The title of the article is a little misleading, but:
“We combed through the academic literature to understand the criteria that had been used in the past to indicate deliberative and civil conversations,” Stroud said. “Each comment was evaluated for whether it was civil, was relevant, provided some form of evidence, and asked a genuine question.”
One surprisingly easy thing they found that brought civil, relevant comments: the presence of a recognized reporter wading into the comments.
Seventy different political posts were randomly either left to their own wild devices, engaged by an unidentified staffer from the station, or engaged by a prominent political reporter. When the reporter showed up, “incivility decreased by 17 percent and people were 15 percent more likely to use evidence in their comments on the subject matter,” according to the study.
I’ve thought for a long time that one of the reasons the Gawker network experiment with their sometimes awful Kinja commenting system (to be fair, it has gotten a lot better over time) was working fairly well, is that they had an explicit policy that all writers had to engage in the comments.
So you had a good chance on any Gawker site that at least some of the better comments would get curated by the writer of the article and maybe even replied to. Basically, the author was tending their own garden. That matters, and I think it should be the norm if you’re going to have comments at all. If you aren’t going to tend to your garden in some capacity, don’t bother having one.
Doesn’t scale worth a damn, though, unless you have a lot of authors. A few famous people can’t reasonably be expected to be spending hours combing through comments – or even 15 minutes, depending on their schedule.
What I didn’t consider was this:
“Although we can’t know for sure from our study, I suspect that the identified reporter made commenters feel that they had a voice and that someone cared about what they had to say,” she said. “It could have been seen as an honor to have a recognizable reporter respond to a comment and engage with commenters.”
Putting the magical power of “the author” aside, I also wonder if the periodic visible presence of @falcor helps, in that it urges people to remember that there are boundaries and guidelines at play here, and they can be strict.