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Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30
The tastemakers and tech literati gathered in Austin, Texas last week for SXSW, the annual extravaganza of film, interactive media and music. But amongst the hipster bands, indie movies, and a keynote from Michelle Obama, there was one session of interest to online publishers who value an engaged audience.
It was called 'Comments are terrible: but they don't have to be'. And yes, it focused on online comments and commenters.
Participants included the Coral Project (an open-source software initiative from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Mozilla Foundation and the Knight Foundation), which is building a tool to help publishers create communities around their journalism.
Also on the bill was the Engaging News Project, part of the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas, which shared some recent research on commenters and comment readers.
The study revealed that 55pc of Americans have left an online comment and 78pc have read comments at some point. Fifty-one per cent of Americans do not read news comments or leave comments on news sites.
"Readers comment for a number of different reasons," says Dr Talia Stroud, director of the Engaging News Project and associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
"From our research, the number one reason people gave for commenting was to express an opinion or emotion.
"People also said that they wanted to add information or correct inaccuracies. In addition, they were interested in taking part in a debate or discussing with others.
"I think that these reasons show that people have diverse motivations for commenting - from wanting to express themselves, to wanting to have a connection with others."
So that's why readers leave comments.
But what's in it for publishers? Why should they facilitate such conversation and open themselves up to trolling, bickering and bitchiness?
"The costs and benefits vary widely, depending on how much effort newsrooms put into their comment section," Stroud says.
"For journalists, comments can be a way to come up with new story ideas or seek out sources for a story. Some commenting platforms provide a source of revenue for newsrooms.
"Commenters also tend to be some of a site's most loyal audience members, so comment sections can be a way to engage this group."
Stroud is aware that a slew of sites, like the Verge, Re/Code, USA Today's For The Win, and others have recently turned off commenting and shunted community engagement over to social media.
Does she see this as a short-term strategy?
"For some sites, this may be the right decision, particularly if they don't have the resources to manage the space in any meaningful way. For other sites, I think that there are tremendous benefits to cultivating a community interested in discussing the content."
The study uncovered mixed feelings about issues like moderation and anonymity.
Some 42pc of respondents felt that news sites should remove offensive comments; the same number considered comment sections homes to free speech which should not be policed or moderated.
And 67pc of respondents felt that anonymity allowed commenters the freedom to say things they wouldn't normally say, while 48pc felt that anonymity raised the level of disrespect.
Stroud believes that there are pluses and minuses to anonymity.
"It can be liberating for people to express opinions that they would not feel comfortable sharing using their real name," she says.
"At the same time, people in our survey were concerned that anonymity could give rise to disrespectful interactions.
"But even a casual look through comment sections that require people to use their Facebook identity makes it clear that non-anonymity is not a cure-all. People are still willing to make comments that could be considered uncivil when using their real name."
The research also found that those who comment on news sites were more likely to be male, have lower levels of education and lower incomes. Does this mean that commenting offers an outlet to a group that has been disenfranchised?
"It is certainly possible that comment sections provide a forum where those whose views are not well represented can express themselves," Stroud says. "But I don't want to overstate it - silence still takes place online when people don't feel comfortable expressing their views."
Sure, the Engaging News Project's research is specific to America - but Stroud feels that people's motivations for commenting are similar the world over.
When it comes to the effect of onerous defamation legislation - like we have here in Ireland - Stroud believes that overly heavy-handed moderation may stifle open discourse.
"I think that moderation can help to remove offensive content," she says, "but there's a lot of grey area in what is considered offensive, so it could cut off the free exchange of ideas if done too aggressively."
Sunday Indo Business