Because I work on storytelling and crisis management on social media, I often find myself thinking about conflict online. Conflict, after all, is what drives interest and makes a story go – it’s what you need to identify as your first step towards an online campaign that will interest people. Conflict is also the first thing that a lot of companies worry about when they start working with social media. They ask – what if someone says something mean about us? What if so many people say mean things about us that they somehow bring down our company?! Can we – the executive asks nervously at this point – can we maybe just not have a comments section? And not let people post on our wall? But still be somehow social? Because public conflict is a Bad Thing, right?
These concerns about conflict usually involve a conversation about how public conflict is not a bad thing for companies, that it lets you tell your story and respond up-front to people; we talk about building community, getting people on side, fostering a space where folks can connect to you – so, no, you can’t just broadcast your message and turn off your comments section. The comments matter. Instead, we work on creating a culture of constructive comments, and we make a plan to so that when conflict happens, the company can stay on top of their comments section.
But I’ve started asking myself…do you always need a comments section? Alexandra Samuel posted this comic from The Oatmeal recently (heads up, it’s semi-NSFW, unless your chosen career is + the internet, like mine) , and it makes a pretty persuasive argument that not only can comments become a spawning ground for deconstructive criticism, but they can also crowd out the creative offering that’s being commented on. If the Mona Lisa had a comments section next to it, The Oatmeal asks, would it disturb your experience of the Mona Lisa? Could it take away from the Mona Lisa?
Absolutely it would. Obviously it would.
Alex was thinking about this because she’s been dealing single-handedly with a ballistic comments section (here’s the article that kicked it off on the Harvard Business Review). But here’s the thing: while she makes a forceful argument and it made me think more critically about some of my meeting practices (and the comments section made me nauseous) this post is not the Mona Lisa. It’s a blog post about productivity, and Alex wrote that article with the expectation of conflict and conversation, although I bet she was expecting a higher level of conversation than this (keep it classy, Moleskine users!) If Harvard had different practices around the way their comments section works, this could have been a very different read.
For a great example of a comments section that works, go to online magazine The Hairpin (here’s an example you can start with). Editors Edith Zimmerman and Jane Marie have worked hard to foster community in the comments section by setting an example in the comments of how they want participants to treat each other, and as a result of the social capital they’ve built they’re able to experiment with posting stuff that most online women’s magazines can’t get away with: experimental fiction, poetry, comics and articles with narrow or um, quirky focuses. And their readers love them for it. Somehow, their comments sections are doing the reverse of what comments sections usually do: they’re fostering creativity, critical thinking, and providing a space that gets excited about new ideas and supports conversation.
While I keep working on helping organizations to get comfortable with comments, I’ll admit that what The Hairpin has acheived is still rare on the internet: they’ve turned their comments section into a source of strength that helps drive interest and gives the editors power to do more of what they love. But it’s not rocket science: even Harvard could adapt these best practices.
Here’s what they’re doing: the editors have a voice, they stay active in the comments sections, and they respect repeat commenters (some of whom go on to become contributors). They don’t take themselves too seriously, they don’t sweat the less popular content, and they iterate once they have something they know works for readers. At the same time, frequently they challenge their readers with new kinds of content, and this approach keeps readers from falling into commenting patterns. Commenters need to have a Hairpin profile to comment (which helps keep the troll population down) and they frequently self-organize city-based meet-ups, so a lot of them know each other in real life and refer to that in the comments. Finally, the writers for the Hairpin are also consumers of Hairpin articles and are active in the comments sections of articles they have no stake in, seeding the comments section with good writing and respectful responses. If you look back at the comments section in the Harvard Business Review blog post, you can see Alex is positioned as the only person responsible for responding to comments – and while she handles it like the pro she is, it’s a dynamic that seems to encourage personal attacks. (And I suspect that she’s unusual for a Harvard author in responding to comments at all.)
Hard as it might be to swallow, it looks like if Harvard online community wants to encourage original thought or content, they’re going to have to address their weak approach to a comments section – and from the looks of things, their best first step would be to learn from online comics and women’s magazines (radical advice! clutch your Moleskines, ladies and gentlemen!) Ok, that was a little snarky, but here’s the bottom line: No matter what content you’re talking about, it’s clear that the approach risk-averse organizations tend towards of lip-service to comment sections is the real problem that breeds conflict. It’s only when you give thought to an approach that supports writers and gives comments value that you’ll get a conversation that can take you places.