“Never read the comments” might as well be ingrained in stone as one of the basic rules of the Internet.
Why bother? In controversial stories, rational debate tends to be hijacked by comments that range from racist, misogynistic, or offensive to just plain ignorant or crazy.
Getting comments right has been an important battle for news organizations, and with good reason, since most of our public discourse is increasingly taking place online.
"We don't all meet out in the little town square anymore and discuss things," said Matt Hills, co-founder of social evaluation platform ProConIt during a recent Online News Association DC meetup.
The idea for ProConIt came as he struggled to make a decision on which of two projects he would take on. He looked to the Internet for an automated tool that would help him through the decision-making process and found none.
As ProConIt was developed, Hills and his colleagues found that the format could also have other applications, such as a social debate moderation tool for online media.
You start by creating a ProCon, a topic discussion presenting two sides of the issue (an obvious and timely example could be in favor of or against gay marriage). Users can then submit an opinion either for or against the issue and/or vote for the options already submitted by other users.
Through this voting system, the best comments rise to the top, while off-topic, aggressive comments, spam, etc., are pushed to the bottom.
The tool also offers some flexibility. Although the discussion topics allow only two options, the questions and topics can be customized. A few news outlets have used it to start conversations around sports-related events (example: this topic discussion asking readers to pick the winner of the Louisville vs Oregon game in the NCAA basketball tournament).
ProConIt is easy to embed and provides several moderation options, such as the ability to filter bad words, integration with social networks such as logging in via Facebook, and the option for users to comment anonymously.
Following a freemium model, the basic ProConIt widget is free. The premium package offers widget customization, the option to join an ad-revenue sharing program, and analytics, among other features.
Photo courtesy of Alice Bartlett on Flickr.
Maite Fernández is IJNet’s Managing Editor. She's bilingual in English and Spanish and has an M.J. in multimedia journalism from the University of Maryland.