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We’re launching a new system for online reader comments

  • Author: David Hulen
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 21, 2017
  • Published December 20, 2017

(iStock / Getty Images)

Starting this week, we're switching to a new story-commenting platform at adn.com. The good news: It's easy to use and has some great features. The downside: You'll need to set up a new account (it's easy) and the old comments will go away. More on that in a minute.

Civil Comments, which we've used the past two years, is shutting down. We're moving to Talk, a relatively new comment platform developed by The Coral Project, a collaboration between the Mozilla Foundation, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Reader comments have been a challenge as long as they've existed — for us and across the internet. A couple years ago, I asked ADN readers for feedback on comments. Like many newsrooms, we were spending a lot of time moderating toxic reader comments (we were using Facebook comments on our site at the time). Something had to give. I heard from, and talked with, a lot of you. It's safe to say ADN readers were split between those who saw comments as a valuable space for interaction and feedback and those who didn't, or who thought they had gotten so out of hand they needed to be shut down. Some sites have decided to turn off the comments, or shift most reader interaction off their sites and to Facebook and other social networks.

We decided to keep comments on our site, and eventually shifted to Civil Comments. At their best, comments add information and other points of view, and they often inform our reporting. It's one way — not the only way, but an important way — for us to listen to the community, and for readers to hear other perspectives. We value that. (And thank you to the many readers who have kept their comments civil and on-point.) But the comment space has to be civil. It can't be the domain of a few loud voices who drown out dissenting points of view, or a place where users are leery to venture out of fear of name-calling.

The Talk platform is the product of a lot of research.

"We've talked to more than 350 people in 100 newsrooms around the world," Andrew Losowsky, project lead of The Coral Project, said in an email. "We've talked to thousands of commenters, people who never comment, and people who have been harassed out of online community spaces. We've even talked to trolls. Everything we build is intended to improve the experience of online engagement."

The goal, he said, "is to bring journalism closer to the communities it serves. We do this because we believe that meaningful dialog and active listening are essential to good reporting."

I believe that, too.

Talk is being used at The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. We're among the first local news sites to use it, joining Honolulu Civil Beat and the Eugene, Ore., Register Guard, among others.

Some features of Talk will be familiar to those of you who've used Civil Comments. Others are new. Some highlights:

• You'll need to create a new account. It's easy, just takes a minute, and requires either an email address or a Facebook account. We'd prefer you use your real name, but Talk allows for anonymous commenting. For the time being, this will be a separate login from your main ADN login. We're working to fix that so only one login is required on our site.

• Unlike Civil, other commenters don't review comments before they're published.

• Comment readers do have the opportunity to up-vote a comment, using the "respect" button (rather than "like").

• You can sort comments by newest, oldest, most respected or most replies.

• You can ignore specific users with the "mute" feature.

• You can edit a comment for up to five minutes after posting.

• You can identify your own post as "off-topic" – say in a side conversation with other users – to help others sort through the conversation more easily.

• You can flag comments that violate our commenting guidelines using the "report" button.

One of the downsides of the switch is that we'll lose previous comments posted via Civil. We're sorry about that, but there just wasn't an easy way to import the more than 240,000 comments published since we started using Civil in the spring of 2016.

Civil Comments had a lot strengths, and we really enjoyed working with the Civil team. But in recent months we saw a troubling trend: Commenters gaming the system by down-voting comments they disagreed with even though they were civil. I heard from several of you as that was happening, and we corrected it as we could. We're sorry for the trouble. That won't be an issue with the new system.

We have no interest in censoring opinions, but we do want to keep the space civil. As with most commenting platforms, Talk screens comments for profanity and will automatically block comments that contain certain blacklisted words or phrases. If you think comments are being unfairly screened, let us know. We're also trying a plug-in developed by Google to identify toxic comments. If the system identifies language as toxic, you'll have a chance to review it before hitting "publish." Depending how toxic, it may get flagged for review by a moderator here before it appears.

Last fall, we were one of 20 news sites nationwide invited to participate in a survey of commenters and comment-readers. The survey was conducted by the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas (with funding by The Coral Project). Participation here was great: More than 1,700 ADN users took the time to fill out a pretty detailed survey form.

Among the takeaways: Our readers like it when experts in a particular topic jump into the comments. Readers really like it when ADN staff members jump in to answer questions, clarify facts or otherwise engage with the community. As we move forward, our hope is to do more of that.

Give Talk a try and let us know what you think. Email me or comments@adn.com or post in the comments. We have updated our commenting guidelines. Give them a read before you jump in.

As always, thanks for reading.

David Hulen is editor of the Anchorage Daily News.

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