Is online commenting dead?
BBC Trending recently posed the question ‘Is this the beginning of the end for online comments?' Here at YouthNet commenting is a key component of our online support service for young people, TheSite.org, so we've put together a snapshot of the trends and challenges we've encountered.
According to the Beeb, many online publications (particularly news outlets) are having to close their commenting sections as they have become too difficult to manage – with more moderation required to control the flow of provocative posts and trolling.
Commenting plays an integral role in our support services on TheSite and since we introduced it, it’s been an interesting journey. Here’s why:
Commenting at TheSite
When we originally introduced commenting to TheSite, we did so with the plan to encourage our users to discuss the issues covered in our content, as a space to hear from others who had gone through similar situations and as a way of facilitating peer advice.
We started off slow – rolling commenting out across the articles less likely to kick up controversy. It now sits across over 95% of our articles. But through testing and on-going consultation with young people, we decided that some articles such as those covering suicide, where people are particularly vulnerable would not be worth the risk. Instead on these, we signpost people to 24 hour helplines and community threads.
To maintain the safest environment for our users, we have also taken a pre-moderated approach to ensure commenting is a helpful addition to TheSite – and not a space that undermines our goal to provide non-judgmental, accurate information and advice.
Over the past year we have seen a steady increase in the number of comments and this upward trend shows no sign of stopping, with a 150% increase in the number of posts over six months.
We’ve noticed several trends. They are:
- Young people are using commenting to try to get personalised responses to the issues and challenges they are facing. They may have read the full article, but in many cases just the headline, and they will then post a comment to get reassurance from others that their own experience/situation is normal. For example, our ‘Is my vagina normal?’ article attracts hundreds these types of comments each week.
- We actually see very few acts of trolling, and as we operate a pre-moderated system run by a team of staff and trained volunteers, trolling doesn’t spread.
- From the increase in people not only asking questions, but also looking to respond and help others with peer=to-peer support, commenting is increasingly important and useful to our users.
As the numbers have gone up, the way our users interact with commenting has changed. Most now use them as a way to request individual help. And there is an expectation from them that their posts should be responded to immediately. This can sometimes cause frustration among users – due to the finite amount of resources we have to respond.
Much of our time, when we are responding, is spent signposting to the best support (be it our own or external resources). Sometimes we will also try and move users into community areas (such as board threads or live chats) where they can receive more personalised and instant answers from experts and peers.
As posts are mostly anonymous, we also don’t always know how often someone reads a reply – unlike on our boards, which require you to login. This can present a challenge when determining how useful a reply has been – or what change it might have led to.
Commenting is now actually helping us to identify where extra support is needed and focus on emerging trends for young people. Recently, we have seen a huge increase in the number of comments about the age of consent – an area we are looking to tackle (read more about this trend here).
The future of commenting on TheSite
We believe that commenting still plays a vital role in online support for young people – but, like everyone else, we find it takes more time and resources than we have to manage. So what next?
- We’re recruiting volunteers, who we’ll will train to support the moderating of these spaces – as their popularity grows.
- Safeguarding is a big deal for YouthNet. We want to ensure we are creating safe spaces for young people. So we will continue to review and adapt our policies to ensure safeguarding remains a priority. Sometimes this means switching off commenting, for example over bank holidays.
- We’ll keep monitoring and consulting with young people about commenting to make sure it stays useful, relevant and effective.
Published on 24-Aug-2015
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