It might be hard to believe, but one reason NPR was inspired to build its social media community is what it found in personal ads like this one—"Female golfer, loves NPR, travel and skydiving, is looking for like-minded man." With NPR squeezed into the middle of self-portraits, the network figured that if it created a digital public square, people would want to congregate there.
So three years ago NPR invited its 27 million listeners to gather at this virtual water cooler to share ideas, suggest stories, offer comments and criticisms, and participate in civil dialogue. Joining NPR's digital community requires creating an account. Individuals need to log in each time they comment on a story, though using real names is not required. So far 500,000 people have signed up as members of the NPR.org
Since the launch in 2008, those tasked with oversight of this digital community's dynamics at times have felt as though they are riding a bucking bronco in the rodeo ring. Those feelings hit hardest when contentious issues surface, and it can be challenging to maintain civil dialogue as conversations devolve into downright meanness.
So the hunt is continually on for workable—and affordable—solutions. The goal is dialogue, but it's pretty clear that the debate between dialogue and diatribe is still being waged. From the view I've had for the last three years as NPR's ombudsman I'd say diatribe is winning—hands down. My perspective is shaped by the reality that my role—taking positions on controversial issues that arise at NPR—puts me in the position of receiving many more negative comments than the NPR community as a whole.
"The discussions on NPR.org are for the most part thoughtful and lively," said Mark Stencel, NPR managing editor for digital. "And we know we can count on our audience for strong opinions. We're used to that. Our rules are hardly onerous—be polite, don't use obscenities. … If anything, as a public media organization we are inclined to be more open than what some other national news organizations might be comfortable allowing—and that is still the case."
When people wrote me messages that were thoughtful, engaging or provocative in a constructive way, I eagerly absorbed what they had to say. Yet the comments I received on the NPR Ombudsman blog usually weren't any of those things. Most people logged in to share with me—and the rest of the community—what a dimwit I am, that NPR should fire me, that my latest column is laughable, or that I am a first-class shill for NPR.
Here is what "Will Null (Will9999999)" wrote in March, a few days after my column appeared about NPR tightening its rules about commenting on stories
Did I mention that you are a total jerk to state that! You took the Kings Copper, and now are going about kicking the body! Why am i not surprised by your unprofessional conduct.
I am starting a Lottery for Shepards Firing. I will start with Fire Date of March 15th. Others, please feel free to Post Shepards Firing Date. I will give $100 to the Winners Favorite Charity.
Want to see more? Click on comments on www.npr.org/ombudsman
If people were talking with me on the phone or in person or they'd written me a letter, our communication might have been more productive. Instead, with only a click needed to transform writer into sender, dozens of messages arrived in my digital mailbox each day. During especially challenging times, the number has reached into the thousands.
The 90-9-1 principle convinced me that many, not all, comment sections are an exercise in faux democracy. This theory goes that 90 percent of us will read something online and move on. Nine percent—I'm in this group—occasionally take time to comment. That leaves roughly 1 percent who dominate the online conversation, and among this smaller number is found the digital equivalent of the loudest drunk in the bar. Their messages are often rude and accusatory; they indicate little interest in joining a conversation, yet they succeed in scaring off those who might want to truly engage.
This has occasionally pushed away a news source. Once the family of a high-performing high school student who was in the country illegally wanted to stop cooperating on a story for "All Things Considered" because listeners responded so harshly on the story's online version. The producers ultimately convinced the family to stick with what was going to be an ongoing story, "Undocumented Teen's School, Work Options Limited
"It was by no means easy though, and this experience ultimately had a real chilling effect on our ability to continue with them in the longer term," said freelance producer Elizabeth Meister. "I feel fairly confident that this incident ultimately led them to believe that sharing their experience was dangerous, and as a result it looks like we are having to abandon work on any follow-ups."
That was in December 2009, and since then NPR has stepped up its oversight. Today, for the most part, the stream of comments has become more civil and engaging. Monitoring Comments
Prescreening comments works, but it is expensive, and not all vicious comments will always be taken down. So nearly three years after NPR started allowing commenting on stories, the network (like all news outlets) is still figuring out how best to handle abusive and disruptive commentary. Initially, NPR relied on a "Report Abuse" button—if it were clicked three times, then that comment was investigated.
With NPR getting about 3,000 comments a day, such investigations became unfeasible for staff to manage. Last October NPR hired a Canada-based company, ICUC Moderation Services
, to handle the abuse queue for NPR.org comments. But even this is not total premoderation. ICUC moderates comments by new users and those who have repeatedly broken the guidelines.
It's a tough job. Moderating comments is more art than science since there are a lot of gray area judgment calls within NPR's guidelines. Crossing those borderlines can lead to expulsion from the community. "Our goal is to encourage civil and engaging conversations," said Kate Myers, who oversees NPR's online community. "It only takes a few people for a discussion to turn bad. In my experience, people don't like to contribute to a site where the comments devolve into ugliness."
In March, NPR went a step further to refine the system. Now new members and repeat offenders are premoderated—a kind of guilty until proven innocent approach for those new to the site. It's an attempt to control the digital "trolls," yet they seem to be too clever by half. Take boulder dude, a longtime nemesis, who lets me know in frequent comments that he finds little redeeming about my columns or NPR in general. When NPR monitors banned him, he set up a new account, first as boulder dude1, then boulder dude2, and so on. But under the new system, he can't be so crafty.
"And every time he creates a new account, he gets premoderated," noted Andy Carvin, NPR's social media guru. "It's a losing battle for him except if he behaves. Our system works because he doesn't have a free bully pulpit for him to use. Our community members get to talk in peace because of the new system."
Other debates revolve around the anonymity afforded those who comment. Would Boulder Dude be so cutting, ugly or mean-spirited if he had to use his real name? (I know it's a he; I've talked with him.) Andrew Alexander, the former ombudsman at The Washington Post, argued in favor of anonymity
, even though the Post, like all news organizations, confronts these same kinds of messages that can border on hate speech. He believes anonymity encourages people to participate and share things online that they might be afraid to post if their real name was used.
We would have more honest, kinder, civil exchanges if people used their real names. One way to do this is to log in using Facebook, a place where nearly everyone wants to be known and where the ethos is that people are known as who they are in real life. Of course, this isn't always true. There are avatars on Facebook as well, and signing in on Facebook doesn't guarantee civility. Look at The Washington Post. But it's a start.
Encouraging a civil dialogue makes sense, so if I could, I'd get rid of anonymity when it comes to participating in the digital town common. I think people behave more civilly toward one another when their true identity is known. Alicia C. Shepard just ended her three-year term as NPR ombudsman. She welcomes suggestions of workable solutions for commenting. Share them with her at email@example.com.