By Eric French
According to a recent study by The Engaging News Project, 55% of Americans have left a website comment at some point, while 77.9% have read the comments. Their reasons for doing so are many and varied. This investigation was designed to build on previous research by The Coral Project and others, to examine more closely the experiences of a range of self-identified frequent commenters. (UPDATE: Also check out the results our survey of 12,000 commenters across 20 news sites.)
I recruited fifteen people who leave comments on news websites (and in one case, frequently consumes comments but never writes them) to participate in an hour-long, one-to-one interview to discover their commenting habits, platform preferences, and reasons for commenting. They were chosen through a combination of individual recommendations from engagement editors at news sites, and people who responded to an advertisement on Craigslist and were independently confirmed as frequent commenters. Each person was paid $25 in Amazon gift cards for their time.
I chose people who collectively represented a diversity of demographics, commenting styles and use of different platform types. However, these interviews only represent a small number of dedicated commenter experience, and of course many other audiences need to be considered for The Coral Project’s work, including those who don’t currently comment. Additionally, the interview questions touched upon a breadth of topics around motivations and user interaction, but time constraints limited the depth of analysis around specific user behaviors.
This document highlights the main findings around how people in this group post comments, track conversations, navigate the space, and interact with other commenters. Their key suggestions for design modifications in comment spaces are included at the end.
Demographic information of interviewees
M: 8 F: 7
Latin American: 2
Black Latino: 1
Mode: late 50s
Most said they had at least some college education.
Websites where they comment
New York Times, New York Magazine, NPR, Providence Journal, La Nación, El País, Salon.com, Gothamist, Yahoo News, Wall Street Journal, Discover Magazine, Jezebel, The Huffington Post.
Common themes from the interviews
- Diversity: Most participants told us that they comment because they want to be challenged by a diverse group of smart people who offer viewpoints different from their own. Commenters however also frequently encounter low tolerance of their own opinions, which suggests that if this is what commenters more broadly want, there are wildly varying definitions for what that diversity means in practice.
- Interactivity and community: Users comment because they like to interact with others in many ways: helping, debating, bonding. Many participants want private interaction options as well, so that interactions are not limited to a specific comment section. Positive interactions strengthen communities-reinforcing respect and reciprocity in commenters’ behaviors limits negative interactions.
- Reciprocity and respect: Disagreement itself is not the source of strife in comment sections; disrespect is. Commenters are more likely to listen to points of view they completely disagree with if the other commenter is respectful and reciprocal.
- Acknowledgement: People like feeling useful or relevant. Commenters are eager to help out and share their knowledge or experiences, and respond well to positive feedback.
- Smaller might be better: Interacting in smaller comment spaces has been a better experience for many commenters. They are more likely to create relationships with other commenters, engage in more respectful debates, and find the space easier to navigate compared to the most popular spaces.
- To personalize, or not: Commenters want to quickly filter and find comments that they find useful, smart, challenging or funny, but they want to be in control and be able to see all the comments if they choose.
- Clarity: When moderating, the space should have clear guidelines that are applied to all commenters consistently.
- Options: Frequent commenters want options. Some like to use Facebook to login, some don’t. Some like to get notified when someone replies to a comment, some prefer to get notified within the site, others prefer no notifications. Commenters all behave differently, so the space should be flexible and adaptive. However, options should be simple and easy to navigate; options are useless if users don’t know they exist.
- Control: People want to be able to choose who can see their comment history, when to filter out comments, and when and how they receive notifications.
- Entertainment: Though comments are taken seriously and can add valuable information to the news, commenters also appreciate funny or clever contributions.
- Commenting is time consuming: Commenters who actively and constantly engaged in discussions, as well as those who did so less often, all said that navigating and engaging in comments took a lot of time. Simplifying the process could significantly lower barriers to engagement.
How they comment
Most interviewees both read and write comments on a laptop, after reading the article. Most people interviewed don’t write comments on their phones. Those who do stated that they want to respond immediately to what they’ve read – but they don’t enjoy the experience, and keep their responses shorter than usual. Many said that they don’t like commenting on their phones because they are more prone to committing typos. Most interviewees, however, do read comments on their phones.
Most commenters interviewed said that they wouldn’t leave audio or video comments, and probably wouldn’t watch/listen to such comments either. “Having to take the time to organize your thoughts in writing is a valuable experience”, one person said.
Why they comment
Most people interviewed stated that they comment in order to add their voice to the conversation, to correct what they see as misinformation or bias, or to give a dissenting response to a particular comment. They use a variety of formats; one interviewee tries to always include links within their comments so they are as fact-based as possible, while another works through the article systematically when preparing their comments, responding to points raised in individual paragraphs.
The one interviewee who reads comments, but has never commented, says they don’t comment for several reasons: they don’t know who they’re talking to online, they don’t like the idea of leaving a “digital footprint”, and they don’t want to get into arguments as they know they’re not going to change anyone’s opinion.
Many indicated that they want comments to stay on topic, while some said that they don’t like it when a couple of commenters take over a space with a prominent conversation thread that overwhelms the space.
A couple of interviewees said that they enjoy comment spaces with fewer users because, as one person put it, it “takes a long time to get through the chaff” and there are more trolls on more popular sites. And though most wanted and expected to read a wide range of ideas that differ from their own, a couple of users said that they prefer the comfort of reading like-minded people in the comment section, because it allows them to see their own opinions reflected back to them, and it helps them to feel that they will be understood if they write a comment.
Several people talked about wanting to help others in the comment space by sharing information or expertise. Some mentioned that they are more likely to write a comment if the subject is one that they know well, such as the profession they practice or about the place where they live, and that they sometimes add that information as part of their comments, as context. Many people described the comment spaces that they frequent as containing many smart commenters from whom they enjoy learning.
Most interviewees like when their comments are acknowledged, but they also like being challenged and having respectful disagreements with people whom they consider knowledgeable, and who have different experiences from their own. Some people said that they are less eager to participate if the comments are repetitive. And when one person said they felt “respected and understood” by someone else, they are more likely to be respectful back, including if they disagree with the other person.
However, many people also reported feeling attacked often in comment spaces.
Many people report experiencing “cliques” in comment sections that gang up on them. One interviewee feels that commenters sometimes attack him to “score points” since he doesn’t agree politically with most of the news site’s users. Two participants say that they do not feel welcome in the spaces where they comment, but strongly believe they should continue to comment there in order to bring diversity of thought to the space. One participant said he was banned unfairly from a news site because he got into an argument with one of the editors. However, in reference to the current political climate, several commenters say that they can have more open and honest debates in a comment section than they can in real life conversation.
Several interviewees stated that smaller or exclusive groups in the comment space are important to them, so people can find support in spaces where they can talk deeper about issues directly important to them, without having to constantly defend their opinions or feel attacked by others who don’t share the same life experiences. Several commenters mentioned a desire to reply privately to others’ comments, and one person in particular said that they miss being able to connect individually with other commenters as they can through a news site’s social network, where they have enjoyed “off-topic discussions” and even established real-life friendships with some of the participants.
Several people say that when the author of the article joins the comments, the tone of the space improves.
Reading the comments
Most people like systems with threaded replies, as they report that this makes it easy to see who is responding to whom, and makes the experience easier to navigate.
Some people said that they scroll through the comments using the site’s default view, without using any of the functions to filter their experience offered by the comment space. One said that they are able to quickly scan and identify valuable comments without assistance, evaluating them by reading just the first sentence or seeing the number of replies a comment has received.
However, others said that they do use the filtering tools, and usually start by filtering for the ‘best’ comments, to get a sense of what the “general feeling” is on a topic. A couple of people like the ability to filter by Editor’s Picks because, as one person said, they “feel like that [the news organization is] actually looking at them [the comments] and moderating the comment section.”
Those who wanted to engage in conversation with other readers filter by ‘most recent comment’ as they feel that the original commenter is more likely to be online and able to respond.
Many people said that they would like to have different ways of filtering the comments to find the smartest, interesting or entertaining comments quickly. Suggested topics include “funny”, “useful”, “clever”, ‘insightful”, “most downvoted“, “controversial” or “written by high-ranked users”.
Many people said that they like/upvote others’ comments, and feel recognized when other commenters like/upvote their words, because it means that someone else agrees or values what they write. One person said that they increased the regularity of their commenting after their comments were “recommended” by the system, and particular appreciated the fact that, when a comment receives more than eleven recommendations, it automatically becomes a ‘reader recommended’ comment. Another participant said that they felt really valued when their comments are chosen as an Editor’s Pick.
However, a few interviewees stated that feedback mechanisms are a “double-edged sword”, as some commenters focus only on trying to get likes, and not on engaging in good dialogue.
One interviewee says that they comment specifically because there is no downvote on the platform they use most frequently: “I’m forced to comment. If I really feel strongly and want to thumbs down [but cannot], then I get passionate and have to write a comment to disagree.” One person says that they don’t like it when people upvote inaccurate comments, but said that that also helped them find popular opinions that they disagree with. They specifically like how Ars Technica’s system measures quantity of upvotes against downvotes to classify comments as “controversial” or “popular”.
Many people said that prefer not respond to inappropriate comments, but they do flag or downvote comments if they feel the comments are outside of what they feel is acceptable, or if the comments are spam.
That threshold of acceptability changed a lot from person to person, but “personal attacks” were often mentioned as reasons to flag, as well as “outright bigotry or obscene tirades.” One person reported that they like it when a news site gives more granular options around reporting abuse because it helps them remember why their own comments could be flagged by someone else.
Some participants feel frustrated over what they view to be inconsistencies in site moderation practices, particularly around not having comments approved or having moderators delete them without any explanation.
Many people stated that they don’t like to have to wait for their comments to be approved, and would rather everything was published automatically and then reported if inappropriate, or be hidden due to user downvotes. One person said that their comments being “pending” stops her from commenting on that site, because she’s not sure if anyone would be able to read them in a timely fashion. Another said that they like it when moderators publicly reply to someone who is in violation of community guidelines, as it reminds everyone of the rules. However, a different interviewee said that they preferred private feedback so it doesn’t distract from the rest of the conversation.
Everyone agreed that a site’s rules should be clearly stated, and that everyone should be held to the same standards.
The people I spoke to have many different techniques to keep track of the comment threads that they enjoy. Some keep them open in separate tabs in their browser. Some interviewees want the ability to follow other commenters, while others are interested in following the conversations themselves, as well as conversations that they are participating in. One person said that they don’t keep track of their conversations because it’s not worth the effort it takes to find the comment again later on.
Several people said that they subscribe to comments on certain articles, while others said that they don’t because they want to keep their email free of clutter. Many liked the idea of being notified on the news site itself, though most sites don’t offer that option. Some interviewees, however, want only to be able to search for specific comments and commenters instead of receiving alerts about any activity.
There was a range of opinions around the idea of allowing anonymous comments. A couple of people said that comments that are linked to a Google or Facebook account are more likely to be “held accountable”, but others said they only post with an anonymous name in order to express themselves more freely, because they don’t want people they know to see what they write.
Several didn’t mind not knowing much about the other commenters, though many people did say that it “helps your ability to connect with a person and understand where they are coming from when you know more about them.”
Commenting on Facebook
Some of those interviewed are more likely to start discussions on their Facebook wall than in a site’s comments. One person does so because they like to be the moderator of their own comment space: “I can control the conversation more. If it’s on my wall, I can make it public or private for most of my friends, and it’s not just random people from around the world commenting or making troll statements just because they are bored”.
Suggestions for future comment features
I’ve created wireframe designs for some of the suggestions.
- Some commenters said that they want to find out more about each other, in order to ask each other more direct questions relevant to their knowledge and experience.
- A private reply function, for which both parties need to agree to talk to each other.
- A few people suggested having the ability to bookmark a conversation thread so they could find it again, and read from where they left it.
- Filter comments according to those liked by commenters who a user is following, so they are pre-selected by people whom the commenter trusts.
- A couple of users would like a filtering option for “help” or “questions” because those are the types of comments they like to write and respond to.
- Let a user block commenters, so that they cannot see comments written by the person who has blocked them, but that person can view theirs.
- Categorize your comment at the time of posting, eg. question, personal experience, political opinion or more information/context.
- An option for commenters to start their own private comment space within an article, which they moderate themselves. (Similar to subreddits or Newsvine Nations)
- A ‘disrespect’ or ‘mediation’ button where someone can invite another fellow commenter to mediate in a situation where there is disagreement.
- Allow people to share identity markers via tagging or a checkbox (race, gender, profession, etc) around aspects that are relevant to the story they’re commenting on, as a way to display first-person knowledge. Several commenters say that they think a comment with such a tag would hold more weight in their minds.
- Markers could also allow for a ‘different perspective’ button to call for an alternate point of view on an issue.
- Ability to rate or react to someone’s comment as ‘reliable’ or ‘trustworthy’. Several people said that they liked the idea of a “disagree but respect” reaction because current upvote/downvote systems are “too binary” and they want a way to appreciate someone’s comment even if they disagree with its content.
Eric French is a UX Researcher based in New York City.
Photo by www.boldcontentvideo.com, CC-BY 2.0