Tumblr tip on how to build community without the trolls

Tumblr’s David Karp, as covered in a recent blog post on its phenomenal reach – 80 million blogs and counting – has been hitting the conference circuit hard, most recently at the GigaOm Roadmap yesterday (05/11/12) where he offered an interesting nugget on how Tumblr builds community.
A problem that newspapers are struggling to crack is how to engage with their readers more effectively online. Inviting them to comment and offer their opinion in a more structured way appears to be one way to do it. The problem is that there’s always someone who brings down the tone of a set of comments on an article, whether by being stupid or just plain nasty ie being a troll. And there aren’t enough idle staff around to police such comments streams.
Just ask my favourite curmudgeon, the writer of the Grey Cardigan column in the Press Gazette (Notes from down table) his opinion on this issue. The words cesspit, hatred and lunacy feature strongly.
And David Karp’s answer? No comments! Instead, reblogging!

Karp said he and his team took the decision against a regular comments system. Instead, their design prioritised “reblogging” – like retweeting but with more space – as a way to show support and offer comment through your own site. As he says, at a certain scale, internet forums degenerate into a “horrible anonymous internet awfulness” (a little slap for Reddit here too).

“We wanted a mechanism for feedback that was smarter than the comments that everybody else was doing – where people doing the comments are treated as second-class citizens.

“With reblogging, you can’t just show up and shout that I’m a jerk without sharing and referencing what I have to say. You have to take it with you and put that in front of your audience. It’s much harder to twist my words that way.”

He suggested the regular comments system actually encouraged more extreme, potentially nasty opinion because of the structure in which commentators are relegated to the smallprint below the main article.

“Our theory was that people would speak more reasonably if they knew they could whisper and still be heard.”

Another alternative to comments on Tumblr, along with ‘liking’ and asking questions is “Fan mail”, in which readers can send a proper crafted message on a “postcard” you design yourself to the “creator” which Karp suggests involves so much effort that troll types wouldn’t abuse it.

The parallels with newspapers may not be not immediately obvious, but the psychology is similar. The key difference is that in newspapers, most readers don’t have their own micro-blog or blog on which their opinions on other writers’ articles can be owned. Yet. Perhaps newspapers could begin such a system in which everyone who comments would have those comments feature on their own personal ‘comments blog’, which should make them think twice about turning comments sections into, as Grey Cardigan says, “a cesspit of hatred and lunacy”.

And Karp himself acknowledges that reblogging has its limits, and that no one has cracked the problem of how to let good online conversations develop between lots of people without it becoming a mess. Even Reddit, possibly the most successful, is still a “big honking interface. Nobody’s cracked this yet and I hope to make some progress on this yet”.

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