Hawaiʻi's Technology Community

Reputation Systems and Civil Online Discourse

One of the most interesting discussions at today's NewsMorphosis event centered around the difficultly of keeping online discussions productive or, at the very least, civil. Sarah Lacy described her frustration with the abusive comments that often show up on tech blogs such as TechCrunch and, given the volume of responses, the difficultly in managing them. John Temple and David Shapiro expressed similar frustration with abusive comments on their online newspaper articles. In fact, Temple said Peer News articles won't have traditional commenting functionality and hinted at some sort of new system for supporting true "civic square" style discussion . I assume Peer News is implementing a reputation system, similar to what Pierre did with eBay for establishing trust in online auctions.

One of the things I really like about local grassroots sites like TechHui and Kanu Hawaii is that our discussions tend to be very civil. Obviously its much easier for us because we have smaller communities and many of us know each other in Real World 1.0. For larger communities civil discussion is still possible but it requires the ability to identify participants (i.e. associate posts with actual people), active community monitoring and, ideally, a reliable reputation management system. Just removing the ability to do anonymous posts makes a huge difference. People tend to show a lot more aloha if they know their real name is attached and their neighbor or mother might be listening. The next step is knowing a person's general reputation (i.e. are they a random nutter) and, if relevant, their areas of expertise. If Peer News has developed a simple system for handling this, then they really have something special. As always, the devil will be in the details. It must be simple, unobtrusive and reliable.

During a brief discussion after the panels, Sarah Lacy suggested the solution may be to only allow comments via Facebook connect. I like this idea. People tend to be nicer when they know all their friends are listening, and I have no doubt this would greatly reduce abusive comments, but highly motivated jerks could always create faux Facebook accounts to use for trolling and mud slinging purposes.

Google's search is a reputation system of sorts. As we all know, their intuitive leap was realizing that no content analyzing algorithm could really determine the relevance or importance of a web page. Only people know what pages are relevant, and they indicate this by linking to them. Important sites tend to link to other important sites, so link "votes" need to be weighted. The web badly needs an equally sophisticated reputation system for people.

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Comment by Roger Garrett on April 16, 2010 at 7:07pm
I had an idea for addressing this when I saw how many abusive, spam, and non-relevant postings were happening on AOL articles. I sent the suggestion in to AOL but, as should be expected, received no reply from them. AOL, like many such sites, allows users to flag inappropriate postings. But I think that's a too-late approach, the offense has already occurred, and it puts too much responsibility on the entire reader community.

My idea is that whenever a person posts a new comment he is presented, not just with a captcha type verification (to assure that he's not a 'bot), but he's also presented with a not-yet-posted submission by someone else and is required to indicate whether it looks, to him to be 1) perfectly alright, 2) definitely spam, 3) potentially offensive, or 4) off topic. What he is presented with wouldn't (possibly shouldn't) even be for the topic or community in which he, himself, is posting. It could show the community name, the 'top' posting or topic of the other submitted message, and the message itself. That would reduce the number of postings that get flagged as unacceptable simply because the new poster doesn't agree with the message he's evaluating. Thus, new messages are always checked by someone BEFORE it gets added to the postings. The authors of flagged (rejected) messages would be notified of the objection and could chose to re-write or re-submit their messages, having them again verified by some other poster. People who abuse the pre-flagging method could be detected, by tracking how many times he flags messages that are subsequently OK'd by other evaluators, and restricted from further postings.

Now, this may not deal with all the possible problems, and there may be details of it that would have to be hashed out, but I think it might be a viable alternative to the existing methods. And it's certainly better than the approach taken by some of AOL's communities, which is to simply eliminate user commenting.
Comment by Barry Weinman on March 22, 2010 at 9:09am
pretty cool --- Sarah Lacey interview with Pierre about Peer
Comment by Daniel Leuck on March 21, 2010 at 12:37pm
Hi John & Barry - Just to clarify, John seemed to be hinting at topic based subscriptions as opposed to per article. For example, you could pay to see all content relating to the Akaka Bill.

He emphasized that Peer News will be about living, evolving content and not disjointed episodic news.
Comment by John on March 21, 2010 at 10:40am
A key challenge for micropayments is the 'cost'/pain of conducting the transaction, specifically entering in your contact and billing information. For most people the hassle of entering all that in for a $1 or $2 purchase is not worth it.

iTunes is an exception as it has huge scale and a mass market offering that allows it to maintain tens of millions of credit card information, expediting quick micropayments. It's also a product/service that people routinely buy from (dozens of songs over a month is not uncommon) - this won't be the same for articles.

PayPal is another option if a reader has an active paypal account and they can meet PayPal's stringent security demands (We tried PayPal, dozens of people complained about issue with PayPal restrictions, then we removed it - I have heard similar stories from other on-line vendors of information).

The other question is that if you are going to charge $2 for 'niche' content, you probably can ask $20 and generate far higher profits. This is frequently referred to as the 'penny gap' implying that a massive difference in demand exists between free and penny but between a penny and dollars is not much.

For instance, if Peer News produces the definitive guide to the 'Rail' debate, they might as well sell it for $20 each than $2 as it's unlikely that 10x more people will buy at $2 than $20.

We also tested individual article fees vs subscriptions and found that overwhelmingly people preferred subscriptions (less than 5% choose to buy individual articles). If people care about a topic (like Hawaii current events/issues), most will likely prefer a reasonably priced subscription than buying a new article every few weeks.

My experience with a community that is seriously interested in a subject is to charge a subscription. It's easier for them, it provides stable long cash flow and generally higher valuations for the business.
Comment by Barry Weinman on March 21, 2010 at 9:48am
The pay for article fee makes sense. Micro payments can add up for communities that are seriously interested in the subject/content. I am on the Board of LiveWorld ( LVWD:NASDAQ) which runs moderated sites for major corporations including communities such as eBay and formerly eBay China. The moderator sees the comment right before the general audience see it and can react quite quickly. The sites pay by the number of users and importance to the group of the content. A moderated site with relevant content is worth paying for.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on March 21, 2010 at 1:44am
Update: Today in a discussion at Unconferenz, Temple hinted that rather than the flat $80-range pay wall you see with the WSJ and the Economist, Peer News will have per topic subscriptions. This was prompted by a participant inquiring if they would have an iTunes type $2 per article fee.

Barry Weinman: I strikes me that abusive behavior/comments is solvable but is a very different issue than business model.
True, but I think people will be much more likely to pay if the service is effective in promoting a higher level of discourse. I know I would. I can really relate to Olin's comments from NewsMorphosis about not wanting to read all the nasty, often racist, ad hominem attacks you find in comments on local newspaper articles. Its worse than nonproductive. They suck the life out of you and promote general apathy (or worse.)
Brian Russo: Also for a large site the 'real name' factor disappears. I.e. If I proclaim myself as "Brian R' on who cares? There are probably thousands of them and there's little guarantee it's anyone named Brian R anyway.
In most costs, you care :-) I believe there is a strong psychological factor. Even on large sites, abusive comments are much more commonly attributed to fight4right or the_terminator than John Smith or Yoko Suzuki.
Brian Russo: I have some friends that are basically professional trolls - don't underestimate how just a few people can completely destroy a discussion if they want to.
True. As John said you can't guarantee healthy discourse, but you can make it much more likely. If the professional trolls you mentioned showed up on TechHui one of the admins would promptly kick them off.
The issue you raise of scale is well taken, but if TechHui grew to 10X its current size we would have more sponsorship money, which we would use to bring in the requisite number of admins.
Comment by John on March 19, 2010 at 1:59pm
I think reputation systems and business models both play roles in promoting more productive conversations. Nothing 'guarantees' healthy discourse just like Google does not ensure the best results are always returned (lucrative black hat SEO services show that). However, Google/search engines makes it far more likely statistically that the results are accurate. In the same manner, people who pay and sites that have the funds to invest in providing quality information and facilitating of discussions are statistically more likely to have productive conversations.

It looks like Peer News will do both and each element will reinforce the other.
Comment by Barry Weinman on March 19, 2010 at 12:52pm
I strikes me that abusive behavior/comments is solvable but is a very different issue than business model. They both may also not be that related to quality of the content---abusive people sometimes know what they are talking about. Subscription payments don't necessarily translate into quality comments. One consideration may be to charge by the value of the content to the subscriber. Many VCs subscribe to data bases like Venture One which can cost $25,000 or more per year. The data is part of the due diligence process---competitive information, investors, amount invested, etc. The TechCrunch data base is free and the data is almost as good but not as complete. Perhaps Peer will be able to have a variable subscription model based on ranges of content value to the user.

If they have really figured the model out they should get a Nobel Prize.
Comment by Konstantin A Lukin on March 19, 2010 at 12:07pm
One problem that I found with commenting online is that every single website asks users to sign up with them in order to leave comments. IMO This is a very tedious and simply unrealistic model.

Instead, connecting with a favorite 'recognized' identity provider is a step forward - such as Facebook, LinkedIn, OpenID, etc.. (see diagram)

If Peer News has developed a simple system for handling this, then they really have something special. As always, the devil will be in the details. It must be simple, unobtrusive and reliable.
There could be a way for people to flag comments as inappropriate, which gives all users the ability to monitor comment activity. Users with a certain number of 'inappropriate' comments could be banned from commenting for a period of time, depending on their level of abuse. (Sort of like they do in sport games right now)

It could also implement sort of like 'bad words' dictionary, which is continuously updated based on user feedback. Comments that include those words could be automatically flagged as 'explicit', possibly giving reader the option to filter those out.

The web badly needs an equally sophisticated reputation system for people.
Yea, sort of like web identity or a web 'passport'. Everything that one does online could be 'linked' to user identity. The problem is that currently web is mostly anonymous, which allows for explicit behavior. Now if user's web identity was used by potential employers to make a hiring decision, things would've probably be different :)

Anyway, some of it is still sort of futuristic for now, and there is no clear line between anonymous web freedom and identity control. I think 'local' approach to commenting solves the 'identity' issue, but then runs into 'not enough input' problem.
Comment by John on March 19, 2010 at 11:46am
I think the business model can work and does work for many other areas of information. Key questions include:

- What do they choose to cover?
- What level of depth and expertise do they offer?
- How much do they spend?

If they choose to cover topics that generate clear value to users, the motivation to pay will be much greater. I think significant numbers of people will pay for answers to questions like "What school should I send my children to?", "Where can I save money in local stores?", "What are the key issues in moving to Hawaii?", "Should I buy or rent? Where I should live?" These are all questions that newspapers/magazines do a bad job of addressing constrained by the importance of not offending advertisers. By contrast, it appears that Peer News will be more focused on topics like rail, political elections, etc. that I suspect most people have less motivation to pay.

The other interesting issue is how much they spend. They seem to have a fairly large staff to start and may have a $1 million burn rate (obviously speculating). Assume $50 annual subscription fees, they would need 20,000 subscribers. That's possible (given the local newspapers have 100k-200k paying subscribers) but not easy.

My company provides news for a niche industry and we have 20 direct competitors who all are funded by advertising. Despite that, in a little over a year, we have as much readership as them and over 1000 paying subscribers (and we're boostrapped and profitable). We found the key is providing far more research/reporting and practical advice that our ad funded competitors who do not have the motivation to match. I am sure Peer News with their talent can do far better.

As a final note, even if the business model does not work, it's far better for them to try this approach. It's pretty clear that ad supported models reward sensationalism and shallow investigations. At least Peer News is trying to increase the quality and level of discourse.


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