[By Nic Lindh on Thursday, 08 December 2011]
Azcentral.com, the online home of The Arizona Republic, has long harbored a comments section that’s a cesspool of barely literate insanity, rage and hate. The site has finally decided to do something about this state of affairs by … punting and moving its entire commenting system over to Facebook. Senior vice president Randy Lovely has written an editorial that explains the wringing of hands azcentral.com went through to arrive at the idea of outsourcing comments to Facebook. (It’s pretty much an open secret that the entire Gannett chain is moving comments to Facebook, but in the editorial Lovely makes it sound like the decision process was entirely internal to azcentral.com. Questioned on this in a live chat about the decision, Lovely stated azcentral.com made the decision autonomously. Which to me suggests an alarming lack of cooperation and coordination between Gannett’s properties; it’s hard to see a good reason for every property to reinvent the wheel.)
Before diving into why I think this is a bad idea, let me say that I understand the impulse. Once in a while I make the mistake of reading comments on azcentral.com and then I want to take a long, hot shower and have a good cry. It’s awful. And that’s just the stuff that makes it through whatever filters are already in place. Whoever has to police the comments and remove the worst of them must be dead inside at this point. (Unknown savior, get in touch with me and I’ll buy you a beer. You and what’s left of your tattered soul have earned it.)
Outsourcing your comments to Facebook is also very tempting in that all it takes is some template coding and badabing! comment problem solved for free! No need to come up with any fancy coding or procedures yourself and whenever something goes sideways you can just blame Facebook. Sounds like a win-win.
(Going to Facebook for comments is a lot like the dark side of the force, when you think about it: faster and easier, not more powerful. There’s another way to solve the dingbat-commenter problem: Just turn off comments. Boom! Problem solved. But at the cost of lost page views. Which makes it a non-starter for an advertising-driven company.)
So, outsourcing comments to Facebook will most likely achieve the objective: There will be fewer comments, but those comments will be much less rancorous and insane. Fair enough. It won’t be perfect, as some of the more, let’s say motivated, dingbats will create fake Facebook accounts, but that process is tedious enough it will discourage the vast majority.
But the serious problem with punting like this is that azcentral.com is putting itself one step further away from its commenters, who by definition are its most engaged customers. Facebook will have all the information about them, azcentral.com will not. This is potentially a huge land mine. Guess what business Facebook is in? Selling advertising—the same business as azcentral.com. I don’t have an MBA, but it doesn’t seem like very smart business to give away access to your customers to a competitor. Do you think Facebook offers their commenting service for free out of the goodness of their hearts?
Another wrinkle is that if Facebook goes under (remember what a juggernaut MySpace was just a few years ago) those comments will disappear. Poof. Just gone.
And of course people who are Facebook refuseniks or have Facebook blocked will just be SOL.
But clearly these are acceptable trade-offs for azcentral.com. Which highlights the value it actually places on reader feedback: Not bloody much. Call me cynical, but if azcentral.com really values the conversation with its customers like Lovely claims in his editorial, it would have put the resources in place to create a sustainable environment a long time ago. It can be done. Others have done it. But it takes resources and commitment. Anil Dash put together a great guide to creating a respectful community with a somewhat inflammatory title. There are people on the Internet who can show you how to solve this problem without giving up your contact with your customers. but there’s no magic bullet—it takes significant resources.
It could of course be that azcentral.com has been pining for a solution to its commenting problems, wistfully waiting for somebody to show it the way out of its morass so it can help the community the way it wants to but is unable to find a way to break through, much like a musical montage in an ’80s teen movie. Sad, in that case. And doubtful that one of the publishing giants in America just plain can’t find anybody who knows how to run an Internet community.
Which means it’s more likely azcentral.com has been waiting for the problem to magically get solved by somebody else without having to spend any money.
From this decision it’s clear that—despite PR-speak to the contrary—azcentral.com isn’t interested in creating a community—it is interested in page views. One of the tenets of business in the modern era is to outsource everything but your core competencies. By shipping comments off to Facebook, azcentral.com is tacitly acknowledging they are not something of value. Remember, you show your values by what you do, not by what you say. Without any inside information I’d guess this is why azcentral.com has let the comment section devolve into its current turgid state while putting a minimum amount of resources on policing it. It’s simple economics. As John Gruber has said, hunting page views is a corrupting revenue model.
It would be refreshing if azcentral.com would admit to seeking to juice its bottom line—it’s not like it’s a secret Gannett is a publicly traded company with an eye for profit. Heck, it’s the law that a publicly traded company has to maximize shareholder value. Just get off the high horse and speak honestly about what you’re doing.
It would be great if legacy news publishing operations would start to view their readerships as a resource rather than a disruption to be minimized.