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Monitoring Anonymous Comments

April 14, 2010

If you don’t have anything nice to say, head to the Internet.

At least that’s been the common practice ever since the inception of anonymous online comment forms. These forms, found on websites that cover everything from politics to celebrities, serve as a platform for people to air their grievances about the site’s content – scot free.

As Andrew Alexander, the Washington Post Ombudsman, details in his recent column regarding anonymous online commenting, these comments can sometimes get out of hand. Such examples from the Post include:

  • “Excellent!” exulted a Post commenter when conservative columnist Robert Novak died in August. “Hope he suffered.”
  • When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy died a week later, a commenter wrote: “They are going to have to bury him in a secret location to stop people from defecating on his grave.”
  • And after The Post reported last month that the wife and daughter of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had been badly injured when their car was hit by a tractor-trailer, a commenter applauded: “I would dearly LOVE to shake the hand of the driver of the other vehicle.”

While it may appear a simple solution to discontinue anonymous online commenting altogether, that’s not the answer. Every person, even those with something negative to say, are afforded the right to free speech. And while some abuse the system, others remain anonymous to protect their identities if they shouldn’t be speaking out.

As a recent New York Times article discusses, major news organizations like the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Huffington Post are devising intricate ways to increase accountability among their online commenters.

But for those of you working on a smaller scale, there are simple things you can do to ensure that the user-generated content on your website is in line with your brand or image strategy. These include:

Have a clear policy in place
Simply hoping people will behave in an open comment forum is not enough. Have a clear and obviously displayed policy that details your website’s user expectations. Restrictions on foul language, racism and sexism are good pillars for the policy, though depending on your content you may need to outline other limitations.

Budget for human screenings
Devote some time to actually reading what people are saying. Not only will this allow you to limit the amount of vulgar content generated on your website, it will also put you in touch with your audience and allow you to learn what they are saying about you. It’s an obvious win-win.

Impliment a flag system
If you receive far too many comments or just don’t have enough resources to monitor your user-generated content, implement a reader flag system. That way, responsible commenters will help keep your forum in line and ensure that inappropriate comments never make it too far.

In the end, you need to implement a system, no matter how simple or complex, that polices your website’s content without squashing your audience’s free speech.

Oh, and feel free to comment openly on this post. Just be sure to keep it G-Rated.

Note: I originally wrote this article for the Off Madison Ave blog.

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