Coral by Vox Media Guides
[IMAGE] An image of an open cardboard box on a black background

The Real Reason Your Comments Are Terrible

Trolls and abuse are real problems – but they’re a symptom of the problem, not the cause. The real problem is probably you. This is why.

Imagine you’re trying to collect donations of food for a food bank in your town.

There are two approaches you could take.

Approach 1: You take a hundred cardboard boxes, place them randomly on  sidewalks all over your town, walk away. Then, come back in a day or two, and hope that people have left tins of food in the boxes.

What do you think will have happened? It’s a hundred boxes, just dropped everywhere. Nobody knows why they’re there, or what they’re for. Probably, people will just throw trash in them. Or kick them around. Or worse. 

Approach 2: Start with a little strategic thinking. What are you trying to achieve? You want to collect donations of food – ok, where are you most likely to get them? Probably outside big grocery stores.

So instead of a hundred boxes randomly distributed everywhere, why not take five boxes, research where the five largest grocery stores are in your town, and then put a box by the door to each one. 

But you can’t just leave the boxes there with no indication of what they’re for. You should write something on the box, let’s say “COLLECTING DONATIONS FOR THE LOCAL FOOD BANK. PLEASE HELP.” 

Because you’re only using five boxes, you could go and check them out a few times a day. You’d never be able to do that with a hundred boxes spread out everywhere, but five is easy enough. 

When you look in each box, first see if anyone has thrown any trash inside – if so, take it out.

Then, spend a little time standing by the box, inviting more people to contribute. Make it clear how grateful you’ll be. Give them a sense of reward, of recognition. Anyone who gives food, say thank you – make them feel good for supporting your community.

And let’s say that tins of food are what you really want to collect. Maybe you set up a small display next to the box, and put the tins you’ve received there, with a little sign saying “HERE’S THE BEST OF WHAT YOU’VE GIVEN TODAY”

So anyone walking into the store, who looks over, might say to themselves, “Oh, I see what’s happening here. I see what you want, why you want it, and why I’m going to feel good about giving it to you. Also I see in particular what you want the most – tins of food – and that others are already giving it.”

So when they’re inside the store and see tins of food, they’re more likely to remember that’s what you want, and bring some out to you.

Which of these approaches is most likely to be successful?

Now take a look at the comments on your page.

Are you placing an empty commenting box on every single page, on a scale you can’t manage, without any indications of what you want or offering any kind of emotional recognition or reward when you get it? Now think about your strategy. Should you be surprised that your comments are full of garbage?

Your comments don’t have to be full of trash. But the first thing you have to change is your approach.  Start Here to make the change.

(We also have a commenting platform that is designed around this very philosophy)

Photo by dOOnLoL, CC BY-NC-SA. Massive hat tip to online community hero Derek Powazek, from whom the box metaphor is shamelessly borrowed.

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