'Comment cops' help manage websites

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CLARIFICATION: The transcript of this story has been updated.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Time was when all that websites wanted was traffic. Eyeballs and attention. One way to do that, one way to get some buzz going and make readers feel involved was having a comments section. News stories, sports teams, even big consumer brands invited people to chime in and speak up. That helped build vibrant online communities that are sometimes liabilities. The muck that flies around in your typical online comment stream can devalue a brand, and can scare off advertisers and, eventually readers. With so many companies soliciting your comments, the work of policing those comments then has become big business.

Marketplace's Jeff Horwich reports.


Jeff Horwich: In Internet culture, the tendency of online comments to head for the gutter has a name: "The Greater Internet Jerkwad Theory." OK, it's not really "jerkwad" -- but what do you think this is, the Internet?

Eva Galperin with the Electronic Frontier Foundation defines it:

Eva Galperin: The theory posits that the combination of a perfectly normal human being, total anonymity and an audience will result in a cesspit.

Read the original theory here

Online comments are a magnet for name-calling, political screeds -- nastiness that turns off web surfers like Meg Fielding of Baltimore.

Meg Fielding: The level of bile and just rage and hate -- I sometimes almost have to push myself back from the desk, because I'm so appalled and so horrified at what people will say.

For news-related sites, especially, the free-expression free-for-all is wearing thin. And the cost of all that online vitriol is mounting. So, they're calling in the comment cops.

At a company called Pluck in Austin, Texas, 20 moderators-for-hire keep the peace for sites like Detroit Free Press and the Green Bay Press Gazette -- as well as non-news clients like Kraft Foods or AARP. Pluck is a division of the online media company Demand Media. It's general manager, Steve Semelsberger, says professional comment moderation has become a business necessity.

Steve Semelsberger: When you have a core article that has a number of advertisements running against it, it's important that it's not something major advertisers are uncomfortable with.

Pluck moderators review thousands of so-called "user abuse events" every day -- applying a heavier or a lighter hand depending on the customer. The NFL, for example, might be fine with comments that wouldn't fly on NPR.

With 3.2 million comments in June, the Huffington Post didn't hire a company to moderate. It bought one. This summer, the politics and news site acquired Adaptive Semantics, and its proprietary software called "JuLiA."

Arianna Huffington is the site's editor-in-chief.

Arianna Huffington: You can program JuLiA to look for whatever you don't want on your site. For example, we don't like people comparing either Democrats or Republicans to Nazis.

But JuLiA is way smarter than that. Its algorithms look for patterns that indicate anyone disruptive -- veering off-topic, ranting like a zealot, using insulting language. Even mild terms like "moron" or "empty suit" can flag you for a look from a human moderator, who gets final say over whether to ban your comment.

Huffington is also trying to take on the bad seeds by deputizing the best commenters with digital "badges" -- like "Level 2 Networker" or "Level 3 Superuser."

Huffington: They actually become incredibly useful in helping us moderate the site -- it's like their site.

The HuffPost requires commenters to register -- and it encourages them to use their real names. That makes things more civil. It also creates a data trail of individual passions and preferences. Huffington says that data might be useful down the road.

Huffington: Making sure that they get more of the content that particularly interests them, and then selling advertising around that content.

Facebook is also helping pull the curtain back on anonymous web commenters. An increasing number of sites, including HuffPost, allow users to log-in using their Facebook ID. It's convenient, sure -- that's the appeal. But it also links commenters to their real names and photos.

And Facebook has changed the online culture. Steve Semelsberger of Pluck says Facebook's MO -- no pseudonyms -- has made millions of people more open with their opinions.

Semelsberger: There is an increased sense of accountability -- to come right in and present yourself as your true self versus a screen display name.

As technology makes it easier to enforce accountability and civility online, that may be good for business. But Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation says anonymity still has an important place in online life.

Galperin: People can voice unpopular opinions, they can maintain a certain level of privacy and safety and distance. This goes all the way back to the founding fathers, who printed their pamphlets under pseudonyms.

Who knows, perhaps the next revolution will begin with a trenchant post on Marketplace.org -- if our comment managers don't catch it first.

I'm Jeff Horwich, for Marketplace.

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