Readers would comment more if our comments were less combative, had easier CAPTCHAs, and made it easier to reply to individual comments, said those who responded to our recent survey. How would you make the comments less combative, or how else could we improve them?

Most of the survey respondents don’t comment very often, or at all:

Do you comment on Greater Greater Washington? How often?

Here’s how survey respondents came down on what might make them comment more:

If you don’t comment a lot, would anything lead you to want to comment more?

Most of the “other” responses are people saying they wouldn’t comment at all regardless, or people who said the only way to get them to comment more is to add another hour to each day, make their job less demanding, and so on. Others said they think anything they want to say has already been said by another.

At first, the survey had 2 versions of the question, one with an added option about adding threaded comments, and one without. I fixed this early on, and so we don’t have good data about the threaded comment option. Even once it was gone, a few people suggested it in the Other box.

I’d been hesitant to do threading because it makes it harder to come back later and see what comments people have added, but perhaps other advantages outweigh that. One reader said, when suggesting this in the Other box, that this approach “still allows everyone to comment but readers may visually skip over tangent conversations of no interest to them.”

Even without indenting, we could still make it easier to reply by having a reply button on each comment and a UI for selecting some text to reply to, which would automatically put it into the comment in italics or whatever formatting is appropriate.

I will also work on looking into better CAPTCHA solutions. Does anyone know of one? We do get a lot of spam attempts, some of which make it through the filter even with the CAPTCHAs.

Finally, many more people suggested toning the comments down as opposed to letting them be more freewheeling. We have a very strong belief in allowing comments that disagree with the ideas any post or comment presents, but also push hard to delete comments which attack others personally or take a tone which criticizes another for daring to speak up.

It’s important to make the comments a space where people can toss out ideas, even ones they haven’t spent years thinking about and reading or writing academic papers on; others might say they disagree, but we don’t want others saying that it was inappropriate to even voice the opinion.

What parts of the comments still are problematic? One that comes to mind is the occasional tendency for some threads to veer into arguments not about the issue but about what one person previously said and what it means. A lot of these arguments turn into sniping back and forth about the meaning of some comment hours or days previous. That’s really not interesting to everyone else.

One idea that came to mind is to ask commenters to avoid using the word “you” or otherwise talking directly to or about others. We wouldn’t ban that entirely, since sometimes the word is very appropriate. However, I’ve often found that if a comment is about the issues, it’s fairly easy to phrase it without using second person pronouns; instead of saying, “You wrote [x], but why do you think that, and you are wrong,” one can just say, “The argument that [x] is not correct because of these reasons.” On the other hand, a combative comment is very hard to phrase this way.

One possibility might be to set things up so that such second person comments can get posted, but go through moderation first. If you can write a comment without using you, your comment goes up faster.

Or, are there other elements of commenting that inhibit a more valuable conversation?

Here are some of the additional responses readers gave for the Other category:

  • I don’t know if restricting comments will help. It just seems that the same people always comment and continually duke it out over and over. Makes newcomers not want to comment.
  • Threaded comments and/or the ability to mute commenters
  • Email me when someone responds to my post; showing thumbs up or thumbs down (maybe you already do this?)
  • Implement a ranking system (ala reddit)
  • Comments should be on point and on topic. This blog should not turn into for example the Washington Post comments section which is half garbage and half racist comments (im not saying that this blogs comments are like that however). What I propose is that the comment policy be stricter, so while perhaps some jokes would be allowed purely sarcastic comments are not helpful. Also it would be great if the comments could bring together and form some sort of consensus, i.e. allow the users to sort of hash out possible solutions to a problem or generate new ideas which could allow the GGW community to rally behind or serve as a proposal made to eleced or governmental officials.
  • Moderators to keep people on topic
  • Comment likes and popularity (not quite as formal as Slashdot)
  • Add numbers to each individual comment.
  • If anything, i don’t enjoy the bickering and straw-man arguments from a few commentors.
  • The comments are too combative, but restricting comments shouldn’t be the way to go. The same 6ish people have the same debates on all the comments. It gets old.
  • Weed out the trolls.
  • Consider a tiered comment system where you can directly reply to a comment and the response indents. That still allows everyone to comment but readers may visually skip over tangent conversations of no interest to them.
  • The tone is what’s wrong with the comments.
  • I’m often reading a day or two later, no one’s reading comments anymore — some way to keep the conversation “live”?
  • Encourage people to follow the “Golden Rule” when it comes to the tone of their comments.
  • Probably not - they are very combative but I don’t think restriction is necessarily the answer.
  • No problems, seems better than most comment systems
  • Maybe Facebook comments?
  • I don’t really know how to stop all the anti-urbanist diatribes but they are rampant and definitely diminish my experience, as much as I hate to admit that they are winning by reducing the usability of this public forum allow an NYT like system where you can read the most recommended comments as well as editors picks.

The idea of having a special tab for for popular and promoted comments, which the Post, Forbes, and others also use, is an interesting one to ponder.

What do you think would make the comments more enjoyable and encourage more people to participate?

Tagged: meta

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.