Untapped power of social media - Why Twitter fails but comments work

A post at Nieman Journalism Lab one of the most thoughtful and useful blogs that muses about online trends, talks about how twitter, in spite of all the trappings of social media is actually more of a traditional ‘news outlet’ than we may think. In spite of the huge number of users, most of the interaction goes in one direction – from user to followers and is not 'social’ in the sense of reciprocal or interactive. The article goes on to point out how only a small percentage of twitter users actually generate the largest percentage of tweets and that overall, in spite of it's 'social' veneer Twitter operates more like old one directional news media.

Followers follow and tweeters tweet but the flow is overwhelmingly one way:

Social media carries with it the potential for reciprocation and replies, for conversation and connection. That potential lies fallow, waiting to be used — but it can be used instantly. And social media carries with it the expectation of response or at least acknowledgment — perhaps not to everybody, but to enough people to demonstrate that one is listening and not just talking. That’s a sea change from traditional-media information flows, even though they may look the same when transposed to social networks.

So compare Twitter with a simple website comment section – presumably a comment section at it’s potential best. Since comments are the place for users to interact with a website the extent to which a site is able to generate a lively comments section is an important sign of success. It concretely demonstrates the real value the site provides for it's readership. Of course, lets keep our feet on the ground and start by acknowledging how noxious online comments can become. And how they can quickly degenerate, even drag down a site, and really impact in an unfortunate way on the overall user experience and their impression of the site. Having said that, let's also remember that it's not the medium itself that is to blame - it's how it is used. We shouldn't fall into the trap of discarding a comments section because of fear of how it could be abused. Plenty of books have lousy content but we don't burn the books (hopefully) - we just look for better books. Over at The Washington Post , ombudsman Andrew Alexander discusses the issue of out of control comments in this recent article . He lays out both his perception of the problem as well as his idea of the solution. Above all, he is clear that comments have enormous value - and in protecting against the more noxious examples we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. The basic solution decided on by the Post is to moderate, not eliminate comments. And, innovatively, on top of basic moderation they are adding a new tier of 'trusted' users whose comments will not need to be screened by a human.

The solution is in moderating -- not limiting -- comments. In a few months, The Post will implement a system that should help. It's still being developed, but Straus said the broad outlines envision commenters being assigned to different "tiers" based on their past behavior and other factors. Those with a track record of staying within the guidelines, and those providing their real names, will likely be considered "trusted commenters." Repeat violators or discourteous agitators will be grouped elsewhere or blocked outright. Comments of first-timers will be screened by a human being.

Comments can make us cringe. Comments can make us leave a page in disgust. But banning comments isn't the solution. Because a good comments section adds tremendous value. The web is all about interaction and a comments section is where the readers can directly 'talk to the site'. Moderate, yes. Require registration and disallow anonymous comments, yes. Set the tone by weeding out inappropriate comments and actively engaging with better ones. Don't eliminate provocative, critical or even heated comments - these all have a place and can encourage a more stimulating conversation that draws more people to participate. Critical comments show that you, as the site owner, are open to hearing opinions that may be different from your own. Demand a civil tone, and don't allow personal attacks, but encourage real conversations. Engage with different opinions or criticism in a level, thoughtful and positive way. Sites that have good comment sections understand that these add tremendous value, bring the site alive and keep bringing people back.

Mainsail through time