The Breakdown: Our next interview in the SXSW Q&A series is with Kate Miltner (@katemiltner), founder of New York Social Media Roundtable and social media strategist currently based in Los Angeles. She will be leading the panel From Trolls to Stars: The Commenter Ecosystem, which will explore the cultures and practices of commenters on forums, blogs, and online publications. Panelists will discuss a variety of issues including the ways in which commenters gain influence among their peers, the self-regulation of commenting populations, and the effects of Facebook Connect on commenter behavior.
S/G: What is commenter culture, and how did you become interested in it?
Kate: Commenter culture is basically the life that springs up around a particular blog or content hub. I think a good analogy to use is blog/content platform as bar or coffee house. The bar has its own personality, which attracts a certain kind of customer— nerds, fashionistas, media types, old crotchety dudes, etc. Within the customer base, you have several groups:
- The regulars, who often spend all day hanging out and talking to each other
- The daily visitors, who don’t have time to hang out all day but still recognize/interact with the regulars and feel a sense of identification with the place
- The random drive bys who come for a particular event or one-off occasion
- The drunk jerks who show up just to make trouble (trolls)
There are definitely blogs that don’t have regulars, and there are content hubs whose commenters are almost totally comprised of trolls (4chan* comes to mind), but our panel is going to focus on the types of blogs that have fomented robust communities that almost have lives of their own.
As for me, I first became interested in the whole phenomenon back in 2005. I had started blogging, and became part of the New York new media blogger community that orbited around the Gawker Media blogs (Gawker in particular). I was an early Jezebel reader/commenter and now I’m a heavy Tumblr user, and all of those places have very involved, very active communities that not only exist online, but IRL (in real life). I’ve met some of my closest friends through the online-to-IRL transition, which is not an unusual phenomenon in that part of the online world.
*[Editor's Note: May be NSFW]
S/G: What are the different levels in the social hierarchy of a commenting community?
Kate: To be honest, I’m not quite sure that there’s a specific hierarchy that applies to all commenter communities— it definitely differs from site to site. What I can say is that no matter what site you’re on, there definitely tends to be a pack of, for lack of a better term, Alpha Commenters. These are the people that the rest of the community treats as leaders. The panel will discuss why certain commenters rise above the rest— from my perspective, it’s because they’re funnier/wittier/more articulate than everyone else.
S/G: In what ways have you seen commenters affect the content of a blog or online publication?
Kate: Well, there are two main ways that I’ve observed– but that’s only from the outside. I’m really interested to hear from some of the editors on our panel—Dashiell Bennett, senior writer for Deadspin, Meg Frost, founder and editor of Cute Overload, Jessica Valenti, founder and editor of Feministing, and Anthony DeRosa, co-founder of Neighborhoodr—about how the commenters on their site shape (or fail to shape) editorial policy.
The first way is rather direct— when you have a commenter (usually an Alpha Commenter) become an editor. In that case, the roles are technically changed, but you have someone who deeply understands what commenters want actually curating and writing content, which is pretty cool.
The second is less direct, and it involves metrics. Pageviews, clicks, and comment counts are pretty decent indicators of how interesting a piece of content is (I mean that in terms of whether or not it attracts interest, not in a subjective sense). The Gawker Media blogs went whole hog with the metrics thing and started paying their writers based on pageviews a few years ago. A lot of people (including the commenters) complained that it changed the focus of the writing to be less sophisticated and more sensational/link-baitish so that pageviews (and paychecks) would go up. I don’t know what the editorial focus would have been had Nick Denton not implemented that program, but that whole network is posting record traffic, so take that for what you will.
An important thing to note is that comments and viewing behavior aren’t always correlated— meaning that what the comments say is not what’s reflected in the pageviews. Some of the highest pageview counts are on posts about people that commenters hate. Just check out any post on Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag on Perez Hilton— people are super vicious, but I bet you anything that the pageview counts are through the roof (they certainly know how to sell copies of Us Weekly, that’s for sure). Julia Allison is a similar figure— people excoriate her in the comments sections [of Gawker blogs], but the pageview counts on posts about her were highest at the peak of her unpopularity. Some of the most unpopular people on Tumblr have the highest follower counts (the practice is called “hate-following”) because people can’t look away. As the old maxim goes, the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.
S/G: What factors make for a successful self-policing community? When do self-policing communities fail?
Kate: I think the key factor when it comes to self-policing communities is how important the community is to its members collectively. That’s to say, when the majority of the people are really invested, they tend to quash trolling and other sorts of misbehavior without much need for a moderator. It’s sort of the “this is my house, and you can’t do that here” mentality. It’s important to note that when I say invested, I mean in the health of the community as a whole— not in a particular topic. Case in point: things got really out of control in the comments section on Engadget around the time of the iPad launch. People got really heated about the whole thing, and then trolls came in and fanned the flames to make it really nuts, so much so that Joshua Topolsky (the editor-in-chief) shut comments off completely for a few days until things cooled down. The other key factor is having the same accepted standards of behavior. Comments that are considered to be no big deal (or even hilariously awesome) on, say, Deadspin, could be looked at as flaming/trolling/bannable on a more conservative site.
S/G: What are you looking forward to seeing at SXSW?
Kate: Ooh, that’s a tough one. I have to say that one of the panels I’m most looking forward to is Doing it Wrong: Recently Possible Technology, which is going to be like an Iron Chef-esque faceoff of tech between Bre Pettis and Tal Chalzin. I’m also really interested in any panels dealing with the evolution of print media, and also anything related to mobile content, functionality, and the intersection of the two. I’m headed to media-nerd grad school in the fall and plan on focusing on mobile, so that stuff is really compelling to me.
Explore the rest of the SXSW 2010 Q&A Series.
Image credits, from left to right:
4sq iPhone app – by dpstyles(tm) [dennis crowley]
Nexus One – by pittaya