Questions and Answers


First published on The Coral Project blog

Lots of people are asking what we think about NRK, the Norwegian tech site that forces commenters to answer factual questions about the article correctly in order to comment.

In fact, they’re not the only ones to come up with this concept: The Gadfly Project at Berkeley worked on an automated version of a similar solution in 2016. The idea of slowing down the commenter before their comment is published is also part of Civil Comments’ special sauce.

Firstly, we should say that any innovation in digital community management is to be encouraged. It’s great to see people talking about new ways of thinking about the space, and this site clearly does care about its comments.

There are a few issues with the technology they’re using, though: it’s a bespoke WordPress plugin (now open sourced) that a technically minded person can easily evade, and it also requires extra work for journalists, since they need to write the questions. That’s ok for a small tech site, but would place a heavy burden on a site like The Washington Post, which puts out around 1,200 stories a day.

Forcing readers through a quiz-style obstacle course might make them think an organization is trying to keep them at arm’s length rather than engaging with them more closely. And even if making users pass a memory test does force the angriest ranters to calm down, it doesn’t address the biggest problem with comment sections: there is a general lack of newsroom strategy, intention, and proactive engagement within the space.

We’ve learned from our extensive research that many newsrooms don’t connect comment sections, user engagement, or any kind of direct interaction with their journalistic mission. A lack of engagement means missing vital opportunities to improve their journalism, increase trust in their work, add to the diversity of voices in their coverage, and open up several potential new revenue streams — at a time when all of these are sorely needed by everyone.

We do believe that questions are at the heart of improving community practice – but not simply questions designed to test your knowledge. We need to ask more open-ended questions, and listen carefully to the responses. Only then can we truly be a part of the community, instead of keeping our distance from it.


By a weird coincidence I was touching on the usefulness of barriers to entry to communities this week!

Powazek in his discussion of “barriers to entry” (2002) notes that in many cases it may not be advantageous to make it too easy for potential members to belong to a community. (From Powazek, D. M. (2002). Design for community: the art of connecting real people in virtual places. Indianapolis, Ind.: New Riders. Ch 8 (Barriers to Entry)


I’m going to look that up ASAP. One of the constant struggles of community is the balance between access and focus. How do you maintain access to the people you want to attract without making it to easy for bad actors, while not making your community believe you care more about the bad actors than members.


And don’t forget “making members feel special because they got through the barriers!”


In my research I’ve found that has good and bad implications.

Good in that it creates strong bonds and deep solidarity, but also can create false hierarchy.

The way I think now is that you want to create that feeling but on a constant basis of intra community activity not just entry


One problem with comments is that most commenters, it seems, want to be more like columnists or pundits rather than journalists. Comments to me are best when someone introduces new data, facts or something they witnessed. The challenge to me is how to bring out more of that and not so much opinion.


That’s an interesting point. Do you think that the right solution is to remove comments that aren’t new data/facts, to offer self identification and then filtering between different options (Opinion, Experience, Data, Links) as a reading experience, or something else?


What about letting the readers rate things up or down (if you want) but separately let the journalists do their own and then offer to weight the display of comments according to journalist ratings. Might make for a meatier discussion in many cases.


Maybe it could be a workflow solution. Reporters are often asking where to enter and possibly allowing the equivalent of a “fact requester” position ? So someone scans through comments and pre selects three or four pertinent facts journalists can come into the stream to answer. Moving the “Live Q and A” to the comment stream.

Preschedule the answers so commenters are expectant and aware. So if it’s released on Monday, participants know the writer will answer on Wednesday , but the conversation in between is already pre guided towards information exchange in the interim


I am sure that would be helpful. Maybe by setting up simple and efficient ways for journalists to maintain a degree of control (not sure that is the right word) so that whatever conversation ensues after an article is as substantive as possible for the readers and actually useful for the journalist, especially if it is a continuing or unfolding story or set of stories. I mean, what really is the point of all this commenting if it doesn’t improve understanding of what the story is supposed to be about? What would set it apart from being yet another online talkfest, only sponsored and paid for by the news org?

I am sure that if I were a busy reporter I would grow weary of reading long strings of comments that are basically critiques that don’t bring anything new to the party. Plus, so many of them turn into “did too, did not” kinds of exchanges between commenters that disagree. That stuff really gets old.