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The Science and Art of Commenting Online

Online Communication Guidelines and Examples for Online Sites


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Researchers at the Science, Media, and the Public (SCIMEP) lab of the University of Wisconsin-Madison studied the effects of negatives comments online. This study examined the incivility on perceptions of emerging technologies, which were conducted in an experiment among a sample representation of the U.S. population. The effects were further discussed on Ira Flatow’s Science Friday radio show that aired on National Public Radio. Flatow asked, “Are comments still an effective way to spark discussion?”

These concerns are driving a number of educators and professionals to examine the negative effects of comments and what can we do to avoid them. The rudeness expressed through tone and blatant comments, the study found, may polarize visitors to scientific topics appearing in online news media and blogging sites.

On Flatow’s show, Professor Dominique Brossard, one of the researchers and authors of the published report, said, “People exposed to the rude comments tend to become polarized to the issue that was covered. The rudeness made people react differently not necessarily in the context of the story.”

Because further concerns of potential influence on how a reader feels about a topic and may not realize it can remind us of the need for online communication guidelines. Following are three standard site guidelines for public community owners and commenters to consider, with examples from public sites that show how protecting a site’s code of ethics is top priority.

Posting site guidelines

Several best practices are used by leading publishers and site owners to convey a site’s terms of use. Site guidelines are typically published on the site, for the general public, to protect its authors and site users.

About, Inc. posts a user agreement advising users of the site not to post personal or other sensitive information. Although readers are encouraged to submit comments to blog posts and the forums, at the same time, users need to be cautious before posting comments that are offensive.

Scribd, a social reading and publishing site, has strict community guidelines to protect authors and its site users. As noted in a recent article, harassment of any kind are grounds for immediate termination of the Scribd account holder.

Writing effective comments

Do we always write what we mean, or mean what we write? Can writing a comment on Facebook or on your organization’s online community be any different? Of course the concern is always to keep on topic and keep up standards for verbal conduct.

You can think of a comment in a similar way as an email message. Even if you are debating an issue, don’t post a comment hastily but rather think carefully and read it over before submitting it. Ask yourself, how would the author feel or other community users feel? If you think your comment is offensive, the comment will likely be perceived that way by others, too.

Some people are hesitant to comment at all for fear of recourse. What site owners can do is encourage comments that can add to the collective knowledge of the community. An example is provided at Celebrating Home in their online community of direct sellers, where comments and feedback helps them learn and do their jobs better.

Moderating Comments

In interviews with many online community managers, moderating comments have shown to be an important part of a site’s charter, and sometimes, character.

Liz Ryan, a career coach and HR consulting business owner, who has founded over 100 online communities, suggests striking a balance between encouraging people to comment online while at the same time watching if people are posting rubbish.

Another recommended tip is to stay active in the community. For moderators, communities draw interest by showing content of value to the community. At NetApp, the network storage and data management solutions company, its community manager, Ian Wikramanayake takes an artful approach. Active contributors are recognized weekly through Hame of Fame awards. It’s also the credibility among peers that give them the desire to participate as well.

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