7 months ago, they began “requiring” people to use their real names to comment online. The CBC’s Sam Lightowler joins the program to share her observations and discuss the viability of requiring real names. Plus:
- The CBC’s responsibility to facilitate comments, as Canada’s national broadcaster
- Should non-U.S. organizations be reluctant to hand their community building efforts over to U.S.-based platforms?
- How being state-owned makes the CBC different from privately-owned media organizations like The New York Times
“70% of our audience said that commenting was important to them, and they thought that CBC, as the public broadcaster, should have comments. 12% said that we should remove comments altogether. 60% of our audience thought that CBC should have what they think is a ‘light touch’ on moderation – that we should keep an eye on audience submissions but only intervene in what they consider extreme scenarios.” -@sklightowler
“70% of the CBC audience is spending 15% or more of their time engaging in the comment section. That means, to us, that comments are actually a huge contributor to that engagement metric that we’re trying to increase. People are not only interested in posting comments, but they’re interested in reading them. And it’s what’s keeping them on our pages longer.” -@sklightowler
About Sam Lightowler
Sam Lightowler is a product owner for web presentation at CBC in Toronto. For the past six years, she has worked on integrated digital products, beginning with social experiences and evolving to focus on web presentation. Sam has spent significant time helping facilitate a cultural transformation to improve the way CBC delivers products such as the News, Sports, and Radio websites to Canadian audiences. Her passion is working with product teams to experiment, learn and adapt continuously.
- Sam on Twitter
- CBC, where Sam is the product owner for web presentation
- Wikipedia page on the Crown corporations of Canada
- Community Signal episode with Alexandra Dao, where we discussed Vimeo’s audience focus and how less people isn’t necessarily a bad thing
- More Than a Comment: How CBC Creates Real Conversations Below the Fold, a webinar featuring Sam, hosted by Viafoura
- CBC’s FAQ on commenting and moderation
- icuc.social, who CBC uses for moderation services
- Bassey Etim, product manager for community at The New York Times
- David Williams, community manager at CNN
- How CNN and The New York Times Moderate Comments by Patrick
- CBC’s Strategy 2020, the organization’s “plan to be more digital, more local and more ambitious in our Canadian programming”
- What Are Crown Corporations and Why Do They Exist? by Kazi Stastna
- Community Signal episode with Bassey Etim of The New York Times
- Community Signal episode with Greg Barber of the Washington Post
- Community Signal episode with Mary Hamilton of The Guardian
- CBC’s mandate under the Broadcasting Act
- Viafoura, an audience development platform (including comments), used by the CBC
- CBC to Require Online Commenters to Use Real Names by Nicole Ireland
- CBC’s FAQ on the changes they made to their comments in June, including their real name policy
- Inversoft, a community tech company offering a filtering solution that is financially attainable for smaller communities
- The Times is Partnering with Jigsaw to Expand Comment Capabilities, about The New York Times partnering with Alphabet’s Jigsaw
00:04: You’re listening to Community Signal, a podcast for online community professionals. Tweet as you listen using #communitysignal. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
00:19 Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you for joining me for this episode of Community Signal. We’re talking with Sam Lightowler, product owner for web presentation at CBC, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, Canada’s national public radio and television broadcaster. Among our topics today: Real names in web comments and the effectiveness of real name policies and how being the national public broadcaster for Canada as well as a state owned Crown corporation has impacted the how and why of comments on the CBC website. As product owner of web presentation, Sam is responsible for managing the agile team that is building the new responsive website for all CBC digital properties. Applying principles from agile and lean start up methodologies, they are working with their audience to continuously iterate on the web product to ensure the CBC delivers the most engaging experience. A primary driver of engagement on the CBC site aside from the content itself is commenting. Sam has spent a lot of time understanding how their audience interacts with their comment systems so that she can work with their vendor to deploy new tools and workflows to improve engagement. Sam, welcome.
01:21 Sam Lightowler: Thanks so much for having me, Patrick.
01:23 Patrick O’Keefe: It is a pleasure to have you. I was just thinking if I’ve had any guests from Canada. I think I might, I don’t know. I haven’t really kept track, I’ve had guests from around the world. You might be the first person from Canada so it’s good to have you.
01:35 Sam Lightowler: That’s really exciting. I’ve been doing digital work at CBC now for over six years and as you mentioned, a large portion of my work is focused on the audience experience that we’re able to give Canadians or consumers of CBC’s content. Over the last six years, a lot of my focus has been on commenting, trying to figure out how we can give the audience the best possible commenting experience and create that sense of community within CBC. It’s been difficult and as everybody seems to be talking about these days, commenting is a hot topic. Lots of people are getting rid of them. It’s a hot topic for us, internally, as well, trying to figure out how to get it right.
02:17 Patrick O’Keefe: That’s great. I love comments. I love comments as a challenge and as a responsibility that I think community professionals, audience engagement, whatever you might refer to yourself as, we’re all doing similar work and so I love the challenge of trying to foster creative spaces. So, we’ll talk about that today and we will talk about maybe something CBC is doing a little different from what a lot of other people might be. But, before we get into that, I wanna get a scope of the comments on the CBC website approximately, what type of volume are you seeing daily and then from how many people and who’s involved in comment moderation?
02:51 Sam Lightowler: It’s actually changed quite a bit for us over the years. Prior to 2013 when we switched commenting providers and we implemented the brand new tool for managing comments, we were seeing about 6,000 comments a day, which is still pretty high. But as a public broadcaster, we’ve got millions of people interacting with us everyday. People who were commenting represented a very small percentage of our audience and our traffic. Over the last three years since we’ve switched products, we’ve experimented with several different types of tools or moderation tactics and we’ve reached volumes as high as about 60,000 comments a day, or a million comments a month.
03:33 Sam Lightowler: We’ve put tactics or tools in place to try and figure out what that happy medium is, or the happy balance is between volume, engagement, and audience experience. Because having a volume of 60,000 comments a day is not necessarily a good thing. Sure, it drives a lot of engagement on our site, but the interaction that our audiences are having with each other, the discussion, the topic, and the civility of the comments, it’s really really difficult to manage with volumes that large. We’ve scaled back a little bit just as we’re going through this learning process. We’re doing all kinds of research. We’ve implemented new policies, we’ve updated our submission guidelines, added new tools to help improve civility before we start increasing that volume again.
04:23 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s interesting that you say 60,000 or more isn’t the answer. Last week I talked to Alexanda Dao of Vimeo on the show. Vimeo is this platform where they specifically cater toward film makers and people who really are into the art, the craft of video, of film making, as opposed to YouTube which is sort of come one, come all. The YouTube comments obviously have this reputation. I’ve seen good community on YouTube, I used to host a popular YouTube channel. It can happen. It is very challenging. They have a deserved reputation whereas Vimeo doesn’t really have any of those issues really because of their messaging, how they target themselves, how they really have made decisions that made them purposefully small. I think that’s a really great point.
05:10 Sam Lightowler: Yeah. Like I said, engagement is our primary KPI we’re looking to increase. If that means having comment volumes in the range of 60,000 a day or a million a month or more, then we’ll absolutely figure out how to do that right. But for now, we’ve tried to scale back a little bit just so that we have time and the space to think, to make sure that we’re giving the audience the best possible experience.
05:34 Patrick O’Keefe: I listened to a webinar that you did with Viafoura in December and it was you and another person from the CBC, I don’t know who said it, but I think you said that you are 100% pre-moderation. Is that still the case?
05:46 Sam Lightowler: It depends on the platform. When we’re talking about comments on CBC.ca, we are 100% pre-moderating all of the comments right now. And that’s when, I referred to scaling back, that’s part of what I refer. We’re actually trying to review every comment before it goes live and that means that we need a lower volume. And our hope there is that by reviewing comments before they’re published, we’re helping to manage the civility of the comments to make sure that quality comments, for the most part, are being published to the site.
06:18 Patrick O’Keefe: The CBC has a solid moderation FAQ. I read through it in preparing to talk to you today and I liked it. I liked some of the questions. There were real questions in there, and in reading through that, I read that you outsource moderation to icuc. Is that where the vast majority of approvals and denials are coming from? icuc or is there an internal component too? How does that work?
06:39 Sam Lightowler: The way that were organized, I manage the platform and the tools that are associated with commenting in community, and then also in our department, we’ve got someone who is focused primarily on the moderation policies and the workflows. And that person is one individual, and their responsibility is not only on the guidelines and workflows that I mentioned, but also on helping our moderation team, the icuc at that time, put together the guidelines, make sure that they’re adhering to them, update them if necessary, provide clarifications and work directly with those moderators to make sure that they’re able to do their job.
07:18 Patrick O’Keefe: Interesting. So your software tools, you have someone who kinda outlines the strategy which ICUC then applies?
07:23 Sam Lightowler: Absolutely.
07:24 Patrick O’Keefe: How long have you been pre-moderation?
07:27 Sam Lightowler: It’s changed over the years but I’d say probably since we introduced commenting in 2010. For the most part, we’ve pre-moderated comments. We’ve run experiments in the last three years for several months at a time where we’ve changed our moderation approach. We’ve done what we call “reactive moderation” for a period of a few months, and reactive moderation to us means that comments get published immediately and they’re only reviewed if the audience brings them to our attention through the flagging feature. If the audience comes across something on our website that they don’t think is appropriate, they click the “flag” button, it goes into a special queue, the moderators review it, and at that point, decide whether that comment meets the guidelines or not. We’ve also done some instances of post-moderation, and to us “post-moderation” is moderators reviewing a thread after the comments have been published just to give it a once over to make sure that it’s decent and on topic, and at that point, they’ll remove any comments that don’t fall within the guidelines.
08:32 Sam Lightowler: We’ve also run a really interesting trial with automated moderation and I believe that went for about four months where we had a system, artificial intelligence, running against our comments. It, again, used our guidelines. We entered the guidelines into the system, and to the best of its ability, it tried to make decisions whether to approve the comment or disable the comment. In a lot of cases, we still relied on humans to review the comments before they actually got published or disabled just because we weren’t ready to trust the system 100%, but really interesting. I’m really looking forward to see where technologies like that end up in the next few months.
09:16 Patrick O’Keefe: Pre versus post is one of those areas where there’s no right or wrong but I do find it interesting how different people lean towards one side. Like, I have different friends in the news media. Bassey Etim at The New York Times leads community efforts over there. They’re pre-moderation. He believes in it. He believes it matches their goals. I have another friend, David Williams, at CNN who was at one point leading their community efforts. He believes in post-moderation. And so it’s interesting how different media outlets play with those tools because, I don’t know. I think a lot of smaller one don’t even think about it. I think it’s post by default and they just leave it on and never mess with the settings at all.
09:49 Sam Lightowler: Yup. And to be honest, we have this debate quite regularly internally. I don’t know that there is a right answer. We’ve even asked our audience actually, and I think I have some numbers here that I can share. As we were going through a transition process last year, trying to really nail down our commenting strategy, we put out some research questions to a panel and asked them things like, “How important is commenting to you? Why do you comment? Why do you not comment? Is commenting important to CBC as the public broadcaster?” So, 70% of our audience said that commenting was important to them and they thought that CBC as the public broadcaster should have comments, 12% said that we should remove comments altogether, 60% of our audience thought that CBC should have what they think is a ‘light touch’ on moderation that we should keep an eye on audience submissions but only intervene in what they consider extreme scenarios.
10:52 Sam Lightowler: When asked why people don’t comment, they say that uncivil comments deter about 25% of them and ‘tone’ accounts for another 21% of people who choose not to comment. Out of that, we know that it’s important to our audience first of all, that we have comments on the site, but second, that we need to do our best to not interfere too much in the conversation by having that light touch that they described, but also that incivility will deter a lot of people. So we need to do whatever we can to make sure that the tone of the conversation is respectful and it’s a safe environment for people to participate in.
11:34 Patrick O’Keefe: The CBC is 80 years old, and once upon a time, there were not a lot of places where you could comment as a citizen. And that slowly changed over time and then the internet came in and blew everything up [chuckle], and so everyone has all these spaces where they can comment. In 2017, that’s maybe not as necessary as it was in 1936, but how does being Canada’s national public radio and television broadcaster inform the decision on whether or not there should exist comments on the CBC website?
12:13 Sam Lightowler: Well, when our 2020 strategy was developed a few years ago, community and engagement was a core part of it and hosting conversations with Canadians was specifically mentioned. We believe that as the public broadcaster, CBC has a distinct role to play when we’re creating a space for Canadians to exchange their thoughts and ideas, especially when it comes to discussing issues of the day, and we have a responsibility as the public broadcaster to nurture those conversations and make sure that they’re able to get surfaced. And as you mentioned, we’re 80 years old. We’ve been hosting conversations like this in so many different ways, since the beginning of time, with old radio call-in shows. I think conversation, community; it’s always been really, really core to the CBC, and the conversations we’re having now, it sounds like it will continue to be, at least for the next few years. It’s exciting, in my opinion, I am all for creating a national conversation, I’m excited to be part of it.
13:19 Patrick O’Keefe: A lot of news organizations, a lot of publications, period, no matter if they call themselves news or not, have shifted the comments or the conversation on their website to social media. Us talking about Canada, was just kind of making me think about – not to get territorial – but thinking about the locations of these tools and these things. Obviously, when people shift, they shift to Facebook, to Twitter, to Google+, to… Not really so much to Google+ anymore, once upon a time, to Google+. And they shift to these platforms and a lot of them are based, or all of them are based in the US, they’re global platforms. Does having something Canadian where the comments can happen, where the conversations can happen, should that matter? Is that part of the conversation at all?
13:58 Sam Lightowler: A small part of the conversation, for sure. Now, we absolutely aren’t staying away from social platforms, we do post a lot of our stories to social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and we do encourage comments there. But we definitely don’t see those platforms as the only space for those conversations. We know that a key part of our digital distribution strategy relies on the development of community within, what we consider our owned and operated platforms, that’s CBC.ca. And as I mentioned a couple of times, engagement is really important to us, so having those conversations live exclusively on social isn’t doing much benefit. We know that it’s important to bring those conversations onto our own platforms and encourage them as much as possible. And, sure, I think there probably is a Canadian aspect to it, especially from our audiences’ perspective. Privacy is important to mostly everyone, so knowing that their data is stored in Canada and they’re not giving their information to Facebook or Twitter might be reassuring.
15:07 Patrick O’Keefe: They might feel more comfortable commenting on something that has the CBC banner above it, as opposed to another platform?
15:12 Sam Lightowler: Yup, and you do make a good point there, we have a really strong brand, it’s trusted. I think a lot of Canadians would feel more comfortable sharing information with CBC than they might with a larger non-Canadian company like Facebook.
15:29 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah. I can understand that, you gotta keep an eye on those Americans. [laughter] And I say that as one. The CBC is state owned, it’s a Crown corporation. If you’re not familiar what that is, and you’re listening, there’s a great CBC primer on the topic. Crown corporations “are accountable to parliament through the minister responsible for that particular corporation and that minister with approval of the federal cabinet appoints the corporation’s board of directors and the cabinet, technically the governor and council, appoints the CEO and determines the rate of pay for all directors and the CEO.” I found it interesting reading, as an American and not being so familiar with a Crown corporation.
16:05 Patrick O’Keefe: I’ve had several community and audience development people here on the show, I mentioned Bassey Etim with the Times, also I’ve had people from the Washington Post, The Guardian, etcetera, but all of those, they’re private organization. All of them, and the CBC, receive a substantial portion of their revenue from subscribers and consumers, or from advertisers who want to reach those people. In the CBC’s case, you know a majority of the budget does come from the taxpayers, the people of the country, but the CBC is the only one of those outlets that is accountable to parliament, which is an interesting term, or any kind of government agency. And I was curious, how do you think that impacts you as a professional, and your work as compared to your counterparts at those other outlets?
16:47 Sam Lightowler: As you mentioned, we do receive our funding from our federal government in Canada through an annual appropriation, and our mandate is defined by the federal Broadcasting Act, but we are entirely independent of government control in our day-to-day operations, and that extends everything from strategy, to our programming, to our editorial decisions. I think what makes us very different as a public broadcaster in Canada, as compared to some of our private competitors or other media outlets in the world, is that first and foremost, we are accountable to the public that we serve. Canadians. When it comes to building web products, or building community, we aren’t focused on profit. We are focused on delivering the best possible audience experience to Canadians. And most of us know how big Canada is and how vast it spreads from north to south, east to west. It makes it really challenging because we’ve got people in the far north who’ve got potentially internet connections that aren’t high-speed. We’ve got people who speak several different languages. We’ve got multiple time zones to consider. It really makes our job challenging, but also what makes it super rewarding. It’s exciting. [chuckle]
18:15 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, I understand it’s not the most comfortable question. It’s interesting, I was reading an article about the BBC, which has a similar arrangement, and how there was an article criticizing the official on appointing particular people to the board of the BBC, and how it might impact coverage. At your level, on a day-to-day operation, you’re independent but the people above you can always be appointed so there’s just… I don’t know, it’s an interesting circumstance. Of course, there’s always things like that that exist with private businesses, too, but just being a part of the government. I guess it depends on your government [chuckle] and how much control they exert. And I imagine, although you’re far disconnected from it, there are fights on how that control is exerted just like there are fights over how the CBC should have comments.
18:57 Sam Lightowler: Absolutely, I bet it’s a really hot topic and when it comes to elections, it definitely stirs things up. But like you said, I’m pretty detached from it. We haven’t really been affected at my level, for the most part, when it comes to government involvement in the public broadcaster. A few years ago, there was some pretty significant cuts made to the funding and we did see the loss of a lot of people cutbacks in terms of our programming and the amount of product development that we were able to do, and that funding has just been restored, so that’s really really exciting and we’re starting to see a lot of growth in our areas and it’s what’s allowed us to specifically focus on building this community and making improvements to it. It does have an impact, but not as much as some people may think.
19:51 Patrick O’Keefe: When people talk about shutting down comments, a lot of the time, it is a question of funding and so it’s a lot of small newspapers in the US, we don’t have someone that can watch them or even major outlets, we don’t wanna spend money that way. Comments can be sometimes tough. I don’t think it’s tough, I think there’s clear ways to show it a time on the page, tying it to a subscriber fees, etcetera. But do you find it difficult to explain, showcase, the value, the reason that you should be spending money on comments?
20:22 Sam Lightowler: Yes, I did. We didn’t have data for many years when it come to real value of comments. I could always share numbers on the volume of comments that were coming in, how many audience members were actually participating. But sure, it’s kind of like a vanity metric. It looks good and when the numbers are big, it’s exciting. But when we actually got to thinking about what value are these providing us when it comes to doing a cost benefit analysis, it is very expensive to pre-moderate comments, it’s expensive to host a commenting platform on our site, and we needed to make sure that it was worth it. We actually partnered with the Viafoura in 2013, and they share a similar mandate to us. They’re really focused on building great communities and driving engagement on websites. And so they’ve been able to share some numbers with us that start alluding to this value, and one of my favorite pieces of data that they’ve shared in the past few months is that 70% of the CBC audience is spending 15% or more of their time engaging in the comment section. That means to us, that comments are actually a huge contributor to that engagement metric that we’re trying to increase. People are not only interested in posting comments, but they’re interested in reading them. And it’s what’s keeping them on our pages longer.
21:48 Patrick O’Keefe: In June, the CBC began requiring commenters to use their real names, specifically banning anonymous and pseudonymous names. But in the CBC’s great help center and FAQ, which I kinda really like, about this change, the CBC admits that a moderator will only verify that it “looks like a real name” and “that you could have no way of ensuring that the real name you use is really your name.” So what you’re really banning isn’t pseudonymous names as much as it is pseudonymous names that don’t fit the structure of what one might traditionally consider a real name. Like I can call myself John Smith even though my name is Patrick O’Keefe, but not GreenThumb97. [chuckle] I mean even if I’m a gardener, I can’t express it that way. It stands to reason that the people who want to do harm will simply use a fake name, while maybe some of the good genuine commenters who do volunteer an actual name, might receive some abuse because of that. You’ve had the policy for almost seven months now. How do you feel about it?
22:43 Sam Lightowler: It was a controversial one, that’s for sure. We made the choice specifically to promote a community that’s open, transparent, and welcoming to everyone. Our goal over them next year is to be as transparent as we possibly can with our audience by explaining our workflows to them, our processes, why we make decisions, engaging them in the decision-making process through panel research, focus groups, surveys that we’ve we’ve put out, having an ongoing two-way conversation with them. If we’re going to be transparent, we’re just hoping that the audience reciprocates and they’re transparent with us and with each other. And out of that, we’re hoping, that by being transparent, people will be more accountable for what they post and civility of the comment section will increase or improve. Now, to your point, there’s always going to be people out there that disagree, or they feel that by providing their real name, they’ll be put in harm’s way and unless we’re checking people’s identification before they register for an account, there’s absolutely no way that we can guarantee that people are using their real names. We just hope for the best [chuckle], and hope for honesty, and transparency and we go from there.
24:01 Patrick O’Keefe: This is something that you’ve talked about on the webinar, you’ve talked about elsewhere. When you go to comment on the CBC it’s the first line above the comment box. It’s [chuckle] wants to use your real name here. But it sounds like you’re banking on the vanity of real names when people view it, to conferring more legitimacy, more authority, and in some, hopefully, a sense of greater responsibility. Is that fair that it’s really about the appearance of transparency there? Do you think that’s a fair statement?
24:31 Sam Lightowler: In a sense, yes. We know that a lot of people are using their real names and they are being transparent with each other. They do feel a sense of accountability. We’ve had one-to-one exchanges with certain audience members who have commented to us directly on the policy change, asked questions. And the discussions have been really fruitful, really positive. A lot of people have noticed positive change. We’ve seen positive change in terms of the numbers. Engagement has actually increased. The civility has improved so we’re disabling fewer comments. There’ve been fewer flags. The number percentage of replies for each comment has grown, whereas in the past, people were just spewing individual comments one after the other without actually engaging. We’ve seen positive change. We’ve got positive feedback from the audience. I know it’s still a controversial topic and there’s no research that’s definitive either way to support it or prove against it. It’s just two different things. We’ve tried having pseudonyms allowed on our site for six or seven years, so we’re trying the other approach for a little while to see how it goes.
25:44 Patrick O’Keefe: And with pseudonyms, I’m guessing, I would assume, that you had some people who voluntarily chose to identify by their real name with a pseudonym?
25:51 Sam Lightowler: Absolutely. Yes, there were definitely people out there that from the very beginning have provided their real name and so they’ll choose to continue to do so even though the policy has changed, which is good.
26:02 Patrick O’Keefe: I don’t know, maybe it’s not a fair way to say it, but it sounds like you are a believer that this is a good thing for the CBC and that, at least anecdotally, the numbers show increases in traffic but obviously you’ve made other changes too. So it’s hard to necessarily correlate, but at least anecdotally that you believe that having people post with names that at least look to be real names has, in fact, made your comments section better?
26:26 Sam Lightowler: Yes, I do believe that. I have to be honest I was on the fence in the beginning when we were first talking about it, but the change has been welcomed and it seems to have had a positive impact. We’ll see how we go. Part of who we are, especially in the digital area at CBC, it’s all about experimentation and continuously learning and improving, and iterating on everything we do. We don’t consider anything a failure. It’s always a learning opportunity and we’re treating this exactly the same way. We’re looking at detailed feedback from our audience. We’re looking at the numbers constantly. We are reviewing our submission guidelines and our moderation practices as often as we possibly can. We’ll stick with this as long as it looks to be working, but nothing’s ever set in stone. It’s possible things will change over the coming months and years.
27:19 Patrick O’Keefe: That makes sense, and I think there is… You might not agree with this but it’s certainly a way that it could be taken also, is that you haven’t banned anonymity, I think is one way to take this. You can still comment. You can have a name. You can make up a name. As long as it looks like a real name you can still come in. And for some people that might convey this greater sense of responsibility because they might be the type of person who, like me, I already comment with my real name and I’m gonna put it up there, and that’s my real name and I feel more comfortable now. I feel like there’s greater sense of authority here. But those people who still do wanna comment anonymously, as I’m sure you’ve found, will still do that and come up with another name. And so it’s an experiment there to see if that sort of structure, that sort of policy could help something and I would be open to that. I definitely think that it makes sense, like you said, to experiment.
28:08 Sam Lightowler: Yup, I agree.
28:09 Patrick O’Keefe: There are always features in areas where I feel software and the platforms we use, speaking of experimentation, could improve the lives of community members and community professionals. And at your scale, with the number of comments that you see on a daily basis, I have to believe there are things that stand out to you where even small efficiencies, especially as a product person, as someone really concerned with the product and the software, where even small changes, small efficiencies can make a big difference. Is there anything right now that you feel is missing, some sort of feature, addition, change that would really help you as you scale comments?
28:47 Sam Lightowler: We made a lot of changes over the last year. One, just to prove your point about a small change making a big difference, we actually didn’t verify email addresses until June of last year. You could create an account with any email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, whatever [chuckle] you could think of and you could register for an account and comment as often as you want and we would never think otherwise. So we introduced email verification and…
29:18 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s interesting that you introduced that in June at the same time as the real name change?
29:22 Sam Lightowler: Yes, we did.
29:24 Patrick O’Keefe: Email verification, I believe in. [laughter] I’ll tell you right now, I have no doubt that cut down on repetitive comments. I could totally buy that.
29:31 Sam Lightowler: Yup, and I completely agree. It was a strategic decision to do them together because we knew that we probably couldn’t have one without the other. Mainly, we couldn’t have real names without email verification because people could just register for as many accounts as they wanted to with as many names as they needed to get their point across. But, anyway, so email verification has made a huge difference for us. But moving forward in the future, there are so many things I’m excited about. I alluded to automated moderation. I’m really, really excited to see where that technology can take us. We know through the panel research and through all of the data that we’re collecting, that real-time posting of comments is key to driving engagement.
30:17 Sam Lightowler: As you’re sitting in front of a computer, you might have 20 minutes to read a story and participate in a comments section. If our pre-moderation is taking 30 minutes or sometimes even longer, you’re away from your computer before anyone has ever read your comment. To us, we know we need to get faster and better, in terms of moderating comments. And I’m really excited to see where automated moderation can take us, especially in that area. Making sure than comments can be posted in real-time, that that discussion can happen, the back and forward conversation is there with our community members, but also at the same time, improving the civility of comments. If the system can be smart enough to actually understand human language, we can hopefully eliminate racism and hate speech from our comments sections and that would be really, really great.
31:10 Patrick O’Keefe: And when you say automated, I think automation doesn’t mean like, full automation, right? There are algorithms, and tools, and platforms that help you knock out some of the more repetitive tasks that moderators and people who work in comments and community have to face. And one thing that I hope with those innovations as algorithms get better, is that they become attainable for people at the smaller scale that have less money. Because I think, where the greatest impact for those sorts of things can happen, is with, just community as a whole, right? Just a community that gets 10,000 posts a month, they’re struggling with that in some way. They might have one person. And maybe they have a budget for $50 a month, $100 a month, but they can’t afford two grand, they don’t make enough money.
32:00 Patrick O’Keefe: And so, those innovations always happen at the top scale with the people who can pay for the most [chuckle] but I always hope they trickled down. Inversoft has done some good work there. Yeah, I mean, I’d love to see that sort of thing. I know The New York Times is working with Jigsaw, which is a company that Google owns and they’re working on something along those lines too. I think, in moderation right now, it seems like… It makes sense because it’s not the people who have tried it, have done it, it’s just getting better to have algorithms that can then be used to automate the repetitive tasks and leave the more nuance things to humans.
32:35 Sam Lightowler: Yes and that is a really great point. I don’t see a day, especially in the next year, where we could go completely automated. There’s always going to be a need for humans especially when it comes to reviewing flagged comments. But there’s always gray areas, things that the automated system wouldn’t catch, so that’s really important to us.
32:57 Patrick O’Keefe: Humans need jobs too, right? [laughter]
32:59 Sam Lightowler: Exactly. Yeah. We can’t get rid of them all. [chuckle] Humans are wonderful things. Much smarter than systems in a lot of cases. And on that point, another thing that we’re hoping to introduce, and it’s not a tool, but just an improvement that we hope to make, is about staff engagement in comments. So, injecting more human activity into comment threads, getting our staff, CBC staff, commenting on people’s comments and directing the conversation, asking questions, providing clarification. That, in conjunction with automated moderation, I hope, brings some improvement to our community.
33:43 Patrick O’Keefe: I hope so too. Sam, it’s been a pleasure to have you on the program. Thank you for joining me.
33:47 Sam Lightowler: Thank you so much for having me.
33:49 Patrick O’Keefe: We have been talking with Sam Lightowler:, product owner of web presentation for the CBC, you can follow her on Twitter @sklightowler, that’s S-K-L-I-G-H-T-O-W-L-E-R. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com, Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad. We’ll see you soon.
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