Handing comments over to Facebook is a double-edged sword

When Facebook launched the ability to embed Facebook comments on third-party websites, a lot of publishers saw it as a life-saver: not only would it improve traffic by exposing their content to others on the social network, but Facebook’s “real names” policy would also cut down on trolling and bad behavior. And some newspaper and media sites have seen a big traffic boost from implementing Facebook comments — including several that were profiled in a recent post at the Poynter Institute, such as the Los Angeles Times, which has credited Facebook with improving its web results. But it’s worth remembering that Facebook is not the cure for bad comments, and that handing over comments means relinquishing control over something important.

In his Poynter post, Jeff Sonderman notes that the L.A. Times has noticed both a decline in name-calling and other bad behavior from online commenters, and an increase in traffic as a result of implementing Facebook comments on its blogs. Jimmy Orr, the online managing editor at the newspaper, said that he suspects the better quality of comments is a result of Facebook requiring real names from its users. “Trolls don’t like their friends to know that they’re trolls,” he told Poynter. The newspaper also saw 5-percent growth in the number of unique visitors since it implemented Facebook comments.

Orr says that the L.A. Times has had what amounts to a laboratory experiment going on with respect to comments, since its news stories are still published with its existing in-house commenting system — which allows pseudonyms — and its blogs have been using Facebook comments. As Sonderman describes, the news stories frequently get long, argumentative comments using racist language and expletives, whereas the blog comments on similar issues are much more restrained:

A similar post on the Times’ LA Now breaking news blog, which uses Facebook Comments, drew out some disagreements, but the commenters were generally well-mannered and stayed on the topic of the post.

For some, anonymous comments have value

But not everyone believes in the value of requiring “real names” as a way of ensuring harmony in online comments: As a recent article at NetNewsCheck describes, the news site Cleveland.com, which is run by the same company that owns the Cleveland Plain-Dealer newspaper and its sister publication the Sun News, has decided to continue allowing anonymous comments — despite the fact that it was the target of a $50-million lawsuit from a local judge related to comments that were incorrectly attributed to her.

Why would Cleveland.com want to do this? Editor-in-chief Denise Polverine says that the decision was driven by a desire to have as many viewpoints represented as possible, something that requiring real names might deter, and that the site also sees the value in allowing anonymous tipsters to alert it to stories. The editor in charge of another news site — Ohio.com, run by the Akron Beacon-Journal — told NetNewsCheck that some of its biggest news stories have come from such anonymous tips, “so we don’t want to discourage people from sharing information.”

Some have also pointed out that when it comes to contentious topics, many people are happy to make offensive or distasteful comments with their so-called “real name” attached (although since determining actual real names is not an easy task, these types of policies often just involve “real-sounding” names). Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast, for example, wrote recently about some offensive reader comments at the Fox News website that appeared after an atheist appeared on one of the network’s shows, encouraging (among other things) the shooting of atheists.

Real names can also exclude valuable viewpoints

We’ve written before about the virtues of anonymity both when it comes to reader comments and elsewhere — such as at Facebook and Google+, both of whom pursue a real-name policy despite the obvious impact that doing so has on dissidents and other marginalized groups. Although removing anonymity (or pseudonymity) can remove some of the trolling and flame-wars that consume comment threads, it also risks removing opinions and viewpoints that would never be expressed if the commenter had to put their name on it. There are any number of valid reasons why someone wouldn’t want to do this.

There’s no question that integrating Facebook comments can provide a traffic boost for publishers and other websites, simply because the social network is so huge. The Huffington Post has credited Facebook integration with generating a huge amount of traffic and comments — the site said that within just a few months of implementing Facebook Connect logins, it saw the number of comments almost double and traffic from Facebook climbed by 500 percent. This kind of boost is the carrot that the network uses to convince publishers that Facebook comments are worth offering.

But that carrot comes with a stick, or at least a downside, and that is the fact that Facebook ultimately owns one of the most important elements of your interaction with your readers: namely, the interaction that comes with reading and responding to comments. Obviously you can do all the same things with those comments as you would have previously, but Facebook controls what happens to them — how they look and function — and it also more or less controls the data behind those comments (although sites can export that data and use it internally). What happens if Facebook decides that the content of a comment doesn’t meet its standards?

Should you outsource your customer service?

As Reynolds Journalism Fellow Joy Mayer noted in her recent report on newsroom engagement, which I wrote about earlier, interacting with readers is a crucial element of what publishers have to do now, and she encourages newspapers and other media outlets to require that writers “own” the comments on the stories they write. She also notes — as we have in the past — that one of the best ways to improve the quality of your comments is to engage with readers in them, not to outsource them to someone else.

In the long run, handing comments over to Facebook may increase traffic, but it could also make it easier for publishers to simply ignore their comments and not engage as much as they would have otherwise. Why should they, if Facebook is handling them? This is a little like a retailer outsourcing their customer service to an outside firm: it might take a frustrating element of the business off their plate, but it also hands control of a crucial element of customer interaction over to a third party.

The bottom line is that when publishers feel attracted to the carrot that Facebook offers with comments, they should be sure to think about what they are giving up as well.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Jeremy King