As online comment sections propagated throughout the web and faced people-related scaling issues, mainstream media sites become a popular example of low quality discourse. Some chose to invest meaningful resources into their comments, but many did not.

In recent years, an assortment of news publishers and noted publications have closed their comment sections. I don’t necessarily see that as a big deal or even a bad thing. There’s an ebb and flow here. Many people rush into tools without enough thought, then wonder why they don’t work. There is an eventual correction as they find its not for them or something shinier attracts their attention.

At one point, most news sites online didn’t have a comments section. Then, years later, seemingly they all did. Things change. But there is no doubt that many media companies struggle with comments and end up abandoning them, for any number of reasons, when there is value to be found in them.

The high profile comment section closures, combined with consistent refrains of “don’t/never read the comments,” have created a perception that comment sections are bad in general. An indictment of the tools, more so than those who manage and use them.

The Great Community Reef

The Coral Project is a direct answer to this trend. Funded by a grant, the effort is a collaboration between Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, The New York Times and The Washington Post. They are focused not just on comments, in but helping news publishers to improve community on their sites.

This will happen through open source software, but also through the sharing of best practices and strategy advice to help publishers use the tools and be successful. Andrew Losowsky is leading the project, managing a small team. Bassey Etim is the point person on the Times’ end, while Greg Barber does the same for the Post. I’ve spent time talking with all of them about the project, and have published an article on Bassey’s work with the Times previously.

While news sites are their target audience, the tools they develop could potentially benefit anyone looking to build community on their site or through their writing.

The Challenge Goes Beyond the Tools

I definitely like what I have heard from them. Those conversations have led me to believe they are interested in creating useful software that addresses trouble areas while being as frictionless as possible when it comes to implementation. All good things, but what is also important is that they seem to understand that education of how to manage community and how to use the tools is as important as the tools themselves.

The old saying, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” comes to mind here. I love great tools. I have plenty of ideas for software vendors. But if you want a sense of community, you have to fight for it. No tool in the world will save you if you don’t believe that. Great comment sections are possible (the writer/commenter relationship can be a great one), and software can help a lot, but there aren’t any magic tricks. It takes commitment and resources.

There is a problematic attitude I have seen with some publishers who have closed comments. They say something that boils down to, “we’ll accept comments when it serves us.” They’ll accept comments when it helps their reporting, when it makes them sound smarter, when it gives them access to a source, when it gives them content they can publish as a new article and serve ads around.

The problem? Community doesn’t serve you. What’s in it for the person commenting? “We pat them on the head once in a while” is not a good answer. Community spaces aren’t a one way value proposition for the news publisher to be the only party benefiting. Community isn’t some fountain where you throw in a few pennies, make a wish and get what you want. It’s not always pretty. It benefits the contributors as much as it benefits the host.

Stay Tuned

The Coral Project has a lot of potential and smart people behind it. I look forward to seeing where they go (subscribe to their email list for updates). There is a lot of good that can be done here, by being a solid tool people can use to build better communities and by educating professionals in the media about the realities of community building.