If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to be a contrarian and criticise something that achieved almost universal praise when it happened.

10 days ago, the journalism world seemed united in its praise for a local paper, The Bristol Post. The paper’s editorial team made the decision to name and shame commenters on the paper’s Facebook page who made what could be construed as threats to Great Thunberg, the teenage climate change activist.

People were delighted that journalists were no longer allowing commenters to get away with being vile in comments. Faintly, they argued, there were consequences. And consequences are good, right?

Well, yes. One of the problems around online community is not managing consequences, and letting communities go wild. And this is a pretty brutal form of reigning in, but that’s what makes me uncomfortable.

There’s certainly no legal or ethical problem here. The comments were left on a public forum, with the commenters’ own identities clearly accessible. That’s all above board.

But I couldn't help feeling uncomfortable, and was glad to see the rather excellent Ben Whitelaw, late of The Times and the Engaged Journalism Accelerator, expressing a similar view:

(You should subscribe to his newsletter, by the way.)

So, what’s the underlying problem here?

Respect the community

The first rule of community management is that you need to treat your community with respect. While the individuals highlighted in this story are, frankly, not worthy of respect, the fact they reached this point is indicative of a lack of investment in community around the brand.

Years ago, Anil Dash wrote the very excellent If your website's full of assholes, it's your fault:

How many times have you seen a website say “We’re not responsible for the content of our comments.”? I know that when you webmasters put that up on your sites, you’re trying to address your legal obligation. Well, let me tell you about your moral obligation: Hell yes, you are responsible. You absolutely are. When people are saying ruinously cruel things about each other, and you’re the person who made it possible, it’s 100% your fault.

The fact that threats are being made against a teenager on the Bristol Post’s website is partially the paper’s own fault. Like so many titles, the Bristol Post has let its comments run without intervention. This creates a two tier envirnment: the journalists "above the line", the public below. And never the twain shall meet.

These commenst are not on The Post's own platform, they’re on Facebook, and they show very little sign of trying to actively manage that community. If you’ve let a garden run wild, it’s hard to complain that it looks scruffy. If you’ve never disciplined your children, it’s rather hypocritical to complain if they misbehave.

In one fell swoop, the paper moved from neglect of its comments to naming and shaming those who took advantage of their neglect.

This is not respect.

You make the community you want

I would have been much happier if this article has been the culmination of an active management campaign, than led to the exposing — and banning — of the worst offenders. I could have celebrated that.

But, instead, I find myself wondering how much trust between readers and title this little stunt cost the paper.

When I was working with New Scientist — which was owned by Reed Business Information back then — we had a significant problem with comments on the site’s blogs. Largely, they had become a battleground for Dawkins-inspired new atheists and evangelical Christians, who were waging war in the comments. The traditional New Scientist audience were being driven away.

Working with an experienced community manager, and the letters & community editor of the site, we put in place a number of steps to get to where we wanted to be:

  1. Write a new set of commenting guidelines, that specified that comments must be on topic. Any comments that were off topic were then subject to removal.
  2. Started posting from staff accounts telling people they were drifting off topics.
  3. Insisting that the journalist who wrote the posts that triggered most conflict participated in the comments discussion. (He was kicking off the fights deliberately).
  4. After this was established, we started liberally banning and blocking repeat offenders, after a warning.

It had the desired effect. The quality of our comments increased, and we cleared out the problematic posters. Job done, without alienating any regular readers.

My concern with the Bristol Post example is that they managed to create a great story, especially within the media bubble, but they did it at the expense of an enhanced relationship with their readers. And that, I think, is a missed opportunity.