Image for TT’s Letter to Santa

Dear Santa,

Last year, we dropped you a note wishing that TT would have more readers and even more people commenting on the articles.

Careful what you wish for ...

The sheer volume of material submitted and the number of comments have gone through the roof.

So this year, the TT Christmas wish is for more readers ... and less work.

As much as instant communication is TT’s lifeblood, there is a downside. If TT takes a day off publishing articles or getting comments out a few hours after submission, readers assume the server or the editor has crashed or some ill-spirited corporation is seeking the website and the humble weatherboard in Howrah Flats.

Santa, I reckon it’s possible to get more of what readers of TT really value, cut out more they don’t like ... and work a few less hours.

It would be great if we could publish more articles and snippets sent in, actively follow up more of the promising leads readers suggest, be a little more pro-active in fostering the immense potential of local citizen journalism and play an even bigger role in informing those who passionately care about the fate of our beautiful island home and its people.

But the skyrocketing effort needed to process the number of comments submitted tends to overwhelm TT’s rather humble capacity.

It’s not the number of comments—other than spammers hyping drugs, finance and ugg boots.

There’s a fair number of people who submit comments who we just know assiduously stick by the basic rules of playing fair, confining their comments to the issue and and sticking to the far-minded spirit of TT’s code of conduct. We see their name and we know their comment is just fine and, other than for a quick check for typos, with the click of the mouse it’s out there.

That accounts for about a third of the comments. A bit over 6,000 down and another 14,000 to go.

The other two-thirds are more problematic.

We know from a constant stream of feedback that all too often the content of comments is the biggest single turnoff for many contributors, readers and potential commenters.

TT treasures all points of view and has erred on the side of publishing as many opinions as possible.

But sometimes this has resulted in TT publishing comments that push the boundaries or breach the basic standards in our code of conduct. We try to be fair and accommodate all points of view but sometimes make mistakes. Too often comments have crossed the line between playing the ball and playing the person. Sometimes people point this out to us, and where they have a reasonable point, we act. Sometimes unreasonable comments get missed entirely. For this TT apologises and aims to do better in 2011.

TT is wary of becoming too prescriptive about what it will and won’t publish. However, we also recognise that the more we specify the standard comments are edited against, the easier the site is to moderate and for commenters to understand where they stand and may have erred. (With often a 100 comments a day, TT just doesn’t have the time to explain to each author of edited or deleted comments where they have crossed the line - we figure they are smart enough to figure it out.)

The http://www.guardian.co.uk/community-faqs approach adopted by the Guardian in the UK, where a comment is either published in entirety or not at all, is very attractive. As they explain, their in-full-or-not-at-all policy “is partly to avoid moderators editing your contribution to remove the offending bit (which might inadvertently change the meaning) but also to encourage contributors to think carefully before posting.”

So here’s a few changes we would like to adopt.

1. One persona: Sometimes it is obvious that one person is creating multiple personas to submit comments. Sometimes this is done on one thread with the intent of creating the illusion that multiple people support the same opinion when in fact it is just the voice of one. Sometimes one persona is used on one thread and another on a different thread.

Either way, this is an abuse of anonymity. In future, where TT is aware that multiple personas have been used by one person, TT will delete the comments. Where commenters persist with this, we will place the offender on the block list.

While TT has never blocked commenters before, I’m sure you’ll understand that goodwill only goes so far and that the last thing we want to do is become a preferred venue for a small number of people who aim to game the system.

2. Making TT a taunt free zone: Santa, you wouldn’t believe the percentage of first or last sentences that are aimed at taunting previous commenters or even readers that haven’t commented. It is school yard picking a fight 101 that TT thinks should end.

Here’s an all too common hypotehtical example: a commenter by the name of, lets say “Watcher”, responds fairly to an article. Someone who disagrees with Watcher’s opinion posts a comment commencing with “#20: Dear Blind”. It’s pretty juvenile we know, and to date we have edited out as many of the obvious taunts as possible. Sometimes we miss some. But far more often, the authors just keep on trying in the hope that one will get through in a moment of weakness.

Just as time consuming are those who insist on sprinkling through their comment derisory terms such as “idiots”, “thickheads”, “hippies”, “rednecks”, “greenies”, “extremists”, “terrorists” and worse. It would cut TT’s workload hugely if we simply deleted any comments that included taunts like these.

We would really prefer to encourage as many commenters as possible, but repeated schoolyard-style bullying and taunting has been cracked down on in primary and secondary schools, so it seems perfectly reasonable that the same rules should apply to adults at TT.

3. Celebrate the breadth of the English language: The English language is a wonderfully diverse. With so many words to choose from, there’s no need to resort to swearing.

4. Stick to the issue and avoid attacking the individual: TT has aimed to edit or delete comments where they are personal attacks rather than addressing the substance of an issue. It is here that adopting the Guradian’s ‘in full or not at all’ policy would save us the most time.

5. Tone matters: A constructive, engaging and respectful tone helps facilitate better understanding on the points of disagreement and agreement between contributors. It also ensure that readers of the articles opt to read comments rather than walk out of the virtual room.

Sometimes it is obvious that the adoption of an aggressive or belligerent tone, even though it is not exactly a personal attack, will derail constructive discussion on a comment thread and end up narrowing the range of contributors. One of the greatest challenges is to ensure comments contribute to readers having a better understanding of a topic rather than avoiding reading the comments at all.

Sometimes this is hard to judge but where it is obvious TT will delete comments that seem destined to derail a comment thread off the subject matter of the article.

6. Lower case is quieter and softer on the eyes: In the online world, UPPER CASE COMMENTS ARE THE EQUIVALENT OF YELLING. TT doesn’t want to be as quiet as a library nor do we want the volume so loud that no one else can hear.

7. Anonymity: Now this is a thorny one. Historically TT has accepted that there are reasonable grounds to allow individuals to express their views anonymously. But the origin of this was to enable individuals to comment without fear of victimisation from their employers or government agencies.

More challenging though is where individuals who work for private companies, government agencies or political parties embrace anonymity not to blow the whistle and inform the public but, in work hours, to put a megaphone to the lips of their employers and dismiss their critics.

This is a tricky grey zone but, on balance, TT thinks it is reasonable that such contributors should be up front about disclosing who they work for. Otherwise they would be better off using their employer’s website to respond to points made on TT.

Is this too much of a wish list? Are we being too starry-eyed about our readers and commenters?

We’d like to think not.

Safe travels, Santa.