The limitations of Boris Johnson’s comment strategy

In The Telegraph today, Boris Johnson opines on the double-edged sword that is comments on blogs:

In the past few days there have been plenty of people wondering whether the blogosphere, with its seething irascibility, is actually coarsening political discourse. Could all this aggressive language actually encourage aggressive behaviour – or even violence? There are some people who wonder whether we need to tame the blogs, to sandpaper them, moderate them – perhaps even to censor them. And as soon as you put it like that you can see what twaddle it is. What we are seeing on our websites, for all its exuberant roughness, is a uniquely healthy and democratic process.

I’m inclined to agree with Boris, at least on this point.

But for the rest of us, in people’s minds blogs and blogging and discussion around them can tend to be dominated by newspapers. Therefore it would also be useful to remember the following points.

A blog is just a set of posts organised by time
On the web, blogs are all around. To assume every blog post is an opinion piece is wrong. To assume a blog is a diary is wrong too. Not all of what gets discussed on blogs is party political, nor is all of it political. I have no idea of Boris Johnson’s total experience of the web, but I can hazard a guess that he reads a lot of political opinion. For those of us working on digital media projects in industry, in the third sector, in arts and so forth, our experience of comments can be very different, particularly the kind of toxic comments you often find on newspapers. In other words, don’t let blogging experiences by the likes of The Telegraph guide your preconceptions of blogging or comments because this is a big world. You can use your blog to explore your service offerings, to discuss your professional interests, to post video from conferences, to invite comment on your organisation, to think out loud, to share notes and many other things. Hardly any of these things resemble the poisonous blogosphere so demonised – and beloved – by the press.

Your strategy and software are important
The example set by the newspaper industry is frequently poor and unreliable as a model for people in entirely different fields. For instance, the newspaper’s objective is often to maximum ad revenue and one way to do that is to find strategies to boost page view counts. This doesn’t necessarily align with the objective of sensible, polite discussion. I would argue it rarely does. Therefore the way the software is configured encourages this. In the case of The Telegraph, their nested comment threads allow people to go off on tangents, taking them off-topic. That’s possibly OK for page views and controversy (if you’re fine for every comment conversation to descend into “yo loser, we saved your ass in WW2” that is). It is not fine if you want to be the owner of your blog and set the topics and tone. In practice we have found the linear column of comments to be much more conducive to on-topic conversation in many cases. The comments amplify, correct and improve the original post. The general point is that you should invest time in figuring out why your blog exists, why you’re allowing comments and how the software is going to guide your visitors and provide incentives for the right behaviour. Sometimes anonymity can be an advantage, often it isn’t. Often like and recommend buttons can incentivise cheap sloganeering, turning the comments into a game of abuse. At other times, you might want to try that.

The web as a conversation
“Conversation” is a popular metaphor for what happens online. But it applies beyond the confines of any particular blog. It might be worthwhile to consider having a blog for what you do, just as it might be worth opening up comments. But this isn’t the only place the conversation is happening. For example, this blog post is a kind of long-form response to Boris Johnson but it’s not taking place on The Telegraph website. Frequently people will be discussing your subject in their own spaces and own channels in their own formats and media. The move is not only from one-way to two-way communications, it’s towards multi-way. If what people are saying is important to you, then you might need to spend time monitoring it and responding accordingly.

In summary, Johnson is right to emphasise taking the positive with the negative. There is frequently a good argument for taking ownership of the good and bad. If someone wants to emphasise a negative, shouldn’t you be the first to offer them an opportunity to fix it? And be seen to do so?

Often I meet people who would like to shut down the negative comments by not allowing them in the first place. But the fact is, just because you don’t have discussion on your own site, doesn’t mean it isn’t taking place elsewhere on the web.

Many organisations are only just beginning to open up to published comments by third parties. Often people are tempted to offer an email address and receive comments privately, but that won’t win them any kudos for openness and engaging people in public. Such organisations might be advised to offer comments and start the learning process. It has the potential to change their work – for the better.