Starting later this week, TPM will shift over to using Facebook comments as our core commenting system. This is a major change. And almost anything tied to Facebook courts controversy. So I wanted to take a moment to explain what we’re doing and why.
There are two key related reasons we’re making this change. The first is that a robust and secure commenting system is just very difficult to build and maintain. Companies as diverse as The New York Times and Gawker have built ones that work. But they have vastly greater tech resources than we do.
Our tech team does focus most of its work on custom application development — something we plan on doing on an expanding scale in the future. But where we think we really add value is on applications like PollTracker, Baroque (our front page layout app) and Core (our virtual CMS which now runs much of the site). Investing most of our tech development time in building something that others have already built better than we can hope to just doesn’t make sense.
Over the last couple years since abandoning the native Movable Type commenting system, we’ve tried a series of different approaches with 3rd party services or our own systems or some combination of the two. And frankly, none of them work very well, as you’ve frequently told us. And that makes for a bad user experience. Facebook has a robust and smoothly functioning system that works. And it’s also free — which works for us.
The second reason is tied to the Facebook ecosystem. In addition to spending lots of time and money supporting commenting systems that don’t work well — the worst of both worlds — we also spend a ton of time dealing with trolls, spammers and miscellaneous anti-social behavior in the comments. And since our staff is heavily weighted to reporters and editors, it’s the reporters and editors who in most cases have to do that work. And that doesn’t make sense. I want them breaking news not trying to keep flyboy7456 from screaming obscenities in some comment thread.
We believe that having the real identities — you’ll have to be you — that Facebook mainly requires won’t solve but will dramatically improve this problem. Anonymity is great for a lot of things, necessary for a lot of reasons. But it also dissolves accountability. Out in the real public square, the fact that people know who we are places some limits on how abusive, disruptive or anti-social we might be. The commenting world has very little of that. And it shows.
Let’s be honest. Most comment threads are shot through with yelling, abusive bullying language and attacks. That’s never been what I’ve wanted comments at TPM to be. Our house rule has always been that if you wouldn’t say it at a townhall or in a coffeehouse, don’t say it here. With anonymity, though, it’s been impossible to enforce. Some sites have massive teams of moderators who can help square that circle. But we don’t.
Now, as a separate matter, as I explained here last year, I really prefer comments with fixed identities. I think it’s more interesting to have some sense of who the people are. And from my own experience the quality of the comments are dramatically, dramatically better. That’s just my own experience and opinion. It’s not why we’re making the switch but it informs the decision.
So, to make an admittedly long story short, we’re switching to Facebook comments because building or maintaining our own system does not seem like a good use of our company resources and because we believe fixed identities will make the comment threads more civilized, engaging and less threatened by marauding trolls and bad (comment) actors.
Now, having said all this, I know a lot of people have issues with Facebook and the whole concept of fixed, real identities. The best arguments against are ones I hear from readers who say that they work in places where their politics are not welcome or they don’t feel like sharing their political views with their families — and they mainly use their Facebook accounts to keep in touch with relatives and so forth.
These are good arguments. It’s hard to say just how many people they apply to. But clearly it’s some real number of readers. My main answer is that we’re going to be implementing the feature on Facbeook comments that allows you to log in from other services like Yahoo. If you don’t want to use your Facebook account or don’t have one, get a Yahoo account and come in that way. To a significant degree, this undermines our goal of forcing better commenting through real identities. But it’s our effort to balance the different objectives we’re trying to satisfy. The world is a messy place.
Beyond that there’s the all important issue of privacy — fears, some very legitimate, others more imaginary, that Facebook is tracking you and collecting information on you. Using a 3rd party ID gets you around that. If you’re going to come in through Facebook we need you to make the decision on your own about what you choose to share.
Some people have said they’ll be less likely to give tips in the comment threads because of this. But apart from all the other issues involved, that’s not the way to send us tips. And we don’t review the comments threads looking for tips. Our primary — almost exclusive means — of communicating with our audience is through our email tip line. That’s always been the case. It’s been a core part of our editorial process for more than a decade. And it’s where all our best tips and reader communications are from. So quite apart from whatever commenting service we’re using, if you want to communicate with us — especially in confidence — send us emails at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, a lot of people assume that in its relentless quest to collect data, Facebook is paying us to make such a switch or that we’re somehow in on the data collection gravy train by doing this. They’re not and we’re not. We’re not compensated in any way for doing this and we don’t derive any other benefit.
So, that’s the whole story. I hope I’ve addressed the questions people have and our own reasons for making this change. We think it will lead to a better user experience for our readers and free our tech and editorial teams to focus on what they do best.
Thanks for listening and I welcome your feedback.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.