How Web Commenters Become ‘Ghost Writers’

By: Jennifer Saba

For the most part, newspaper editors are programmed to screen content. This training, however, can bump up against the goals of online media, particularly in allowing readers the ability to post comments on a site. “If you want to hear what the people have to say, you can’t get too concerned with what they are saying,” says Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, the news community site that counts McClatchy, Tribune, and Gannett as investors.

Yet newspapers have their brands to protect, and profanity drives people away. Web sites that pre-screen every comment manually can curtail the discussion, but “that ends up being a letter to the editor,” Tolles says. “On the other side of that is a free-form commentary system ? it’s anarchy, and it’s not a healthy community.”

Topix, which handles comments for most of the newspapers of Tribune and Media News Group, developed a system with the goal of growing the conversation (and, by extension, traffic). The news aggregation site maintains a filter intended to capture spam as well as truly odious language. Anyone who cares to place a comment on a site can do so, no matter what is written.

If the filter catches a post that is not fit for viewing according to standards of Topix or the newspaper, it will pull it from the site. But in a tricky twist, the offending poster won’t know it; only he will see his comment in the thread. “I’m not sure if I would use the word deceptive,” Tolles responds when asked if this method was unfair. “There is definitely a gaming aspect to setting up a social system.”

Topix’s CEO adds that about 5% to 8% of the comments posted on sites he works with are ghosts that the public never sees. The company gets roughly 120,000 comments a day, a number that’s growing 10% each month.

Tolles contends that ousting someone from a site for inappropriate comments only stokes the fire. “Do you really want to tell them they are banned? All they are going to do is get a new identity. Then you end up playing Whack-a-Mole.”

Turning comments into phantoms doesn’t always work ? some people are on to it. Topix has other methods, including workers who police the comment sections. “It’s a sliding scale to deal with bad things,” he says, and adds that discussion can flourish on newspaper Web sites if complicated registrations that allow readers to post are dropped.

What’s more, people really enjoy it when reporters and editors join the fray and comment back. “That is one thing that would keep the newspapers connected to their readers,” Tolles adds.

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