AJR  Features :     * WEB ONLY    
From AJR,   June/July 2010

Cleaning Up Comments   

When readers spot offensive online comments on Gannett Web sites, Pluck Media Solutions jumps into the fray.

By Alexis Gutter
Editorial assistant Alexis Gutter (agutter@ajr.umd.edu) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.     

Tired of hate-filled, profanity-spewing posters hiding behind their anonymous little avatars and hijacking the online conversation?

Well, Gannett is.

The nation's largest newspaper chain hired Pluck Solutions to moderate comments on its 105 news sites in hopes of restoring a more civil tone to digital dialogue, says Maribel Wadsworth, digital news executive for Gannett's U.S. Community Publishing Division.

To see if outsourcing moderation would work, Gannett launched a test at 10 of its sites in February in which moderators decided what to do about posts that had been flagged by readers as abusive. The test was a success, and in July Pluck began dealing with challenged posts at all of the company's online operations.

Pluck screens comments that have been forwarded by offended users to "abuse queues." When a reader comes across a comment that seems objectionable, he or she can click an icon that says "report abuse," which puts the contested remark in place for a Pluck moderator to check it out within about 20 minutes.

Having people whose sole priority is to handle abusive comments swiftly, including at night and on weekends, is a good layer of moderation to add to the sites, Wadsworth says, but Gannett staffers still monitor comments that haven't been flagged.

"It's a good tool to have in the toolbox, not something we have given away to a company," she says.

But with an estimated 165,000 abuse reports per month, Pluck still has a full plate. Based on detailed guidelines set by Gannett about what type of comments are suitable, the moderator judges whether or not a disputed post should remain on the site.

Given the inherent subjectivity of such decisions, the guidelines are extensive, Wadsworth says. In cases involving profanity and racial slurs, the choice is often obvious. But because what one person might find offensive another might consider amusing or snarky, there's a gray area of appropriateness. When such situations arise, Pluck moderators work with editors at the individual sites to make the call.

"We want good conversation, and the majority of users do that," Wadsworth says. "We don't want to overreact for the bad behavior of a few."

And while it's a shame that the bad behavior of a few can tarnish a valuable online forum, it means more business for companies like Pluck.

Pluck, a social media application developer, is an entity of Demand Media, which owns a number of Web properties. Companies use Pluck to integrate social media onto their sites through a variety of options that Pluck offers, such as comments, blogs and forums. Pluck also offers tools to manage the activities, which is where moderation comes in, says Don Roedner, director of marketing for Demand Media Business Solutions Group.

Since Demand acquired Pluck in March of 2008 and launched moderation services the following November, the tool has been the company's fastest growing offering. Today, Pluck has 20 employees who provide around the clock support to about 100 clients. These moderators make hundreds of thousands of decisions on comments each month, Roedner says.

While Gannett hired Pluck to have an actual person deal with challenged posts, Pluck also offers other forms of moderation, including a "dirty words filter," Roedner says. When racist, profane or otherwise objectionable material appears, the software kicks back the comment to the commenter, calling for a modification. While Gannett screens comments only after they are posted, some companies prefer to monitor them before they go live.

Because companies have different styles and approaches, Pluck tailors its moderation to the wants and needs of each individual client. Consider the case of nfl.com: "They're after the young male demographic, and it's not going to be a tea party," Roedner says. And so Pluck "will block profanity, but won't block spirited, colorful dialogue that newspapers would cut."

This is not to say that newspaper sites have to be sterile. After all, Gannett turned to Pluck because it wants to maintain vibrant community discussion. That's also one of the reasons that the company allows anonymous comments, a widespread but controversial practice that has come under fire. In recent weeks the Buffalo News and the Reading Eagle in Pennsylvania have banned anonymous comments.

Anonymity has its drawbacks, but it also allows a people a level of comfort that Gannett values. "Some people will speak less freely if their names are attached, and we understand," Wadsworth says.

So rather than suppress the views of all those shy Webbies, Gannett is investigating other options to pile on top of moderation. Some ideas include integrating Facebook with commenting, a reward system for surrendering anonymity and a user hierarchy for commenting based on peer review.

But for now, the company sees outsourcing moderation as a step in the right direction.

"Folks who have comments removed take notice, and awareness is growing that this is a priority," Wadsworth says. "It doesn't mitigate all bad behavior, but everyone knows that the tolerance is not great."