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It is so easy to read through your favorite blog posts and chime in with a cursory comment such as: “Spot on,” “great post,” “I agree with you 100%” and “Me too.”

The same goes for online communities and forums.  While I enjoy reading the actual posts, sometimes the best content is in the comments. It’s the different perspectives and point-of-view that add value while also introducing you to people you may not have otherwise come in contact with.

I can recall a time when I was a very active commenter on my favorite blogs. It comes in waves now based on my workload but I always strive to post something of value. So whenever you see one of my comments, you better believe that I thought about my words before posting them and felt like I had something worth adding.

As a community manager, you come to value comments in a way that is indescribable. I’m sure that bloggers feel that way too. But when you are charged with growing a community, you truly associate the comment with the person’s time. You see the direct correlation because you are painfully aware of the fact that there  are so many choices online and you’re grateful that for that moment, you were one of their choices.

Comments yield opportunities  

Another reason to be smart about your comments is that you never know who is reading. I’ve gotten great opportunities from comments. It’s nice to get an email from someone indicating that they read your comment on  a post and they’d like to interview you for a story or connect with you in some other way. It happens all the time, so you’re actually helping yourself when you do this.

Posting thoughtful comments isn’t hard to do, but it’s much easier when you care about the topic or feel some sort of emotion as a result of what you just read. But even if that emotion is lacking, you can still add quality to the conversation beyond “Spot on” and the others mentioned above.

If you want to get started on improving the quality of your comments, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Post a different perspective with no intention of starting a fight
  • Explain why you agree with the author
  • Always post more than one sentence
  • Quote exactly what you liked and add a bit about why it struck you
  • Encourage the author to write more and tell them what you’d like to see discussed next
  • Offer new ideas

I recognize that some of these tips may be painfully obvious, but if they really were, I think we’d see many more thoughtful comments. And if you’re on the receiving end of those comments, be sure to express some gratitude and thank people for their time.

Remember, they could be anywhere else on the web, and the fact that they are with you is something you have to learn to appreciate.

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I asked a question of the Social Media: Engage panel at Internet Summit ’09 about 30 minutes ago and since that moment I’ve been thinking about online anonymity. People seem to hate it.

When I blogged about the upside and relevance of anonymous comments as they relate to news stories, some people balked. Jason Falls said at Social Media Business Forum last month that he wishes newspaper sites would stop allowing anonymous comments altogether. I get that. I know the drama that ensues when people hide behind the cloak of anonymity. Heck, I live it as part of my job and I don’t always like it.

But I still maintain that there is a place for it. You shouldn’t always have to be who you are just to communicate across the web, whether you’re on a social site or otherwise.And not everyone has awful intentions. So, I am going to take this to the extreme.

If anonymity is no longer needed in society, let’s just get rid of the Witness Protection Program.

Let the people who snitch on the mafia boss and turn in the mass murderer come forward publicly and deal with the consequences that may come their way because they decided to speak up. It’s all about transparency and openness right? That’s what everyone is saying. Be who you are. Show your face. Is this a fair comparison? Maybe not, but I think you can better see what I mean by bringing it to that level.

The statement I made during my question of the panelists was that people are trying very hard to separate their personal lives from their professional lives in the social space, and even though that is probably impossible, they shouldn’t have to share their identity with everyone who visits your site just to interact with your content. That is how I feel about it. Alex Withers, head of Digital Media at the US Golf Association Association agreed. He discussed other options for registration on their site that do not reuire revealing your true self, as did Jennifer Sargent, CEO and Co-Founder of Hitfix. Withers had stated earlier that you should not create your own database of anonymous people, particularly when you can use Facebook Connect, something they didn’t do when placing a live chat window next to a live video stream of the U.S. Open. He went on to say that the content in that chat was not something they wanted on the site so they killed it. That was what they had to do. I’m sure it was ugly. But maybe it would have been better if it were moderated.  I know, I know you need resources to do that and not everyone wants to hire people to do that….

I also know this is a topic that many people disagree with me on, but we can’t agree on everything.

Forcing people to share themselves with your audience may keep them away. So let’s keep that in mind. Perhaps the strategy to focus on if you take this route is engaging lurkers, because I think you’ll have many of them. May as well figure out how to keep them.

 

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Before you balk at the title of this post, hear me out. I have written in the past about the cloak of anonymity worn by trolls and how it allows them to run rampant on the internet with no real accountability or repercussions for their actions. I know firsthand the issues that can and often do arise as a result. Believe me.

I’ve  been dealing with this for some time working for traditional news organizations and being directly involved with user comments. User comments on news stories can be vicious and vile.  We happen to have moderators at my current company so our comments are a bit more tame. I oversee the team of moderators charged with approving and disapproving comments in real time and they do a great job.

There is some benefit to allowing screen names. Actually there is a need for anonymity in journalism. We need people to provide tips and leak information so corruption can be exposed.

We want the person who knows the bank robber or who saw the hit and run to step forward. Anonymity has often led to justice. It has brought down corporations, resulted in putting criminals behind bars and would-be serial rapists where they belong. Whistle blowers are very important in our society and anonymity allows a certain safety needed for many people to come forward.

The university or state employee  that can post an internal document on a news  site anonymously can make a big difference and be a great service to a community.

So as much as I hate what anonymity can produce online , let’s not forget about why it is still important. You can’t always put your face behind your message and that’s okay.

Transparency is the buzzword of the moment, but not everything belongs out in the open.

Remember, Deep Throat?

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This is the question I wanted to ask the woman who called asking me to remove a comment, actually several comments, she’d posted on a news story.

Wait, let me be honest and tell you that after a ten minute conversation I did ask her that question. And her answer, though lame, is a common answer provided by those who experience commenter’s remorse and go to great lengths to find the person who can actually remove them –  ME.  First they email, then they call. The call comes first if the comment is particularly troublesome.

The woman I’m talking about in this instance said she was caught up in the moment and couldn’t help herself.  Yes, go back and read that sentence again. She couldn’t help herself from posting a comment that could possibly jeopardize her job. She’d posted some telling information on a crime story about the suspect, and guess what? She had that information because she works at the hospital where he was treated.

Some common sense in this situation would have gone a long way.

It would not have taken Nancy Drew to solve that case had it become an issue or if it leaked that the information was on the site.

Since this woman was nearly in tears, I removed all four of the comments, but not before encouraging her to be more careful and making her understand that it was a complete courtesy on my part because it is not our policy to remove comments  and we are not obligated to honor her request.

But in this economy, I don’t want to see anyone lose their job and if I could do my part by removing four comments, so be it.

But just when I thought she understood my message and would take heed, she asked me to ban her account completely because she couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t do it again.

I was floored.

Can we get a little self-control with  that common sense?

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This is a cross post from the American Society of Business Publication Editor’s national blog.

Engage or Die: Why your publication must embrace social media

Would I like you to click the link and read the post? Yes, but that is not the point of this particular post. I am bringing it to your attention to highlight a different lesson altogether. It’s one that I believe is greatly overlooked but can be done almost daily, and without a great amount of effort if you’re passionate about a topic.

Let me tell you how I got the opportunity to blog over there.

It all came from a thoughtful comment I left on a post that was recognized by the editor who later contacted me and asked me to write on a specific subject. That was not my goal when I left the comment. I was just doing what I do: Participate in the conversation, add value when I have it to offer and share my passion about online communities, social media, journalism and a few other topics that I pretty much live and breathe.

But the opportunities didn’t stop there. I was also asked to come speak to a group of editors in Washington, DC next month. All from one little comment.

Do you see the amazing value in that?

This is why I always say that we have to communicate like the whole world is watching. Chris Brogan often talks about providing value and readily sharing what you know. I think comments is one of he easiest ways to do that on a large scale.

Have you ever seen entire posts on popular blogs that stem from the comments? That is often where the reading gets good and the conversations reach a whole new level.

There’s power in the comment box. Share what you know, and scour the comments section of your own posts for nuggets of wisdom and ask for more. It’s the ultimate community builder.

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Wait!

Before you hit the send, reply, submit or post buttons, ask yourself this question? Do I want the whole world to see this?

While the “whole world” concept may seem a bit dramatic, if something you’ve written gets in front of the wrong set of eyeballs it will certainly feel as though the whole world has seen it.

While it is never our intention to flat out embarrass ourselves, plenty of people do it everyday and I think it can be avoided rather easily.

How you might ask? By operating like a public official. As a journalist, I know that I can submit a Public Records Request and get copies of emails received and sent by anyone whose salary is paid by taxpayers. So, even though my salary is paid by a private company, I operate as if I’m accountable to the masses.

As the Managing Editor of an online community my written words are often shared publicly and I am extremely aware of that. What that does is make me communicate very carefully and with an amazing amount of tact, even when the situation may warrant a different type of response.

If a member attacks me in an e-mail, I respond professionally even when it kills me. What I’ve found is sometimes my response prompts them to change their tune and a real conversation often follows. That isn’t *always* the case but it happens often enough.

I received an email from a member a few days ago about a woman she thought was attempting to scam the community with fund raising efforts for her terminally ill son. She had conducted quite a bit of research and shared the results in the email.

I didn’t bash the woman but I did indicate in my reply that I was going to remove the blog from the homepage immediately, investigate further and remove her from the community completely if she was running a scam.

Well, the member who emailed me posted my entire response in a blog warning the community to be leery about the woman in question. I didn’t know she would do that because it was an e-mail between the two of us and quite honestly I was not thinking about it when I responded. But boy am I glad that I’ve programmed myself to be careful with my responses. That could have been ugly.

The point of this post is simply to raise your awareness. You never know where your words will end up, so be careful.

Reputation management should start with you.

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A Korean actress, said to have spent hours reading online comments about herself, was found dead earlier this month. She committed suicide.
Her name is Jin-sil Choi, and this blogger says her death for Koreans, is very similar to Americans waking up tomorrow to learn that Angelina Jolie had died the same way.

She cared about what people thought of her, even if it was in the form of anonymous comments left by people hiding behind that cloak of anonymity that I often write about. In a previous post I mentioned an e-mail I received in which a member of the community I manage called me the “n-word,” followed by the b-word.

I was a bit miffed, but I chose to move on for my own sanity. I also know that I am in a role that sometimes makes people hate me. All community managers are. It comes with the territory. Blogger, Martin Reed wrote recently that the abuse we receive from the public is an indication that we’re actually doing our jobs.

But I don’t think that translates to a famous actress, and I wish that she had not given these comments so much power. It’s disturbing to envision her reading so much negativity in one sitting, and doing it over and over again, if that was indeed the case. It would be akin to reading an entire book of hate mail.

The issue in some circles is whether or not the comments should have been there in the first place, and I do have an opinion about that, but I won’t share it. Not in this post.

My single goal here is to express my sadness and offer condolences to her family and the fans who loved her so. I just hope she read some of their comments along the way.

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Some alarming news out of Maui this week.

Alarming to me that is.

Anyone who has read this blog on a regular basis or some of the comments I post on various journalism, and social media focused blogs, knows that I am an advocate of user-generated content, particularly allowing comments on news stories.

So, when I learned about the Maui News killing comments all because of, (get this) ABUSE I saw it as a huge loss and felt extremely disappointed. I still am, and it’s days later.

Of course there’s abuse!!! This is the internet, and we all know that the cloak of anonymity can bring out the worst in people. It’s all laid out in detail in this MSNBC.com story.

But abuse can be managed. This is not that difficult. The answer as I’ve said time and time again, is to hire moderators. This can be done and done well, without stifling the conversation. Moderation is not the end of the world. It can be the beginning of a new world where a news site can actually have civil discourse generated by users, connected to their content.

Set guidelines, but be fair. Don’t give up altogether.

Suggesting that internet users opt for sending in letters to the editor as opposed to leaving a real-time comment is pretty, well…old media.

Engage your community. Give them a voice.

But set limits. Make “civil discourse” the goal and define what that means. If you weed out the crap while being fair and consistent, you might be pleasantly surprised.

Just don’t give up.
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Have you ever come across a comment on a news story that you knew should not be there? I’m specifically talking about on websites where the comments are moderated.

We already know that a large percentage of comments on newspaper websites are not moderated by humans, but simply vetted by a filter which can only do so much against the clever commenter’s of today who are intent on spewing hate and pushing their crude agendas. So, when you see those types of comments on those type of websites, you’re usually not shocked.

But, comments on certain types of stories can make it past the best team of moderator’s when the moderator isn’t well-versed on the topic or is faced with some other “barrier to entry.”

That barrier can be cultural or racial. It can be caused by a generation gap, geographical differences and even personal backgrounds.

It’s important to remember that news stories are extremely diverse and the content runs the gamut.

So, much like news organizations have strived to build newsrooms that reflect the community, it’s important that those who are now dealing with content submitted by the community have diverse backgrounds as well, so that they can work to decipher what is being said, and whether or not it’s appropriate.

In my next post, I will share several resources that moderator’s can turn to when faced with unknown acronyms, clever slang and other types of content and innuendo that’ likely not the type of content you’d want affiliated with your organization.

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This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. Feel free to challenge me, disagree with me, or tell me I’m completely nuts in the comments section of each blog entry.

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