Channing Rodman Consulting

helping you make your way on social media

Crisis, community and comment sections

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.


  awsamuel wrote @

Channing, what a useful post — needless to say it resonates today! You’re spot on about the conflict-allergy that bedevils large organizations, and which really is the biggest obstacle to engaging effectively with social media. And I’m delighted that you pointed us to The Hairpin, which I didn’t know; their comments section is indeed fabulous.

The big question your argument raises for me is one of resources. It may seem ridiculous to compare what’s feasible at HBR with what The Hairpin manages on a shoestring (is it on a shoestring? Well, no matter, it makes for a great sentence). But I know that the editorial team at HBR is seriously maxxed out — they put a lot of time into editing their posts (believe it or not, I had several back-and-forths with two different HBR editors, and a round of revisions to soften things up, before this went live) which is what makes their content so strong. I don’t know where they’d find the bandwidth to manage comments more actively, too — in fact this may be the first time I’ve ever had an editor intervene in one of my comment threads at all, as someone did in one spot you can see.

If editors don’t have the resources to model and engage in comment threads, it is up to the community to self-regulate. To me this comes back to online cultural norms, which are not just Internet-wide, or even site-wide, but also post-specific. Overall the HBR community is extremely constructive, even in contentious conversations; I was personally blown away by the quality of engagement around my post-hockey-riot post a couple of years ago, which got VERY intense but still had very deep thinking. Yet in this case, once the ball got rolling in a negative way, it just kept rolling.

Of course, you might argue that I’m the one who *got* it rolling: it’s a confrontational post, and so it engendered confrontational responses. What’s interesting is that the Twitter conversation was much more mixed — lots of positives along with the flames — which suggests to me that the comment management challenge arises when a comment threat reaches a tipping point that makes it hard to weigh in with an alternate view (though a few brave souls have done just that!)

To me that speaks to a principle and a practice I’m going to try to adopt in future: if you see a post you disagree with and that has already gotten a strong negative response, there’s no need to pile on — doing so may just intimidate those who’d weigh in with a different view. Even more important (and this is where I’ll focus my energies), if you see a pile-on happening, don’t be afraid to be the dissenting voice — because your voice may be what enables others to speak up too.

Last but not least — and this comes back to your “don’t be afraid of conflict” point — don’t let the thought of a comment flaming keep you from saying what you want to say. Each of the (few) comment brawls I’ve engendered over the years has turned into one of the most powerful, interesting and inspiring experiences I’ve had online. Sometimes getting a little dinged-up is the route to a meaningful conversation.

  csrodman wrote @

Oh Alex, what a lovely contribution.  Thank you for your comment:) I think your point about there being a tipping point for comments sections where they go from balanced to unsafe is very true. I always find it intimidating to leave comments in a hot debate (because what if thinker broken and sound dumb?) and I think you’re right that it’s important to facilitate a space that keeps the conversation diverse. I’m going to try to get more brave about that. 

For a place that lots of folks are willing to dismiss as dumb, comments sections bring up a lot of complicated  challenges.  One is the idea of who’s going to set the tone for discussion if not the editors and authors who produce the content. I don’t have a good answer – I appreciate that the HBR editors are at capacity, and that the model I’m promoting is a radical ask: it’s a rare site where producers and authors find content so personally compelling that they’ll speak up in places they’re not paid to and engage with articles they didn’t write, just so they can enjoy extending an idea. I think there’s a second piece related to that, which is that the public stakes are so much higher for commenters on the HBR blog than in a place like the Hairpin, and this is a key driver
for conflict. The HBR commenters are business people who are in competition for good public opinion, whereas the commenters on the Hairpin aren’t worried about winning or losing clients on the basis of their sparkling commentary – ironically, it’s that freedom that leads to the real sparkling commentary. I wonder if that’s the real culture challenge looming at HBR – re-architecting the comments section to discourage promotional criticism (you know, punchy comments that show just how much more experienced you are in the business than the other guy)  I don’t know. There are clearly a lot of threads (heh) in this comment issue to untangle.

  Karen Quinn Fung wrote @

Channing and Alex,

Some great thoughts you have here.

This reminds me a little bit of my theories about why the comment sections of YouTube can be so toxic – which is that people have so thoroughly institutionalized the idea of television as a medium that they have to scream back to (i.e. one in which interactivity is not at all a part of the experience) that YouTube comments carry the burden of years’ worth of inculcated unaccountability. We’re used to dehumanizing those we see on TV – because we’re used to being able to judge and comment on them without having to acknowledge the humanity of the person in the video. I think there’s still a lot of that happening in the comments of columns that offer themselves as analagous to magazines or newspapers.  The truth of the matter is, a comments section is not like the conversation people have over reading the newspaper – but that can be challenging to notice when the column tries to align itself with that experience. Imagine if we all gave as much thought to our Internet comments like we used to, to our letters to the editor!

Alex, your comment about being the dissenting voice reminds me of a principle of a facilitation technique called Deep Democracy. It underscores the idea of making space for dissent, then “spreading” the dissent amongst the participants, in the sense that individuals participating dialogue all have mirror neurons – so the depth of a group’s total wisdom about the topic is greater than just the one person who voices it, and a deeper aim (admittedly, a very challenging thing to do online) is to get people to a point where they can acknowledge and reconcile the conflict within them that they are probably feeling socially obligated to suppress. (The aim of the processes in that method is to both enable the individual to articulate it safely and respectfully, while priming the group to hear and receive openly and thoughtfully.)  When it comes to a pile-on of negativity, as you have experienced in your HBR article, I’m with Channing that the commenters are doing so with full consideration of the image of what commenting on HBR means – whereas if they had seen the same article – say, a Tim Ferriss blog or LifeHacker – something very different may have resulted. 

As you acknowledge, I also don’t doubt the confrontational tone of the original piece was polarizing resulting in commenters’ defensiveness. I don’t think pieces on The Hairpin (or The Awl, which I see as a similar space) are any less pointed in their approach either. As Channing points out – there may be more a sense of an intention of remaining in relationship, and a sense that disagreeing with one person one day does not invalidate the many valuable contributions they may make to one’s thinking the next. In this sense I often think about the words of Joss Whedon, who has said he would rather make a work that 10 people need to see than one that a 100 people want to see. HBR’s value proposition may lie in giving people what they want – hence the derision with which the piece was received – when in reality what people need, and what you offered, is to be jolted out of the force of their habitual thinking about what is productive or appropriate.

(This comment is long enough to be memorialized by way of cross-posting to my #someonewaswrongontheInternet tumblr tag.)

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