Why Facebook Is Not the Cure For Bad Comments

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about Facebook-powered comments, which have been implemented at a number of major blogs and other publishers (including here at GigaOM) over the past couple of weeks. Supporters argue that using Facebook comments cuts down on “trolling” and other forms of bad behavior, because it forces people to use their real names, while critics say it gives the social network too much power. But the reality is that when it comes to improving blog comments, anonymity really isn’t the issue — the biggest single factor that determines the quality of comments is whether the authors of a blog take part in them.

According to TechCrunch’s MG Siegler, the addition of Facebook comments seems to have improved the quality of the comments that blog receives, but has reduced the overall number of them, which he says may not be a good thing — since some people may be declining to comment via Facebook as a result of concerns about their privacy, etc. A bigger issue, says entrepreneur Steve Cheney, is that using Facebook as an identity system for things like blog comments forces users to homogenize their identity to some extent, and thus removes some of the authenticity of online communication.

Although Cheney’s argument caused Robert Scoble to go ballistic about the virtues of real names online, Harry McCracken Jared Newman at Technologizer had similar concerns about the impact that Facebook comments might have, saying it could result in comments that are “more hospitable, but also less interesting.” And social-business consultant Stowe Boyd is also worried that implementing Facebook’s comments is a continuation of what he calls the “strip-malling of the web.” As he puts it:

Facebook personalizes in the most trivial of ways, like the Starbucks barristas writing your name on the cup, but they totally miss the deeper stata of our sociality. But they don’t care: they are selling us, not helping us.

There’s no question that for some people, having to put their real name on everything they do online simply isn’t going to work, because they feel uncomfortable blending their personal lives with their professional lives. Those people will likely never use Facebook comments, and that is a real deterrent to hitching your wagon to the social network entirely. At GigaOM, we are continuing to monitor how our readers are responding to Facebook comments, and we are working on the best way to integrate our existing comments with them so no one gets left out.

But the biggest reason not to rest all of your hopes on Facebook comments is that Facebook logins are not a cure for bad comments, real names or no real names. The only cure is something that takes a lot more effort than implementing a plugin, and that is being active in those comments — in other words, actually becoming part of an ongoing conversation with your readers, even if what they say happens to be negative in some cases. This is a point that Matt Thompson of National Public Radio made in a recent blog post, in which he talked about the ways to improve the quality of comments:

Whether online or offline, people act out the most when they don’t see anyone in charge. Next time you see dreck being slung in the bowels of a news story comment thread, see if you can detect whether anyone from the news organization is jumping in and setting the tone.

As Thompson notes, the standard defense for not doing this is a lack of time, and responding to reader comments definitely takes time. But it’s something that we feel strongly about here at GigaOM, and it’s something that we are determined to do, to the best of our ability — regardless of whether it is through our regular comment feature, or through the Facebook plugin. In the end, it’s not the tool that matters, it’s the connection that it allows with readers, and that can’t be automated.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Jeremy King