A quick guide to better online debates

Anyone who’s hosted or participated in an online debate know that it’s delicate thing to keep alive, to the point and rewarding for all. Online debates are fragile and can easily be disrupted by a new user venting frustration, ranting without relevance or by the old guard, repeating themselves over and over again trying to hold on to the position in the network/forum/blog that they’ve come to acquire.

There are big money at stake if you can design a system or a way of handling comments, that will get you the first 50% of the way. In the light of the newly revised Facebook Comments plugin (which seems to solve some of the problems), here are a few tricks to keep you going. Because unfortunately it can’t all be solved with a plugin.

The human side of it: Be human and embrace the users. Even the trolls.

1) Create clear guidelines. You need a clear set of rules, that everyone can grasp and are easy to follow. Yes, the legal department might have a say in this, but don’t overcomplicate the mater. TED’s recent guidelines for their TED-group on LinkedIn is a great example of a down to earth way on saying: be nice, be on target and don’t slaunder, steal or tut your own horn for no reason. Remember: it’s your house, your rules. And you need something to moderate via.

2) Moderate. On the one hand everyone wants to be associated with an open and free dialogue, where everyone can contribute. But on the other hand many find it hard to get any real value out of it. To me, moderation is what shapes a platform/network/blog in to a community. The technical structure gives you the possibility to interact, while the moderation can shape that interaction in to a sense of community. And that’s when you reach the full potential of engaging with your users.

Debates and dialogue need tender loving care in order to flourish and be an asset to the people who host the debates as well as the participants. Therefore the online debates also requires time. Time to follow the development, time to get to know the valued contributors, time to fight the trolls and spammers. If moderated well, the users will start do the job with you. Flagging users, emailing the moderator about violations of the Terms of Service and so on.

Every moderator has their own trick or style suited to the platform, the topic and the userbase. Take for instance Boing Boing blogger and Sci-Fi writer, Teresa Nielsen Hayden. She sometimes disemvowels comments: deletes all the vowels in a disruptive or negative comment, making it visible to the everyone to read and therefore not completly censored. By moderating like this she sends a message to the commentator as well as the rest of the community, what’s desired and what’s not. Take it or leave it. As she writes on her blog in a post about moderation “Disemvowelling works. Consider it.”

3) Know you users. Get to know your new roommates – find out who’s the ambassador, who’ll take pride in the comments made to the forum/network/blog and who’ll share those comments elsewhere? Bare in mind what the objective of the forum/network/blog is; who’s an important stakeholder offline as well as online? Are there people more important to please than others? Combine this knowledge with your loyalty program (or invent one just for the forum/network/blog), and get even closer to the VIP-users. Some will have gotten such a strong sense of ownership, that they’ll be useful in evolving the forum/network/blog.

Find the trolls and take a closer look. There are those who are just there to make a point, and who’ll go away when they get bored, and there are the “real” trolls, who just like to shake things up and have a laugh (or more specifically a LULZ - the troll version of LOL).

Trolls won’t stop if they’re excluded that might only make them even angrier. Instead you need to make them less visible, which brings us to the design. And it’s in this area we’ve seen the latest developments.

The tech side of it: Create a dialogue friendly design

Designing how the debate is going to take place is equally as important as moderation. See it as constructing a virtual room: What kind of chairs do people sit on (if they have chairs at all?), what do you serve them? Is there a plan for seating? What kind of lights, colors and temperature? What kind of atmosphere, associations and hence behavior would you like people to experience?

4) Require identity. It’s my own personal experience that anonymous comments is a killer to a serious debate. Especially if the subject is political. In a democracy we have one vote each tied to our identity; it should be the same online. What you say here should be said by you, and not CuteBaller80. You want to reach out to people and engage with people, not odd combinations of letters.

Identity requirements also have a calming effect to online behavior. Now that google can pull everything you’ve ever done online together in a single search, online life have begun to match real life. And thus online life can have real consequences. Now your future boss can read your latest rant when googling prior to your job interview, and your online reputation can undermine your next comment. Just like in real life. This makes people think twice (for now at least!).

Designing the forum or the network so that people have to sign up using an email, facebook or another identity-marker is therefore key. Another is to make their picture visibly when the profile makes a comment. What might be meant as sarcasm or said in the heat of the moment, is given sincerity when it has your smiling image next to it. Would I really say this? Again, it makes you think twice before you hit “post comment”. The pictures are another way of bringing online and offline life together, enforcing you as a individual online and not a spam-bot.

5) Hide the trolls. This can be done with the help of your users, like what Slahdot.org has done. Here the users take turn having the moderator control. NY Times have decided to let the trolls troll on, unaware that they are invisible to anyone else but themselves. If a users comments is voted down by the other users repeatedly, or gets flagged by the administrator, the trolls goes below everyone elses radar, leaving the person free to speak his or her mind, but sheilding the debate from their intrusion. The system have been up for a few years now and the news outlet is pleased with the result.

There are now plenty of systems that can do this for you – If you have a blog, you can use Disqus if you’re not comfortable with Facebook. It works like the NY Times system: if a comment’s get negative reviews by the other it goes invisible to everyone else but the troll.

6) Show the user’s favorite comments. As I mentioned in the beginning, Facebook have just revised their comments plugin. It now shows the most popular comments at the top, giving priority to social relevance instead of time. Quite similar to the changes youtube underwent back in april 2010. In the new Facebook plugin “Like’s” determine what you see first. What you see about the person commenting for instance title or city, depends on that persons privacy settings (picture and name are default). Tech Crunch have been using the plugin, and have been thrilled to see the trolls gone in the first week alone. But the willingness to contribute to a post via the comments section seems to have decreased perhaps a little too much for TechCrunch. But then again “does it really matter? It’s the good old quality versus quantity debate”, as MG Siegler points out in a recent post on TechChrunch.

7) Integrate (if you’re up for more). Don’t restrict the dialogue to you own site. Keep the content on your own URL, but let links and abstract of the content – posts as well as comments – travel. Facebook’s new plugin has another exciting feature that’s combining your social graph at Facebook with your Facebook-fueled commentary elsewhere. To quote Jason Kincaid and his post on TechCrunch launching the feature: ”Let’s say I leave a comment on TechCrunch and opt to have that comment shared to Facebook, too. Then, if one of my Facebook friends comes along and leaves a comment on Facebook about my comment, their comment will be posted back to TechCrunch. In other words, any discussion that my comment sparks between my Facebook friends will be seen on TechCrunch as well.”

This brings the conversations and debates out in to the open and not just secluded on an solitary forum/network/blog. Again, minimizing the trolls activity and giving the people behind the forum/network/blog the power to harness the conversations on established sites like Facebook.

If you want more, here are some of links I googled up while writing the post:

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