So this post isn’t so much about an operational problem as it is about an operational necessity for many website that you may have never thought about. Imagine that you run a website that allows users to post comments. Your local newspaper might be the classic example. How do you make sure that the comments that are posted are relevant and civil? Enter the Comment Cops! (‘Comment cops’ help manage websites, Aug 2, Marketplace)
For news-related sites, especially, the free-expression free-for-all is wearing thin. And the cost of all that online vitriol is mounting. So, they’re calling in the comment cops.
At a company called Pluck in Austin, Texas, 20 moderators-for-hire keep the peace for sites like Detroit Free Press and the Green Bay Press Gazette — as well as non-news clients like Kraft Foods or AARP. Pluck is a division of the online media company Demand Media. It’s general manager, Steve Semelsberger, says professional comment moderation has become a business necessity.
Steve Semelsberger: When you have a core article that has a number of advertisements running against it, it’s important that it’s not something major advertisers are uncomfortable with.
Pluck moderators review thousands of so-called “user abuse events” every day — applying a heavier or a lighter hand depending on the customer. The NFL, for example, might be fine with comments that wouldn’t fly on NPR.
With 3.2 million comments in June, the Huffington Post didn’t hire a company to moderate. It bought one. This summer, the politics and news site acquired Adaptive Semantics, and its proprietary software called “JuLiA.”
I first came across this notion of having human peruse all posted comments when my colleague Jan Van Mieghem and I visited an Evanston-based firm called Legacy.com. Legacy provides the back-end platform for newspapers to offer online obituary notices. They offer various services such as letting an academic institution know when an alumnus passes on. A main feature is allowing for an online “guest book” that allows readers to offer their condolences, express how much the deceased meant to them etc. Imagine a long-time high school teacher passing away and having pages fill up with former students writing from around the country about how important the teacher was to their growth and maturing. Obviously, that could be a source of comfort for family and friends as well as a fitting memorial for the deceased.
Alternatively, past students could wonder whether the deceased was ever sober in class and how many girls on the soccer team he groped. The veracity of such accusations aside, few would argue that airing them publicly below the obituary is in good taste. Consequently, Legacy.com has a room full of readers vetting every posting. Only so much of this can be automated despite what the Huffington Post might think. Yes, software can tell whether a post uses any of George Carlin’s seven dirty words, but some things require a more nuanced approach. For example, suppose a post says the deceased saved the writer’s life by being his sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous. At first glance, that is a wonderful tribute but is it publicly known that the deceased was a recovering alcoholic? Overcoming such an addiction can be a remarkable statement of personal strength or it can be a source of embarrassment for the family. Similar things arise when there are posts about romantic relationships. The folks at Legacy told us that mistresses are prone to using the guest book to validate long hidden relationships. Beyond inappropriate comments, Legacy also polices for poems, songs and other copyrighted work. Not because they are inappropriate but to keep the host newspaper out of trouble with rights holders.
This is not an easy operation to run. People want their post to appear right away. What’s the point of writing something on the web if it doesn’t appear immediately? Further, you don’t get posting uniformly over the day. If a California paper updates its obituaries page late in the afternoon and so gets a lot of traffic in the evening, it’s pretty late Evanston when the posts hit. This is also not an easy task to offshore (a common solution to such timing problems). So much of what is being screened for is culturally specific (is tough as nails a compliment or not?) that merely being fluent in English is not enough to do a good job.