Comments about online commenting

3 Jan 2013

Do you write comments online? Commenting is available all over the Web. It’s a great feature, but there are some things that can hold people back from using it.

In usability studies, I’ve seen people hesitate about writing comments for many reasons. (Even so, I hope you comment about your experiences, below.)

Example of a commenting UI

Example of the commenting UI in this blog

Social factors affecting posting & comments

People are concerned about what others will think of them. Unless you’re really sure of your point, questioning someone online, especially an expert, can seem scary. I’ve heard participants say that in usability studies.

In his book Design to Thrive: Creating Social Networks and Online Communities, Tharon W. Howard writes:

Because people don’t want to damage their reputation or their professional status in the community, they won’t post unless they’re fairly sure that their contribution will be received as a contribution and will not open them up to critique.

He suggests demonstrating “how [members] can ask questions productively” and in general, creating a safe and comfortable environment.

Anonymity and rude comments

Anonymity can make people more comfortable about posting comments, but if my local newspaper’s site is any indication, it encourages some people to be rude. A recent usability participant talked about that:

Online, people everywhere are willing to insult people’s mothers at the drop of the hat. Anonymity leads to people saying a lot of things.

On the NPR program, Science Friday, Dominique Brossard, lead author of a paper in the journal Science (“Science, New Media and the Public”) said that negative comments even affect how others interpret the main discussion:

So basically just being exposed to rude comments, even if the content of the comments themselves was the same, made people react differently to the content of the story. So the question is therefore: What do we do to encourage better understanding? … And then we should discuss what does it mean to have a civil discussion online.

Systems like Facebook and LinkedIn certainly allow people to comment on their own lives and other people’s posts, and they’re obviously popular. It may feel safer in those systems because you only sign up if you want to do it, and you have a controlled audience (depending on how well you understand and use your privacy settings).

UI issues in commenting

The commenting UI itself sometimes gets in the way, as I saw in a usability study awhile ago. The commenting form might appear at the top or bottom of the article. It’s not useful at the top, because you haven’t read anything yet. You might not get to the bottom to see the form there if you don’t read the whole article. And if you print the article to read, there’s no easy way to post a comment. Having a link float on the page so it’s always visible might be helpful but requires careful testing to see how people react to something that keeps moving.

In a system with a lot of topics (whether they’re courses, articles or products), many items may have few or no comments at all. That may make them look unpopular. Seeding a discussion, by having a staff member or the author post the first comment or question might help it look less like a vacant lot and more like a conversation.

Creating a sense of community

I belong to a professional email list that is for members only. That restriction is useful; it’s one of the things that the moderators do to make people comfortable. Even though most of us will never meet, we have a definite sense of community from having helped each other on topics of mutual interest.

In one recent study, a man indicated that he writes comments in an online course’s discussion area. When I asked for details, it turned out that he hadn’t written anything at all. He was really talking about what he might do, not what he actually does. (That’s why it’s important to not simply accept what people say in customer research and usability studies.) He prefers to talk with friends who also take the class; it seemed that he was just more comfortable with people he knows.

Your turn…

…In what situations do you post comments, if any? What makes you nervous or comfortable about doing it? Should we moderate comments, or let anyone say anything? Is it different if it’s social or professional? And don’t worry – I moderate the comments here and won’t let anyone be rude.

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