Internet comments are broken. A small population of abusive trolls have ruined Internet commenting for everyone. On this, pretty much everyone can agree. What people can’t agree on is what to do about it. Some sites nuke their comment sections from orbit. Others hire teams of moderators to try to police the trolls. And still others just shrug and are content to see the conversation shift off-site to Facebook and Twitter.
There’s no reason Internet comments have to be this way, say Christa Mrgan and Aja Bogdanoff of Civil Comments. “Everyone throws their hands up and is like, well, this is just the way the Internet works,” says Mrgan. “But trolls are a small percentage of the population.” And design, she argues, can make a difference.
Civil Comments is a new drop-in commenting module that posits that the missing feature in comments is the sort of social feedback that happens organically when someone acts like an unreasonable, obscenity-screaming asshole in public: Namely, people don’t want to have anything to do with you. So we watch what we say, and if we’re angry, think twice before we open our mouths. If Internet comments could be designed to simulate these natural social mechanisms, maybe trolls wouldn’t ruin every forum they touch?
“Right now, most commenters are presented with an empty box, and then it’s published, with no filter,” says Mrgan. And that’s a problem, because it gives no incentive to be reasonable, and no time for reflection. It’s just a blank box for your rampaging inner id. So when you make a comment on Civil Comments, the first thing that happens is you’re asked to rate two other comments on the site for quality and civility. Then before you can post, you are asked to rate your own comment under the same criteria. It’s only then that you can post your comment to the site.
There’s more to Civil Comments than that, including an algorithm (weighted by the way the rest of a community rates the content of comments) that will automatically reject comments that seem abusive despite how a user rates them. But according to Bogdanoff, the very step of asking commenters to rate their own comment is enough to get many people to be nicer. On a troll-bait test post made to Civil Comments’ own site on how Star Wars is better than Star Trek, Bogdanoff says, on the backend, they could actually see trolls pause when they were asked to rate their comment, then change what they wrote. “It’s hard for people to write something bad, then say, ‘Yes, this is high quality,'” she explains.
Okay, so maybe Internet comments can be fixed. But why should publishers bother? “It’s testament to how bad commenting has gotten that we get asked this so much,” says Bogdanoff. “But fundamentally, the people who are commenting on your site is your most engaged audience. And as a content creator, the conversation is going to happen no matter what. If you can keep commenting reasonably respectful and civil, why would you want to farm that engagement on to another company’s platform?”
Right now, Civil Comments is still under development. Mrgan and Bogdanoff say they’re currently exploring partnerships with larger publishers. If they get their way, and Civil Comments takes off, 2016 might be the year that your favorite site’s comment section stops being a festering hellhole, and starts being a place where you want to spend time again.