From the start of online news and political blogs, vibrant comment sections have been a central means of distinguishing new media from its older, more traditional predecessor. They have been critical for building online communities, ensuring that journalists participate in a two-way dialogue with readers rather than monologues, that media outlets are compelled to answer to their readership (who often provide valuable challenges and correctives to stories that serve as healthy checks), and have been an invaluable asset for reporters whose important stories are often catalyzed and bolstered by information offered from readers.
But the last several years have ushered in a series of changes — from the dominance of Facebook to journalists’ congregation on Twitter to the substance-free toxicity of some discourse among commenters — that, for many media outlets, have severely diluted if not altogether eliminated the value of comment sections. While many other news organizations have, for these reasons, outsourced or outright abolished their comment sections, we are taking steps to make ours better.
Journalists often tout their responsibility to hold the powerful accountable. Comments are a way to hold journalists themselves accountable. Unlike posts on social media, comments occupy the same space as the stories and travel with them as they’re shared across platforms. Comments also make it possible for people to share their reactions without having to connect them to a social media account. That’s why we continue to be strong proponents of comments and encourage our colleagues at The Intercept to read (and respond to) them.
At their best, comments are a forum for lively debate of the issues reported on or expressed in a piece, as well as a source for personal experiences and further information related to the story. They can be a place for us to answer questions and find ideas for further reporting. The forum suffers, however, when it devolves into bitter personal attacks and protracted feuds between commenters: Few people have the time or inclination to sort through lengthy bickering in order to find the nuggets of thought-provoking wisdom.
In our current commenting guidelines, we encourage readers to “strive to attack the substance of arguments, rather than the person who is making them,” while erring on the side of encouraging free debate. But until now, our comments have been powered by a basic system that lacks a lot of the tools of a modern comments platform.
It’s time for a change — a substantial upgrade — and we’ve partnered with The Coral Project from Mozilla to relaunch our comment platform.
The Coral Project’s work is based on an unprecedented level of research into online communities, including academic studies and interviews with more than 350 people across 150 newsrooms and 30 countries. They constantly update and improve their tools by talking to commenters and trolls, as well as people who never comment. It’s been more than a year since we started following their work and decided to implement their commenting platform, Talk, on our site. We’re launching it today.
Here are some new features for our comments that are now available with Talk:
— Readers have the ability to upvote the best comments by clicking on a “Respect” button. We decided on “Respect” instead of “Like” to encourage the upvoting of arguments with which you might not agree.
— The Intercept’s editors and reporters can spur discussion and request specific types of information by posting questions at the top of the comment box on individual articles.
— Readers can view comments chronologically, or by most upvoted or replied-to comments.
— Readers can “mute” other commenters if they don’t want to read their comments any more on the site. This will only apply to that reader’s experience, when they are logged in.
— The Intercept’s journalists and moderators will be able to feature excellent comments, which will appear in a separate tab.
— Readers can edit a comment for up to five minutes after posting it to fix typos and grammatical mistakes. Edited comments will be marked as such.
— Readers can report comments that violate our guidelines, to help ensure that the comment space remains civil.
We’re excited about our collaboration with The Coral Project. We know it won’t solve all of our commenting problems — we’re not as large as other news organizations and can’t watch the comments all of the time, though we expect that Talk’s moderation tools will help us become more responsive and engaged. We ask you to help us by reporting comments that are against our guidelines. For additional support, you can always email our lead moderator Travis Mannon at firstname.lastname@example.org. We appreciate your patience as we iron out the kinks.
Our new platform is a work in progress; it will evolve as we get feedback from our commenters and moderators. The Coral Project is continuing to add new features, and we are working closely with them to implement those that we find most valuable.
Please let us know what you think of the new system, our approach, and the features we offer by responding (where else?) in the comments. We look forward to reading your contributions.
Update: Dec. 21, 2017, 12:40 p.m.
This piece was updated to clarify The Intercept’s relationship to comment data.