How the Washington Post Builds Community
Greg Barber is a 13 year veteran of the Post, currently the director of digital news projects, where he focuses on interactivity, personalization and alternative storytelling. This episode focuses on community at the Post, plus:
- Using community data and history to identify great contributors – and harmful ones
- The limits of self-moderation
- Why news organizations look “like a repair person who only uses a hammer,” in how they approach online discussions
“[What managers] in news organizations say is that they want to have good communities. They want to have positive experiences with their users. They want users to be able to have conversations about the news; reach for that ideal of being the civic square. But doing that well is difficult and time consuming and, because of that, expensive.” -@gjbarb
“It makes absolutely no business sense for a news organization to spend a lot of time on people who are coming only to disrupt. No business sense at all. Because those aren’t relationships we’re building. We could be building relationships with the people who are coming to connect with us.” -@gjbarb
About Greg Barber
Greg Barber has made a career of launching startups within news organizations.
These days, he’s focused on interactivity, personalization and alternative storytelling at the Washington Post. He co-founded the Coral Project, a collaboration between the Post, the New York Times and Mozilla, to create open source tools to help publishers foster communities around their journalism.
In his 13 years at the Post, he helped develop the Express newspaper as its deputy editor and created experimental news sites and mobile apps as managing editor of WaPo Labs.
In order of reference:
- The Washington Post
- Capital Weather Gang
- Teddy Amenabar
- James Samenow
- Angela Fritz
- Carolyn Hax
- Joel Achenbach
- Community Signal episode on death, with Sue John
- The Coral Project
- The Washington Post on Tumblr
- You Can Now Moderate Comments on Periscope by Natt Garun
- How Community Software Can Use Foresic Science to Identify Bad Members by Patrick
- Community Signal episode with Bassey Etim
- Civil Comments
- Aja Bogdanoff
- Christa Mrgan
- Bassey Etim
- Community Signal episode with Derek Powazek
- Greg Barber on Twitter
00:04: Welcome to Community Signal, a podcast for online community professionals. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
00:16 Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you for listening to Community Signal. If you’re a fan of the show and you listen to every episode, I’d love to ask you a couple of questions about some initiatives I’m thinking about to grow the program moving forward so if you’re open to it, please shoot me a message on social media or via email through communitysignal.com.
00:31 Patrick O’Keefe: Our guest this week is Greg Barber. Greg has made a career of launching start-ups within news organizations. These days he’s focused on interactivity, personalization, and alternative storytelling at the Washington Post. He co-founded the Coral Project, a collaboration between the Post, the New York Times, and Mozilla to create open source tools to help publishers foster communities around their journalism. In his 13 years at the Post, he helped develop the Express newspaper as its deputy editor and created experimental news sites and mobile apps as managing editor of WaPo Labs. Greg, welcome to the program.
01:02 Greg Barber: Well, thanks so much, Patrick. Happy to be here.
01:04 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a pleasure to have you. Your professional start in community-related pursuits came in 1997 when you were working as a desk assistant for NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. You managed email driven online forum, tell me about that.
01:16 Greg Barber: Yeah, it was a time when the internet was young and so was I.
01:20 Patrick O’Keefe: I was gonna say the same exact line.
01:21 Patrick O’Keefe: And so was I. That’s a good sign.
01:24 Greg Barber: It was a really good time. We were still trying to figure out how to use the darn thing, like what exactly it was we were trying to do, what was digital storytelling, and it was really the very early days of digital community. We were a small team. At that point I think the digital team at the NewsHour was maybe five or six people.
01:43 Patrick O’Keefe: Not a small number for ’97, I wanna say. Not the tiniest number.
01:46 Greg Barber: That is true. It could have been much smaller and actually before that, it was. When they started up the digital team at the NewsHour it was just three people. So by that point we had grown and expanded to five or six. So one of the things that had begun, and this was not something I started, it was something that existed at the NewsHour beforehand, they had this concept of online forums. And what was great about it, certainly at the time, was it allowed anyone access to the kinds of people that the NewsHour would bring on as guests, so dignitaries and experts, and those sorts of things. And so, they had hatched this concept of online forums where a user could email in questions and then the person managing the forum would select a set of questions that would then be sent to the expert, the expert would respond back, and boom! There’s your forum. So it wasn’t a live experience but it was an interactive one because at the time, what was very unusual was that you could ask a question of these folks.
02:41 Greg Barber: So the first one that I ran was a forum called Books or Bytes, and it was about, I’m really gonna date myself here. It was about whether libraries should host internet access and whether having more digital offerings in libraries was going to start crowding out all of those books. And so we had people talking about that and asking questions about it, and it was a lot of fun. So yeah, that was my first professional taste of community, and it was a good time.
03:09 Patrick O’Keefe: So I wanna talk about online community and what it means for the Post. You’ve said that the Post aims to build community wherever people are talking about news or could be. You have a large active comment section, you have a strong presence on social through various platforms. One test of actual community is that readers are not just engaging with the brand but with one another regularly. Do you feel that’s a bar that you’re reaching?
03:33 Greg Barber: It is, although it depends on where you look. So the Washington Post is a giant website with many different topics and we have lots of nooks and crannies on the site, and we have definitely got within some of those areas, some of what I would call and I think maybe you would too, true communities, where it’s not just people shouting at each other but people who have gotten to know each other over the years. An example I use all the time mostly because it’s a really good one is our Capital Weather Gang, which is a team that had been a blog on their own before they joined forces with us here at the Post and they had from the beginning really put a premium on growing an interactive community, interacting with their readers and ensuring that their readers felt like they were part of the storytelling process. That’s something that the Capital Weather Gang has been doing ever since and that space is one where there is a really strong community that’s formed. People talk to each other, they know each other, in some cases they get together in real life.
04:28 Greg Barber: We actually had some members of the Capital Weather Gang community here to the Post a couple of months ago to meet with me and our comments editor, Teddy Amenabar, and two of the leaders of Capital Weather Gang, the editor, Jason Samenow, and Angela Fritz who’s the deputy editor. And we had a great conversation about their community and how it works. A few of our other blogs have a similar type of community, our blog run by Carolyn Hax who’s our advice columnist and has a community that knows each other quite well. The Achenblog, which is a blog run by Joel Achenbach, one of our national reporters here, the community has been around for 10 years and gets together somewhat regularly and also had a community member that passed away, I think it was about a year-and-a-half ago, and mourned that person because that was a person that I knew. I don’t know, you had a podcast about this topic a few weeks ago.
05:15 Greg Barber: Actually one more thing I’ll tell you is that the Carolyn Hax community is one where there was such an interest in getting to know each other better that we had, and I’m sure you’ve seen this before many times, we had sort of that tension between, we want to stay on topic and we wanna get to know each other. And so, what we actually did was based on requests from users, we created a functionality that allows users to mark their own comments as off topic and then decide whether they want to enable or turn off off topic posts. So what it’s meant is that all the users in Carolyn Hax can sit there and look at the same stream, if people want to speak about things that are not on topic, so not about the letter that’s been written to Carolyn or Carolyn’s advice about the letter, they can mark their comment as off topic, people can interact with each other that way, but not get in the way of people who want their reading experience to be just about the question and the advice.
06:06 Greg Barber: So we’ve got those kinds of communities where there’s sort of that deep connection that’s happening, but then we also have communities or conversation spaces that are much more transactional, much less community-like, much more topic-oriented, and I think that there’s room for both. But I’m certainly happy and really gratified to see those kinds of communities forming at the Post because I think it’s tremendously valuable for us.
06:26 Patrick O’Keefe: I like the idea of allowing people to mark their comments as off topic. I think that’s interesting when you could do little things like that and think about… It’s not a micro =action like in a sense we think of likes and hearts and whatever, but it’s that little thing open on your post. Like, here’s this little thing I’m gonna click and little things like that can have a big impact and I haven’t really heard of any news media sites doing that, even if they have or not, I don’t care.
06:49 Patrick O’Keefe: But, I’m talking to you so I don’t care about them. People are pretty good, right? I mean, those are people who are already pretty engaged in that community, so I assume that they’re pretty good about marking those off topic posts and doing that themselves. Is there any enforcement of that on some moderation level? Like if a post is reported off topic, does it get marked off topic or how does that work?
07:05 Greg Barber: There is a way to report posts as off topic and our moderators manage that on a case by case basis. But as far as the self-policing goes, yeah. There was a little bit of a getting to know you period when it came to that, a little bit of a mental switch because, and this was actually quite interesting for us, the notion of being off topic was something that was a negative in that community. In fact, because it was something that was listed under our report options that even sort of underscored the negativity that was attached to this notion of being off topic. One of the things that we did was we wrote a blog post and we have a means to message within the comment sections, either the comment section sitewide or the comment sections within certain sections of the site. We can specify, show a note on comment sections, within the Carolyn Hax blog, for example, which is what we did.
07:54 Greg Barber: And so, we linked to this blog post which explained here’s what this functionality is. What we wanna do is change the paradigm on off topic. It’s not a negative. It is just a state of comment. It is a state of being. And if you’re interested in that, that’s great. And if you’re not, that’s great too, and now there’s room for all of it.
08:10 Patrick O’Keefe: When you talk about these communities forming around specific blogs, specific writers, specific sections of the Post, and you’re kinda giving them a little bit of space to play around with, with the off topic option, does it make any sense for an organization, news organization as large as The Washington Post, to identify those micro communities and give them more space, give them space to themselves. Is that a worthwhile use of resources, do you think? Is it something you’ve looked into where you’ve thought, “well, we have this group of people who really engage around the weather and they really feel like they wanna talk somewhere. Do we wanna be that space or do we wanna just kick them off to somewhere else and let them kinda build that personal space on their own? How do you approach that problem?
08:49 Greg Barber: Well, we’ve approached it in a bunch of different ways, actually. When it comes to the weather, when it comes to some of the communities that I’ve mentioned, it seems like they’ve taken the spaces that we have and adopted them as their own. I’ll give you another example. There’s a blog that we have called The Insider, and it’s in our sports section and it writes about football. And there’s actually a language that’s formed around this because when a new post is posted within The Insider, the first commenter to notice that there’s a new post will go into the comment thread and write “beep beep,” and that means that it’s time for everyone to move to the new post. So there’s this sort of caravaning that happens when it comes to moving from post to post. We have tried in the past to open up forums.
09:29 Greg Barber: I worked with, actually, in sports, I’ve worked with one of our sports editors on that because we had such a vibrant community on several of our sports blogs and we thought, “Hey, if users had a place where they could kind of start their own conversations and thread them in a different way, some users had expressed interest in this.” We went all in. We said, “Okay, let’s do it. Let’s open it up.” We coded it up, we made it happen, and they were very sparsely populated. There could have been any number of reasons for that, some of them probably having to do with us, but they didn’t take that time. Doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t take again, but where we found so far the most success has been right there within the comment spaces. So we’re trying to make those spaces as good as we can and to continue to listen to users because as tastes change and times change, maybe there is something different that we could do to give them the tools that they need to have the kinds of community they want.
10:15 Patrick O’Keefe: How would you describe your efforts onsite versus Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr? Onsite, is there more of a focus on moderation? Is there more focus on something else? How would you describe the differences between community efforts on those third party platforms versus on your own?
10:32 Greg Barber: I mean, the short version would be vive la difference.
10:35 Patrick O’Keefe: Right.
10:35 Greg Barber: We think and I think that community on all of those spaces is valuable, that meeting our users where they are and understanding where our users could be, is important to us as a business. And so, we are moving forward with that. But as you say, there are some actually quite interesting differences in just the way that audiences behave, and our approach is different based partially on that, just sort of how the communities in those different spaces grow organically, and then partially based on the tools that are available to us. The moderation tools within Facebook are limited.
11:06 Patrick O’Keefe: That’s very kind of you. That’s a very kind way of saying it.
11:11 Greg Barber: They are. So there are limited things that we can do regarding moderation there. We have certainly more options on our own website. And so, that is where sort of the bulk of our moderation attention happens because we can be more effective in that space. As far as engaging communities go though, it’s very different with different forms of media. With Twitter, it’s much more kind of micro conversations. There’s not going to be a conversation that happens at scale as much on Twitter. It’ll be sort of a call-in reaction. Myself and other people on staff at the Post do go into our comments sections and interact. We do engage our users in ways outside of comments, which I think is a thing that we should do more often and that news organizations should do more often. I think comments are very limited as a… There’s that word again, are very limited as a paradigm, and that’s one of the things that we hope to push forward at the Coral Project is to get news organizations thinking more strategically about what they could be doing in each of their spaces.
12:06 Greg Barber: And it’s that kind of strategic thinking that we’re employing as we look at different formats, like Twitter, like Tumblr, like Snapchat. Our Washington Post Tumblr is a little hidden gem, and if you haven’t spent some time there, I would encourage you to do it. A woman named Julia Carpenter is the person who manages our Tumblr, and she’s just got this delightfully quirky experience she’s cultivated, and I just love it.
12:28 Patrick O’Keefe: When you talk about the comments platform on the Washington Post website and how you have more options, is that something that you’ve coded yourself at the Post? Is that a custom solution? Is that part of a larger CMS, is it something else?
12:39 Greg Barber: I’d put it in the “Something else” category. It’s something else.
12:43 Patrick O’Keefe: Okay. I gave that open, and you took it.
12:46 Greg Barber: I did, [chuckle] you’ll find I do that a lot. It’s a homegrown-ish solution. It’s based on some open source software, so it’s a bit of work that we’ve done in-house, it’s a bit of work that was done open source. It’s basically the solution that we’ve got in place now, until we’re able to take advantage of the software created by the Coral Project.
13:03 Patrick O’Keefe: Can you give us a sense of the scale of commenting at the Post, like how many comments do you see on an average day, how many unique commenters?
13:09 Greg Barber: Yeah, so let’s see. We got about 12 million comments last year. So an average day is kind of tough to say, just because the numbers kind of swing so much.
13:20 Patrick O’Keefe: That would be 32,876 comments per day, Mr. Barber. I just pulled the calculator out, 12 million divided by 365, there’s a number.
13:26 Greg Barber: Well, see there you go, you’re faster on your feet that I am, so it’s somewhere there about. We get about a million comments a month. Oh let’s see, from uniques, probably about, what is it, about 100,000 Uniques a month, something there abouts, who are commenting? So it’s an audience that’s sizable, and it’s growing.
13:42 Patrick O’Keefe: And then, so the 12 million comments. How many people do you have at the Post that are related to working on comments, or comment moderation?
13:49 Greg Barber: So we have… Our social team manages the moderators. So we have one person whose title is Comments Editor, his name is Teddy Amenabar. So he reports up through our social group. And so, there’s people who kind of have a direct hand in comments in one way or another, it’s probably about three people there. And then we work with an outsourced comment moderation company called ICUC, and so we have 24-hour support, seven days a week from them.
14:16 Patrick O’Keefe: And do they pretty much handle moderation, ICUC, for the most part? Do you have specific guidelines you give them? Do they kick anything to you and say, “I’m not sure here?” Or is it pretty much they take care of it based upon your direction?
14:26 Greg Barber: They pretty much take care of it based upon our direction. Although, I have to say, one thing that we do get a lot of help with, is from other folks within the news room letting us know, letting the moderators know, whether there are stories that they think could use a little bit of extra attention. And so that certainly helps. So it’s not direct moderation, but that certainly helps to kind of narrow down, kinda streamline the process.
14:46 Patrick O’Keefe: Definitely. Recently you linked to an article on Twitter about how Periscope is putting some objectionable comments up for a vote. When a potentially inappropriate comment is reported, they are showing that comment to a few random viewers, who then vote on whether or not the comment is spam, okay or if they aren’t sure. And again, it’s not just spam, but that’s just the button they showed in the example they had on the medium post. And majority rules, if that majority vote is spam or is for removal, then the comment is removed. Repeat offenses lead to commenters being blocked from commenting for the remainder of that broadcast. Now live content is hard for moderation, that’s an understatement. It is hard, no doubt. Then Periscope says they have various systems in place through which you can still report a harassment, you can block and remove people from broadcast, and restrict comments to just people you know. So those are all good tools. But this type of self-moderation setup kinda makes me think a lot, and it brings up some big issues that I think other communities should think about before they simply think, “Okay, this is a good program, we should deploy this.” Even on non-live content, like more a synchronous content, like forums or comments that people expect to live for a while, and come back.
15:52 Patrick O’Keefe: Where a Periscope broadcast is pretty much a Yahoo! chat room, like you’re there and it’s over. People don’t go back to read the comments, for the most part. But, I don’t know, I think there’s a danger of people seeing this and thinking that a comments section can self-moderate in this way effectively, at scale, over an extended period of time, and then decide that, “Okay, maybe we don’t need those moderators.” [chuckle] “We don’t need as many.” We’ll just add a button in there that says, “Hey, you reported this one. Alright, we’ll put this up for a vote.” And I’ve seen this sort of strategy deployed before on different platforms, and I think there’s a real danger of laziness. And I kinda suspect it might be laziness that you’ve seen before in the news media. Am I wrong?
16:28 Greg Barber: I don’t know if I would call it laziness, I would say that it’s efficiency.
16:33 Patrick O’Keefe: There’s that kind of word again, you’re just so kind. Limited Facebook tools, efficiency in moderation by throwing it off on the users, you’re good.
16:40 Greg Barber: Well, I do know that news organizations, one of our biggest challenges, of course, is doing a lot with a little. And I would suppose it’s that way at most companies, but in news organizations, the experience that I’ve had in my almost 20 years of doing this, and what anyone who’s read about the news media in the past in that same amount of time knows, is that the media business is not as booming as it once was. Staffs are shrinking, and so we’re trying to do a lot with less than we had before. So I think that news organizations are looking for ways to manage this efficiently. And I’d say, I think that I actually know it. Because one of the things that we’ve done at the Coral Project, is we’ve talked with about 300 people at about 150 different organizations, in more than 30 countries. And I’ve done the lion’s share of those conversations. So I have actual facts, I’ve done actual reporting…
17:26 Patrick O’Keefe: Very good.
17:27 Greg Barber: Like a real journalist about this issue. And what news organizations say, people who are managers in news organizations say is, that they want to have good communities. They want to have positive experiences with their users. They want users to be able to have conversations about the news, reach for that ideal of being the civic square. But doing that well is, as you know, is difficult and time consuming, and because of that, expensive. So all news organizations, I think, are looking for a way to keep the level of quality up, or increase it from where it is, but then also watch that bottom line, because we’ve got a lot of things to try to do, especially in a year like this one where we’re covering a pretty rollicking election.
18:04 Patrick O’Keefe: That’s an understatement.
18:04 Greg Barber: So, I understand where that’s coming from. And I would agree with you, by the way, that the approach thay Periscope is taking, I’m really curious to see how it works moving forward, because it’s… As you say, really difficult to moderate something that’s moving as quicksilver as Periscope comments do. And I wonder if, in that process of, “Oh hey, here’s a thing, it’s been reported by a user, we’re sending it to a couple other users, they’ve weighed in on it, it should be deleted, oh, yep, okay it’s deleted.” In the amount of time that it just took me to say that, another 50 comments on Periscope have flown by. So I wonder if it’s sort of writing notes on blades of grass, whether there’s sort of a level of futility in that. If you broaden that out to something where the rate of movement isn’t quite so fast, I think it still has some issues, as you pointed out, with kind of outsourcing to the community entirely the process of moderation.
18:58 Greg Barber: I do think though that community can be a part of your balanced breakfast when it comes to moderation, and that community members, especially trusted community members, can really help with that. And that’s actually one of the underpinnings of the first product that we’ve got from the Coral Project, which is taking human decision-making, decisions made by moderators and by users, and using that to lay a base to allow us to understand how users are performing, what kind of impact they’re having, over the history of their experience on our site.
19:27 Patrick O’Keefe: I like that. We talked a little bit about this when we met up recently in DC, but the idea of… I call it forensic science [chuckle] because I wanna sound like a cool CSI-community [chuckle] TV spin off. But, just the idea of using data that you have to develop profiles of users. I talked about it with you as flagging suspect users, people who share characteristics that might be odd and throwing those in a dashboard. But the same is true at the positive side of using the data you have and identifying key users. And there’s just so much potential there to identify people who might be more trusted. And you can put that data into any number of applications. You can make it someone who passes the pre-moderation. You can make it someone who has some additional weight in reporting comments. Like, if they report a comment, well maybe we should just take it down temporarily, maybe that should go into a queue. Versus when, if some new user reported it you might not want just any guest to just go on a comment deletion spree. But it’s interesting you note that because that’s one thing that I noted in reading the Periscope post was that they were careful to stress that they’re sending it to a random selection of all viewers.
20:28 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s not a selection of qualified people, or even people with a good reputation, it’s just people. And when you think about that, there can always be a group of people, a small group, who think something is inappropriate but when you actually view it against your guidelines, it’s not. Because I don’t know what your false report rate, if you even track that at the Post, like how many reports you don’t actually have to take any action for. But I’m sure it’s not a small number. I’m sure there’s a number of reports that you just look at and say, “Well, there’s nothing here,” or ICUC looks at and says, “There’s nothing here, this is just a report.” I don’t know what the fail rate is on that. I’d be interested to see, but there’s no way to get that data. We’ll never know. We’ll never know what the fail rate is because we don’t have a way to bring comments back up on Periscope. There’s no review process that we can see. So if you just throw a comment to a group of unqualified people who don’t know moderation, and who reads the guidelines for the community and really understands them well enough, what percentage of comments that shouldn’t have been removed is an appropriate sacrifice for removing a handful of inappropriate comments? I don’t know. I think that’s one of the issues… That’s probably one of the main downsides of a system like this and one of the things you have to struggle with, and Periscope is probably struggling with.
21:30 Greg Barber: Yeah, absolutely. Well and to get back to one of the points that you made just a second ago, yeah being able to find and surface the good stuff, that’s why we got into community. It’s not to spend time finding trolls and playing Whack-A-Mole, it’s to have a really good conversation and to find those folks who have come ready to play, who have come ready to contribute, ready to tell their own personal stories, ready to share their insights, ready to connect with other people. It makes absolutely no business sense for a news organization to spend a lot of time on people who are coming only to disrupt. No business sense at all. Because those aren’t relationships we’re building. We could be building relationships with the people who are coming to connect with us. Our analytics here at the Washington Post tell us that our commenters and our comment readers, so the people who aren’t participating… We may call them lurkers. But the people who aren’t participating and are just consuming these spaces as content because they’re interested to see what real people have to say about the story at hand, those two groups of people are our most loyal users, full stop.
22:31 Greg Barber: They come back more often, they stay longer, they consume more pages when they’re around, they are sugar and spice and everything nice. If you work at a news organization and you have not looked at your analytics around commenters and comment readers, you should stop and do it right now, because there is a lot that you can learn from that. And if you work in community at a news organization, those are the numbers you should be looking at as you make your pitch for more resources. Because I’m gonna bet… And other news organizations that have done this have told me they are finding similar things. These users are our most loyal users. This is actual engagement. People are actually engaging with us. Not just clicking on stories, not just sharing stories, but contributing individual, independent thoughts to us. And as somebody who’s worked in news personalization for the past six years, I can tell you there’s no greater signal that we can get from a user than that.
23:21 Patrick O’Keefe: I like that. And that’s sort of a bread-and-butter community ROI analytic is community versus non-community. Like the people who look at comments, the people who post comments, and the people who do neither. [chuckle] And what’s the behavior difference? You mentioned it. Page views, time onsite, if you can tie in, certainly with commenters, you can tie email addresses to paid subscriptions if you have that model and say like, “Oh, blah, blah, blah, these people are more likely to subscribe.” I know when I had Bassey Etim from the New York Times on, he said that that’s what they found over there is that these commenters are way more likely to subscribe and so that’s one of the big ROI metrics that they look at. This Periscope story provided me with a number of interesting thoughts to talk about, and the last one I wanted to ask you about, and can I get your thought on, it the idea of actually purposefully subjecting regular viewers and readers to objectionable content.
24:04 Patrick O’Keefe: Now again, think about the Periscope system. They say you can opt-out of it but most likely it’s opt-in by automatically because they didn’t say any announcement otherwise. So let’s presume it’s opt-in because who’s gonna opt-in for the most part, and who do you want to opt-in for that really? Like the people who say, “Oh, purposefully I wanna see the bad comments,” probably might not be the people you want voting on it. So everyone’s opt-in. They’re gonna see, someone says, “Hey, this is a bad comment.” And then you throw that in front of the face of five other viewers and they’re gonna be who knows what in that comment. Is there an ethical concern there? Is there a concern that they’ll see something bad? If it’s just like, I’m reporting the comment. And say, “Okay, that should make us put it in front of these other five people to vote on it.” I just found that funny because usually, when we talk about moderation, we want to save our members, our community users, some anguish, having to see the bad stuff. In this case, we’re literally saying, “Here’s the bad stuff. Tell us if it’s bad. Someone already did but we want to make sure.”
24:57 Greg Barber: Right. Well, I think it all depends on the context. A group that I think is doing really interesting things with comments is called Civil, based out of Portland, Oregon. And they’re run by Aja Bogdanoff and Christa Mrgan. Aja was a former community manager at TED and they’ve got a really interesting model. It’s kind of the inverse, I guess, of what Periscope is doing. In order to get into the community at Civil, you have to help moderate, I think it’s three comments, so that you understand what the community moderation process is like. It also gets users to think about what they would like to see in a community. If you see something where somebody is insulting someone else and you say, “Well wait, that’s not something that I’d wanna have in here. Oh well, maybe I shouldn’t behave that way either.” It’s a really interesting approach, and Aja and Christa would do a much better job explaining it than I can but it’s great to see people thinking strategically about this and thinking creatively about this. I think getting readers involved in this process is a good idea. Although, like you, I think I would have some concerns about, “How bad is the bad stuff that we show them?” Because as you and I know, it can get pretty bad.
25:55 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, it definitely can. Before the show, you mentioned that you’re interested in, “Getting news organizations to think more strategically about the intersection of journalism and community. We seem to be stuck on throwing the comments paradigm at all of our discussion needs, which makes us look like a repair person who only uses a hammer.” Can you elaborate on that thought?
26:15 Greg Barber: Yeah, I think, comments, as they stand on news organization’s websites. So it’s a field that sits at the bottom of a story, and I have a slide that I use quite a lot that I probably should stop using, because I talk about it too much. On the slide, I’ve got a article page, a Washington Post article page. And so at the top of the page, I have an arrow and it says, “carefully crafted journalism.” And at the bottom of the page under the comment line, I’ve got an arrow and next to it is a shruggie because that’s the amount of strategy that we have devoted to that particular space when it comes to that story. Comment threads are an empty box and we leave it to users to decide, what is it we’d like to do in that space? So without any direction, without any response, without any implied value in fact, with years of experience that at most news organizations, you’re probably not going to hear from the journalist in that space. And in some cases, maybe no one’s even looking, maybe no one’s even moderating. I think that’s the scenario that has gotten us to where news organizations are with the idea of comments.
27:15 Greg Barber: That many journalists, if you ask them about comments, or about community. Well, if you ask about community, they have maybe a different answer. If you ask about comments, they’d say, “Oh, wasteland.” And it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s not like comments are something that came out of the internet box and we’re stuck with them. We can come up with different ways to connect with users. It could be a comment box. It could be a comment box that has a question attached to it that gives you an idea of, “What is the topic of conversation here?” It could be a comment box that has a poll attached to it that helps to focus discussion. It could be a form, instead of a comment box, where users are able to give their thoughts and there’s more of a pre-moderated approach, similar in fact to what Bassey and the team at the New York Times does. It could be that we have just a poll in that space, instead of a field, where we’re just looking for users to give a really streamlined set of responses.
28:02 Greg Barber: There are lots of different ways to promote engagement. Maybe it’s just emoji. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be that on every story, everywhere, we have this empty box and, “Oh wow, we hope nothing really terrible gets written into it.” And I think part of it is thinking about our interactive space, as something that’s changeable, as something that’s part of our storytelling strategy, but then it’s also in thinking about our roles in this. As journalists, journalists have since the advent of broadcasting, moderated discussions among people. That’s a thing we can do in the comment space. It takes time and it takes effort but it can be done. And it can be tremendously valuable, when it’s done in the right context. So I think it’s really just getting news organizations to think about these spaces and to consider them as sort of first class areas for storytelling.
28:49 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s funny to use the empty box metaphor. I had a guest on a while back, Derek Powazek, and he used the same metaphor. And he said, “You don’t put an empty box out by the street and come back the next day and it’s filled with gold.” [chuckle] “It’s gonna be filled with garbage, if you just leave it out there by the side of the road. You gotta light that box. You gotta pay some attention to that box. You can’t just leave… It’s not an empty box. You have to kind of guide people.” And I think that’s what you’re talking about, when you talk about polls and questions, and even spotlighting featured comments, or starting off the comments on the right foot, or getting the journalist in there to start the comments off on the right foot, and kind of ask questions, and participate themselves, is sort of signposting or lighting the box. Putting a couple of rules on the wall before people decide to start throwing things in. So I think it’s a pretty fun metaphor.
29:33 Greg Barber: Well, exactly right. It’s about creating value. It’s about creating value for everyone, so value for the people participating in the community. So when we asked users why they comment, what they’ve told us has been to have my voice heard. They’ve also told us it’s to find other people who were interested in topics similar to the topics they’re interested in, to have their voice heard. So in order to pay off on that, we need to actually be paying attention. We need to actually be listening. We need to be able to look and show to users that if you come into an interactive space on the Washington Post and you have a really interesting idea that there’s the potential that even more people than are looking right at that moment at that live comment stream could see that really good point because there’s a journalist looking and highlighting some of the best things that are received.
30:16 Greg Barber: By doing that, by helping to curate these spaces, we can create more value for our readers who are coming to these spaces to see what regular people think but have written to us and said, “Look, it’s tough to really enjoy these spaces when there’s so much difficulty separating the signal from the noise.” It’s to create value for our journalists too, especially on the Washington Post but then on other websites as well. Our readers are so smart and so able and have come to us with such great ideas and such valuable insight and sometimes that’s lost in the haze of a, kind of a hurling of insults if something like that happens.
30:55 Greg Barber: So if we’re able to approach this in a way where we have set the table, where there is a clear understanding of what the conversation is, users can understand that people are watching, that there’s a chance to be highlighted, that there’s a chance for you to have your voice heard by even more people, then users are more likely to contribute things that are likely to be highlighted which makes for a better experience for our readers, which makes for a better experience for our journalists. It’s one of the reasons why since the New York Times and the Washington Post are both working together on Coral, I talked quite a bit with Bassey, who runs the community operation at the Times. And it’s one of the reason why at the community operation at the Times, they don’t see as much of the kind of vitriol that can be seen on other sites and it’s because as a user, you know if you submit a comment to the Times that’s not gonna past muster, sure you may ruin some moderator’s day but you’re not gonna get out there in front of a lot of people. And so that removes a lot of the incentive to troll. We love to do that at the Washington Post and through Coral, we love to do that at scale for as many publishers as we can help.
31:56 Patrick O’Keefe: Great. Thank you so much for coming on the show, it’s a always a pleasure to chat with you.
32:00 Greg Barber: Thanks so much, happy to be here. Thanks again.
32:01 Patrick O’Keefe: We have been talking with Greg Barber, the director of digital news projects at the Washington Post. Follow Greg on Twitter @gjbarb. For more information on the Coral Project, visit coralproject.net. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and we’ll see you next time.
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