way to participate in policing the site and create a disincentive for angry, disruptive comments.
3. Most popular content display blocks. Rather than simply display the most recent comments and more recent articles, there will be a block of most popular articles and comments as voted upon by readers.
The goal is to take authority away from me, as the site administrator and publisher, and give it those who have made some "investment" in the site by taking the time to register and read the site while logged into it and otherwise be engaged members of the Talk of the Sound community.
Phase III would be tweaking these changes over the course of the next year.
As regulars on the site know, I always post under my own name and have encouraged, in various ways, that users register using their real name. My belief is that people should own their own words. There is also a certain unfairness when people who have the integrity to use their own names debate with people who do not. We have seen some recent instances of that on the site. A point is reached at which the people with the integrity to stand behind their own words get tired of debating people who do not use their own names and stop engaging. That is about one of the worst things that can happen where the "bad guys" win be default as the "good guys" withdraw.
One tweak might be to allow only certain registered users to cast an up/down vote. To do this, I would create a special class of registered user, a "fully-authenticated user" where, in my capacity as site administrator, I know who that person is and that they are using their real name and they agree to never do anything other than post using that account.
Pseudonymous users would have the option to rename their account using their own name and become a "fully-authenticated user" or attempt to make the case to me that they are a special case and should be allowed to use a pseudonym (e.g. they are active-duty military, have a legitimate fear of retribution for posting, have a court stay-away order in place for some person). These special cases would be rare.
I would likely to continue to allow unapproved pseudonymous accounts but they would not be given voting privileges. The effect of this is that fully-authenticated users could use their voting privileges to always vote their comments and articles up. They could also vote up their friends on the site, other regular users. One effect would be that the "regulars" on the site would be voting each other up and so pushing to the top content from what I would consider the most valuable contributors to the site (you know who you are). This same group could also "punish" disruptive people which can be expected to have a salutatory effect on the overall tone and quality of the conversation on the site.
As long-time readers know, I spend a lot of time thinking about is reader engagement. I have written about that from time to time. The site, however, has grown dramatically over the past 18 months and we have many new readers so for those who are not familiar with my past writings on the topic let me add some thoughts here on how I think about a reader engagement.
A big part of reader engagement are the comment threads below each article. When the site first launched in 2008 the comment threads were wide open. Anyone coming to the site could add a comment without registering with the site and the comment would appear immediately. As the site grew, the amount of poor quality comments increased so the overall quality of comments declined. I responded by raising the bar so that only comments by registered users appeared immediately, all others were held for review and approval (by me). Later I required that only registered users could add a comment but that all comments would appear immediately.
The effect is always the same -- each time the bar is raised there is some grumbling and a short-term decline in comments (and traffic) and then the level comments rises, and then surpasses, the previous highs; traffic grows far beyond what it had been before the bar was raised. This is, in my view, because as the bar is raised there are less "drive by" anonymous comments, the number of commenters increases (people are less reticent to add a comment as they realize they will not be personally attacked if they do), and the quality of those comments increases while the "bad" comments decline.
It is always a balancing act. As a publisher I want to make it as easy as possible for a reader to spontaneously add a comment and engage with the site but there are always a small percentage of people who will see that ease of engagement as an invitation to spam the site or engage in troll behavior. It is the nature of the Internet.
The next highest barrier is to require authenticated registration, typically requiring the user to prove they are a real person and creating checks into a system that verify, to the extent possible, that a person is not only "real" but "unique". Google does this by requiring verification codes to be sent to a cell phone via text; the Journal News does this by requiring commenters to connect via their Facebook accounts (relying on Facebook's own user authentication system).
The absolute highest step is to only allow commenting by INVITED registered users. In other words, the site becomes "members only" as far as commenting and posting articles. A site like slashdot is a case in point.
I do not want to employ the most extreme measures. I am not totally opposed to the use of pseudonyms; there are people who have legitimate reasons to hide their identity. At the same time, there are instances where the use of pseudonyms is used to allow the user to engage in ad hominem attacks, spew various forms of hate speech, spam the site with unsolicited advertising or engage in troll-like behavior.
Sorting out "good" comments from "bad" comments is often more art than science and it can be difficult to draw the line between passionate debate and bad behavior that results in a ban. As readers know, I err on the side of tolerating bad behavior before brining out the banhammer.
My goal over the next year is to again raise the bar on comments but to see how well up/down voting can be used to create a community of stakeholders with the power to engage in self-policing of the comment threads.