The Empty Box

Imagine you’re trying to collect donations of food for a food bank.

There are two approaches you could take. You could take a cardboard box, place it on the sidewalk, walk away, come back in a day or two, and hope that people have left tins of food in the box.

If you did this, what do you think would be inside? Most likely, I think, is that it’d be full of trash.

Or you could write on the box, “DONATIONS FOR FOOD BANK. PLEASE HELP.” You could place it on the sidewalk outside a supermarket, and stand near it. If anyone throws trash in, you take it out. If anyone puts food in, you thank them. Maybe you set up a small display next to the box, showing some of the best donations you’ve received so far, inspiring more people to contribute.

Which of these approaches is most likely to be successful?

If you said the second approach, and you work on a website, take a look at the comments on your page. Are you placing an empty box on every page, walking away from it, and getting frustrated when you see that people put garbage in there? If so, should you be surprised at what’s happening?

We firmly believe that the biggest issue with comments sections aren’t the trolls and the meanness and the yelling, though these are real problems that can be disruptive, unpleasant and abusive.

The biggest problem with comments sections is how often news organizations create a space without thinking about the strategy, guidance, and positive reinforcement they can provide, all of which affect commenter behavior. It has to start there. That’s why we’re writing guides to help you strategize how to set up and manage your comments community. (You can help us with our latest strategy guide.)

Strategy is the first step. We also believe that newsrooms need better comments software. We’ve talked to dozens of engagement editors and comment moderators, and we’ve listened to their frustrations around moderation interfaces and system design. We’ve interviewed more than 300 journalists and publishers in newsrooms in more than 30 countries, to understand how sustained community engagement can and does improve their work. We’ve commissioned and studied academic papers, learning from real-world and laboratory tests what improves community behavior. We’ve asked frequent commenters on a variety of sites for their product wishlists, as well as those from people who read but don’t comment, and people who never go near the comments (but one day might.)

We’ve taken all of that and put it into a flexible comments system that’s built to help newsrooms be strategic around their comments community. It’s filled with decisions, small and large, designed to help newsrooms create a more positive, productive, and engaging experience. We call it Talk.

Below, you can see its first iteration. We’re adding more features all the time. See the current feature list here. Interested in other features? You can join us in building and testing them.

We’re also still listening, interviewing, studying, asking questions to make our work better. We have an informal group of engagement editors and moderators who continually help us in our research – let us know if you’d like to join them.

Talk v1 is here. Interested in adding it to your website? Let’s talk.

 

Photo by dOOnLoL, CC BY-NC-SA. Massive hat tip to online community hero Derek Powazek, from whom the box metaphor is shamelessly borrowed.