Comment is Free: A matter of opinion

After a year running The Guardian's discussion website, Comment is Free, Georgina Henry says she is still "very green about the internet".

If it's true, she conceals it well. Henry is beginning to sound like an enthusiastic convert to the benefits of online interactivity, and also like an editor accustomed to managing issues peculiar to the web.

She's concerned about the scalability of the blogging software used for the site, and talks about the need to develop a more sophisticated community-building strategy.

Beyond managing the site's contributors — whose ranks have grown to 1,600 different writers — she spends a growing proportion of her time thinking about the readers, and how best to tease a high level of debate out of their interaction.

As she prepares to launch Comment is Free America and take on a new role in charge of both the blog and The Guardian's print comment pages, Henry is also beginning to think about how to integrate the rough-and-tumble world of the discussion site with the more definitive and authoritative tone of the newspaper.

"We have to find some way to get the debates that are emerging on Comment is Free back in the paper,"

she says. "In a way it is sort of new territory — we are just thinking all of this through."

Henry says having a single person responsible for the comment sections of both print and online will force The Guardian to think more clearly about the characteristics of each medium, and how to make the best use of the writers available to both.

Change of direction Henry admits that she didn't quite know what she was getting herself into last March when she moved from her previous role as The Guardian's deputy editor to edit Comment is Free.

"I thought of it in a classic print journalist sort of way, as a top-down operation — as a way to extend what we were doing in print," she says.

"Of course the thing that gets you every time is that what we do as journalists is only the beginning.

The response, the discussion it provokes — the way we've developed this community of posters has been completely eye-opening to me."

But the community of regular Comment is Free readers — and the volume of comments they generate on each story during the three-day window when comments are open — has also been the major source of the site's headaches.

Comment is Free's vociferous community of regular commentators has alienated some of the contributors. Henry says she remains concerned that the comments can often be personally abusive, particuarly towards female writers.

Some of The Guardian columnists who contribute to Comment is Free, including Polly Toynbee and Jackie Ashley, have posted items on the site complaining about the uncivil tone of some of the commentators' responses to their work.

She is disappointed with the sometimes "idiotic" level of debate. Nevertheless, she disagrees with those Guardian writers who question the value of encouraging this sort of feedback and interactivity.

"You could ring up half a dozen of our most prominent commentators and they would tell you it has no value whatsoever — that it diminishes them and what they are trying to do.

"There are some people who will irredeemably think journalism should be about people who know stuff telling people who don't know stuff — stuff. But that's just not how the world works — there are always people on the blog who know stuff, and have opinions that are worth listening to. That's the joy of it."

Finding those thoughtful comments amid the maelstrom has itself become a problem, Henry admits.

She admires features on other large community web sites such as Digg and Slashdot, where comment threads collapse, concertina-style, to reveal only those comments judged to be most valuable by the readers.

Using this approach, Henry says nothing is lost and "you can still find the maniacs and the arseholes if you really want to, but the stuff that's worth reading is always highlighted".

But there's a snag — this sort of collective selfmoderation is difficult to implement in Moveable Type, the blogging software that has been creaking under the strain of powering Comment is Free.

"My most immediate concern is how we move off Moveable Type and on to something that allows us to be much more sophisticated," she says. "Right now we cannot manage the community effectively and get the debate to the point where it's worth having."

Community-building and management, Henry admits, was an afterthought a year ago. "When we set up Comment is Free, we didn't even want to moderate it. It had a complaints box, and it was something we were supposed to do on top of everything else, and it was some months before we realised that this was absolutely hopeless."

All in moderation Owing to its unusual post-moderation approach — comments are not vetted until after they have appeared on the site — Comment is Free has been able to get by with only a single dedicated in-house moderator to monitor the incoming comments. But several others will be joining the site as part of a more concerted push to manage its online communities.

"There are a huge number of issues surrounding how you manage your community," Henry says.

"How do you keep the debate to a reasonable standard? How do you enforce a talk policy? How do you deal with everyone's complaints about being censored? How do you involve your own writers — especially when you have threads that have hundreds and hundreds of comments?"

Teasing the best out of the din of readers' reactions is only one part of the process — encouraging the commentators themselves to return to the debate is another.

Younger journalists, Henry says, see it as second nature to respond to comments made on their pieces, while many traditional print journalists have been more reluctant. But the divide is not along generational lines — political editor Michael White is an example of a journalist unafraid to wade into the fray provoked by his pieces on the site.

"Journalism is only the beginning of the process — at their best the threads can be incredibly wellinformed and add all kinds of additional dimensions to the original arguments. The journalists who like it best say it's improved their journalism because they now think quite hard about what they write," she says.

"It's one of the most interesting things I've ever done as a journalist. There have been moments of rage and annoyance, but I've grown a much thicker skin."

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