Creative Review now has one of the most vibrant and best-read websites of any magazine in its field. The contributions of our readers play a huge part in this, but they can also be a problem. How can we raise the tone of the debate here without ruining what makes the site great?
When we first set up the CR Blog, the precursor to this site, we asked readers to register and log in using a password before commenting. Result: almost zero comments. Once we lifted that restriction, the comments flowed in and the debates raged. We’ve had some brilliant, passionate, informative and memorable discussion on this site. But we have also had comments that are boorish, deeply unfair, unpleasant and cowardly in the sense that commenters hide behind anonymity in order to say things that they would otherwise never dare to.
The comments on the site reflect the best and the worst of our community: witty, intelligent and committed to high standards, but also sometimes petty, jealous and bitter.
This isn’t just a problem for Creative Review. Read some national newspaper sites and you will see comments far worse than anything that we allow to be published here. And YouTube takes things to a whole new level of abuse. But we can’t do anything about those sites, we can with this one.
I have been contacted many times by aggrieved designers or creative directors who feel that their work has been unfairly treated on here. With those who I feel have a case I have either removed offensive comments or stepped into the debate and tried to steer it into calmer waters. Others just can’t bear to have their work being criticised. So there is a balance to be struck here between allowing legitimate criticism, especially of those who enjoy prominence in our industry, and combating mindless abuse and comments motivated more by jealousy than judgement.
We have to strike a balance between, on the one hand, allowing readers to express themselves freely and, on the other, fostering worthwhile debate for all that is not drowned out by the self-appointed few. We need to balance the right of commenters to be critical with the need to maintain the reputation of Creative Review and to be fair to those whose work is commented upon.
We are currently at the very early stages of revamping the CR site. I propose that part of that revamp includes the switch to registration for comments. A reader would need to register with us, using a real, working email address, before being granted access to comment. This would be one-time only. Readers would still be able to create a screen-name for themselves that would appear next to their comment – some degree of anonymity is necessary I feel, particularly when readers work for large companies or are in sensitive positions. There are great advantages to anonymity in those cases in terms of eliciting views that would otherwise never come forward.
Comment registration would have to be introduced as part of the wider site redevelopment and so will take several months to implement. In addition, there are other measures we can take (if you can think of more,let us know):
1, Introduce ratings for comments so that the better ones rise to the top. This could be married with an option to view just the best rated comments on a story. It’s widely used but has limited success – check out the Daily Mail site if you can bear it.
2, Introduce a more obvious means of reporting an offensive comment. Currently, people usually just email me or respond directly to a commenter if there is something they take offence to. I’m not sure a more obvious means of reporting comments helps very much but it’s an option.
3, We take a fresh approach to moderation. At the moment, all comments are moderated. The downright abusive and/or libellous are removed but we err on the side of freedom of speech. I propose a change of approach in which commenting is less a right and more a privilege. This would mean that only comments – positive or negative – that, in CR’s opinion, contribute to the debate, go up. The danger with this one is that it might suck some of the life out of the site but, on the whole, it’s an option I favour.
There is, of course, a fourth, nuclear, option which is to switch off comments altogether. To my mind this would be a huge mistake, akin to keeping the whole class behind just because of one or two troublemakers.
Whichever way we do it, the goal is to improve the tone and the content of this site without destroying its ability to provide a place where anyone, whatever their status in their profession, can see and engage in robust, open debate about the things that matter most to them. Because that, ultimately, is what we and most of you want from this site.