Anyone who has browsed a news website in recent years has likely had a strong reaction to one particular aspect -- the comments that are often appended to the news articles. And it likely hasn't been a positive reaction.
Reader comments are sometimes thoughtful ways to continue community discussion on relevant stories, but just as often they can descend into offensive name-calling and worse. In the recent history of pressdemocrat.com, we've gone through several versions of commenting systems and even shut the practice down altogether at one point. For the past two years, we have limited commenting to only those with Facebook accounts.
For us, the benefits were clear. Anonymity was somewhat limited by requiring a Facebook account; the system worked technically; and Facebook is nearly ubiquitous with more than 1 billion (yes, billion) registered users.
The result has been 130,000 comments in the past two years on our site. That's not just high-profile stories that attract lengthy message exchanges but every other story we publish as well. Those messages often include suggestions on improving our coverage or news tips or more details about the story being reported. They are extremely beneficial to both our mission as the area's lead newsgathering source and our role as the digital town square for Sonoma County. We are grateful for all the comments placed on our site -- even the ones that harshly criticize us.
But requiring a Facebook account to comment is too restrictive and doesn't help create a better conversation.
So in the coming days, we will be making a change to how readers can comment on our online stories. In short, it will be easier and more open. While those who have Facebook or Twitter or Google+ accounts will now be able to use any of those to participate, it is not required. Our new system will allow people to remain anonymous. But lest we risk a return to the no-holds-barred, extremely offensive free-flow of comments, our new commenting system features several ways to have a better conversation and does require a basic level of registration.
The platform we're using, like our recently redesigned website, is heavily tied into major social-networking systems because that's where so much engagement is happening. But if you choose not to use your social-networking account or don't have one, that won't limit you either.
Once you register for the commenting system, you will be able to vote every comment up or down. The better-rated comments show up first, if you choose, and you can decide to follow certain commenters. Also, you'll be able to see all your comments across our website in one place, again if you choose. It will be apparent on our website which stories are generating the most comments so you can jump right into the most active discussion threads.
One of the other features worth noting is that you can help moderate the experience with controls that let you report -- and remove -- offensive comments in a more effective way.
Essentially, your ability to customize your experience is the main feature of the new system, which will appear on our webpages shortly. You can choose how you want to interact with the comments on articles. Those who want to jump in, vote comments up or down, see oldest to newest, follow certain topics and more can do all that. Those who just want to browse and occasionally chime in (or not chime in at all) will be able to take that approach, too.