As online publishing grows increasingly social, publishers are eagerly trying to foster community on their sites. But when everyone gets a voice, things can easily go too far. Thus, among several top Web publishers, the role of comment moderator is becoming that much more demanding.
Justin Isaf, The Huffington Post’s community manager, oversees the 7 million online comments per month that flood the site’s servers, helping a team of moderators and algorithms police pages to shield users from offensive content. The hot buttons are usually race, religion, politics, and even parenting.
“What people don’t understand is that there is a huge psychological factor to the job,” said Isaf. “Moderators deal with some horrible stuff and genuinely difficult things every day, and at other sites they are often under-cared for in terms of their own mental health. That is a real shame, because it gets draining.” Isaf said that HuffPo moderators are trained to handle complex, divisive issues like the Israel/Palestine conflict (besides fielding frequent f-bombs, HuffPo is often accused of being both anti-semitic and Zionist).
At social news site BuzzFeed, community moderator Ryan Broderick is the sole individual tasked with combing through nearly 22,000 user comments per month. Broderick interacts constantly with BuzzFeed’s regulars to keep them from causing too much trouble, but tensions inevitably abound. “The Trayvon Martin period was a rough couple of weeks,” Broderick said, referring to racially charged posts.
Broderick sees online participation split into two very different worlds. “There is a social realm where things are rationally sorted and then there’s the anonymous place that brings out a person’s base instincts. It can become a frothing, bubbling cauldron of insanity,” he said. “Yet, you need that animalistic part of yourself. I think of it almost like your sex drive.”
So with so much potential for offensive behavior, why allow commenting in the first place?
Both Isaf and Broderick believe that open and anonymous commenting is quite powerful when it works. Sometimes, even great ideas are born among the shouters. "We've seen comments where people spend a couple of hours researching and writing. I've watched a discussion on abortion that had 50 people taking part with 200 comments without a single attack," Isaf said.
“You can’t get rid of the anonymous areas of the Internet,” Broderick said. “Making the collaborative spirit of our commenters positive is the most important part of my job. Anonymity can do amazing, extremely creative things if you believe in it.”
Gawker founder Nick Denton believes this too. Yet Gawker recently revamped its comment structure, implanting a sophisticated algorithm in lieu of moderators to let the cream rise to the top. Denton said that so far, the experiment is working, as interruptive and insensitive comments are appearing less prominently at the top of comment feeds.
“We believe in self-moderation,” Denton said. “Civilization requires that we choose who we talk to and who we transact with in the world. We’ve just copied that model. As much power as possible should be pushed down to the reader.”
If that approach catches on, people like Isaf and Broderick could get a break from the darker side of the Internet—and might sleep a lot better.