It’s well-known by now that internet comments sections are dangerous territory that you enter with at your own risk. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sent a friend an interesting article and had to put the warning “just don’t read the comments.” Even under the most innocuous article you can find incredible amounts of vitriol directed at either its author or at other commenters and reasoned intelligent debate is a rarity. Largely you’ll find that reasonable and measured commenters are either buried under the negativity or put off posting their opinion entirely.
Of course, there’s always moderation where sites can set rules and delete the words of those who don’t abide by them. But moderation is inefficient and time consuming and for small teams there’s actually a possibility that you could spend more time detoxifying your content than you do producing it. The most freeing option in cases like this is to get rid of comments sections entirely and instead receive feedback from wider social networks, knowing that genuinely engaged readers still have an outlet to speak. The only problem here is that it makes it harder for engaged readers to interact with each other and form a sense of community, but then again the trolls make that hard for them anyway. Who wants to engage in a community where you don’t feel safe to speak?
It’s this circular problem that startup Civil Comments wants to solve. Civil Comments is a comment plug-in service co-founded by former moderator Aja Bogdanoff that works by appealing to our basic humanity. The idea behind the service is fairly simple: before users are allowed post a comment they must rate the quality and civility of comments from three others on the site. After doing this, the user is then asked to rate their own comment before they post it and they’re given the chance to edit it if they’ve had a change of heart over their phrasing.
When rating the comments of others the user is asked two questions which make a distinction between comment and tone, so even if they agree with someone’s words they’re forced to think about how these words are being expressed and whether or not it’s appropriate for a civil productive debate. By all means disagree with someone, it’s how we develop our ideas and there’s very rarely a simple way to look at something, but there’s no need for abusive language.
The idea behind Civil is that it kind of brings the social inhibitions we feel in real life to the internet – you’re not just speaking into an empty space, there are others who can read what you say and they’ll judge you for it and it makes you ask “would I say this in a room full of people?” If your comment is considered uncivil, don’t expect to see it posted. You have to register in order to post your comment, and each individual user will garner a civility rating as they post over time, but it’s not necessary to use your real name if you’d like to dissociate your opinions from your identity.
It’s not just down to commenters, though, there are also algorithms working behind the scenes to filter out any obvious hate speech and personal attacks as well as make sure trolls aren’t trying to cheat the system with co-ordinated attacks or allow one side of the conversation to dominate. If the algorithms find you’re deliberately rating other comments inaccurately, your own comments won’t be posted.
Reminding us that commenters on the internet are reasonable people just like us is a positive way to approach cleaning up comments sections and start conversations rather than arguments. I’m happy to see anything that makes life harder for the trolls.
Images: Civil Comments