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Updated data from Topix on registration-free commenting

Newspapers are apparently still fretting over whether to allow users to comment on their sites. Old-school editors like to hold the reigns tightly; approval-before-posting is a common moderation model on newspaper web sites. You'd think they'd be more open to letting in the usergen pageviews...

Some new data out of Topix showing the quality (measured by post kill ratios) between registered and unregistered commenters.

Total by registered users: 22,336
Total by non-registered: 60,772

Posts by registered users that got killed: 992
Posts by unregistered users that got killed: 4,095

% posts killed (registered users): 4.4%
% posts killed (unregistered): 6.7%

The unregistered commenters have a 50% higher kill rate. But they come with 3X the traffic.

Further evidence that the Ni-Chan paradox still holds:

  • Registration keeps out good posters. People with lives will tend to ignore forums with a registration process.
  • Registration lets in bad posters. Children and Internet addicts tend to have free time to go register an account and check their e-mail for the confirmation message. They will generally make your forum a waste of bandwidth.
  • Registration attracts trolls. If someone is interested in destroying a forum, a registration process only adds to the excitement of a challenge. Trolls are not out to protect their own reputation. They seek to destroy other peoples' "reputation..
  • Anonymity counters vanity. On a forum where registration is required, or even where people give themselves names, a clique is developed of the elite users, and posts deal as much with who you are as what you are posting. On an anonymous forum, if you can't tell who posts what, logic will overrule vanity.
  • I like this dataporn since it's applicable beyond newspaper and forum sites, to other kinds of recruitment-funnel online participation systems. Make it easy for users, especially first-time visitors, to jump in and participate. But also give power users the ability to invest more in their identity on your site.

    Comments (13)

    I've always felt very strongly about point #1, the friction of registration keeping out a lot of great comments, but never had any data to back it up.

    But what this post doesn't cover is the fact that humans are not the only things to post comments.
    (I note that I have to provide details to post here, and it is moderated, which amused me slightly, sad as I am.)

    Newspapers and forums that do not require some kind of hurdle to be passed will soon fill with automated spam. If you do not require registration, then you make it that much easier for robots to provide content, and therefore will require some algorithm to filter the posts for you, entering you into the ongoing battle that the other side will eventually win.

    It would only take a few penis-pill spams on a forum to make me look elsewhere, especially if I had to provide any kind of personal information: if they can't keep out the spammers, who else do they let in and what kind if XSS nightmares await if the forum doesn't validate content in some way?

    What you also have to remember is that people in general assume that the site itself is responsible for the content (otherwise why sue YouTube and the like) and the reputation of news sources is a very important factor in their overall brand. If you do not trust a source, then you go elsewhere, so it is important not to risk that reputation by allowing every troll on the internet to post to your site.
    Reading the comments on a certain Scottish newspaper website is mildly terrifying - it uses the report-a-post model meaning that comments are allowed to appear and then squished as people complain. Registration is required, but is minimal therefore throwaway if necessary. But there are some frightening opinions that appear and regular battles are fought between regulars. I'm left with the opinion that it's a slightly sordid kind of paper purely because it allows these unsavoury behaviours to be associated with it. Which may be unfair, but that's how I perceive it.

    Whether we like it or not, the quality of the comments enhances or detracts from the perceived quality of the site (sorry, mate!) and while I accept that people with something interesting to say may balk at the idea of investing a few moments of their time registering, it is not a good idea to foster the illusion of anonymity as that tends to bring out the nasty side of the human spirit. Off-topic ramblings within a clique are less detrimental to a reputation (IMO) than viewing hate-filled rantings. At least if you have a clique - you know your site is good enough to come back to repeatedly :)

    If Topix was a well known SEO blog I bet those stats would have come out much differently. And as automated spamming tools catch up with Topix I bet those stats shift sharply in the wrong direction.

    Since turning on registrations about 3 months ago I have had about 5 overt spammers and maybe 2 trolls. Before requiring registration DAILY numbers were higher than they have been for the entire 3 month period. And my comment level is about where it was prior to requiring registration.


    Also, while anonymity counters vanity, I bet it also counters some of the social elements needed to create a passionate community.

    Topix has pretty sophisticated anti-robot defenses. As well as a full-time moderation staff, and dedicated programmers to adapt the system if any of the automated defenses are breached. That's why it makes sense for newspapers to outsource comments to Topix; there's just too much involved in running a big commenting system to do it yourself.

    Yeah, I moderate comments on Skrentablog... Unfortunately I just have movable type standing between me and the spamming hordes. On the positive side, I don't get 80,000 comments/day. :)

    Hi, Rich. Great numbers, thanks for posting them.

    While I am inclined to agree with your conclusion on the value of allowing unrestricted and anonymous comments, there may be a missing piece to your argument. It is not clear that the quality of the anonymous comments are as high as the quality of the registered comments just from the kill rate number provided.

    The kill rate just provides a lower bound on quality -- no comment shall be less interesting than X -- but it certainly could be possible that the anonymous comments generally tend to be weaker and less interesting than the registered comments, so allowing them lowers the overall relevance and usefulness of the forums.

    There may be quick ways to provide metrics that could be useful there. For example, you could use average comment length or the grade level of the text of the comment as a weak measure of comment quality.

    Probably not worth the effort, but I thought I would mention it. It would make your argument stronger if you could better establish that the quality of registered posts are no better than the quality of anonymous posts.

    Good point Greg.

    There are a lot of subtleties to the social architecture of any system. Even unregistered comments on topix are tagged with the city/state geo of the poster's IP, so repeated posters, while not having a 'registered' identity (whatever that is; how much does a blind hotmail addr really tell you about a poster) at least can be spotted by virtue of all of their posts having the same locality tag.

    What really sways it over in favor of open commenting for me though is that the value of a forum - especially a large, sparse forum like topix, which is trying to cover every town in the US - is based on the number of participants. If topix can get 3X the local commentary at the local level with an open system vs. a reg required system, it becomes nearly a no-brainer.

    It should be a no-brainer for newspaper sites too, but they're still legacy supported by the print revenue, and aren't quite as hungry for traffic as us pure web folks. They can afford - for now at least - to require 'quality' despite the cost, and play to a half-empty theater.

    Rich

    It is great that you and Mr. Tolles shared this. I have seen people have opinions on this for a long time..opinions that are biased by personal tastes versus facts...

    These facts are both suprising and useful.. We have turned non logged in comments on and off over a period of a couple of years. This is something to think about on how we go forward.

    Dave:

    RE: Greg - "but it certainly could be possible that the anonymous comments generally tend to be weaker and less interesting than the registered comments, so allowing them lowers the overall relevance and usefulness of the forums".

    If you look at slashdot, you'll often see well-written, detailed posts that have been modded up because of their informative value, submitted by "Anonymous Coward".

    "Commenting systems" and "forums" are not the same beast. A forum is dedicated to user-centric discussions, while comment systems are author/content centric. Because one author controls the topic of discussion, you're much more likely to get fly-by posters interested in having their say that might actually never have anything else to say in the future and therefore are put off registering.

    Also, you might have one or two forum sites you participate in and consider worth registering for, while I have 20 blogs (and counting) in my feeds that I semi-regularly read, and I would never bother registering in order to comment. Perhaps OpenID will help to alleviate this, but it's not a very mainstream solution.

    Emily:

    This may be purely anecdotal, but since I actually am up to my elbows in Topix forums everyday, I will say that I see absolutely no correlation between registration and quality of posts. Some of our most most thoughtful and passionate posters remain unregistered after years of continuous posting on the site. Also, some of our most problematic posters register each and every time they return after having been banned for violating Terms of Service.

    It is about identity. The trolls want one as badly as your much sought after power users. It takes all of about thirty seconds to create a new email account via hotmail / gmail / yahoo and return to your favorite haunt. All posts, registered or not, require a capcha, so while no registration is required, there is a robot barrier.

    As was mentioned, we have a robust array of managing our forum users and it makes absolutely no difference from that standpoint whether someone is registered or not. When they find a way around our tools, we crank out a new one.

    Whether site commentary reflects on news quality, I suppose is up to the beholder. What I tell newspaper folks is that while the people that post on your articles may not be people you would want to invite to a dinner party, they *are* the people reading your articles. They always have been.

    I'll keep it short.

    Registration cuts down on spam - and it also cuts down on comments.

    Washington Post has registration as required, and even though I'm already registered - the idea of having to "log-in" to post just means I won't.

    Their loss - not mine.

    And I'm a big fan of Aaron - but I feel the same way about his site (I think I'm registered there as well).

    On an anonymous forum, if you can't tell who posts what, logic will overrule vanity.

    I hope so, I'm experimenting on my blog with totally anonymous forums. No registration, and no handles or pseudonyms either.

    comment about topix:

    Topix has a horrible problem with trolls. I think this ultimately hurts Topix and any valuable posting...their kill rate on posts is dismal.

    Vern:

    The topix moderator for the Chico ER in Chico California seems to be power hungry.
    He routinely removes my posts or pushes them back three or four pages. This seems to as some type of illegal censoeship

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