This piece originally appeared on Medium.
RTFA. Read The F***ing Article. It’s an acronym so old it goes back to Usenet days. Yet, no one’s made much headway in solving this cancer of digital discourse.
I dusted off my local news hat last week after two years of sitting on the sidelines. Mayor Bill de Blasio came to my neighborhood and promised a bunch of things, and I had some questions that I wanted to put in front of local news reporters in the hopes they’d follow up. I posted the link to a neighborhood group on Facebook because I know local reporters monitor the group. I also hoped the community would tack on their own questions.
Here’s my favorite response:
It’s a fact, sheeple! This comment derailed any constructive discussion, with a long thread of responses about the definitions of communism, socialism, and fascism — none of it particularly well-informed, though one claimed to have done “research” and another claimed to be “more awake.”
I’m willing to bet that this guy, and most of those who piled on, didn’t RTFA. And I have to wonder, if he didn’t read an article that I took the time to research and write, why did I have to read his stupid comment?
A solution, perhaps: the “verified reader” tag
One of my favorite features about Amazon’s user reviews is the “Verified Purchase” tag. It confirms that the reviewer actually purchased the product, and improves the chances that their feedback is authentic and informed. Here’s someone who purchased some barbecue rub:
What if comment platforms could identify whether or not a user has actually read an article before weighing in? What if that functionality extended to social networks and other distributed platforms? Would conversations be more meaningful if its participants could at least confirm that everyone involved had some base-level familiarity with the topic they were discussing?
This can be done. Medium, for one, knows with some degree of reliability whether a reader completed an article, and the same can be done on any website using Google Analytics via events or tags. Most large publishers are at least monitoring scroll depth on article pages, though few make it an important performance indicator.
If scroll depth alone seems too inaccurate, it can be mashed up with time on site measurements, and even finagled to consider article word counts. Since “mashed up” and “finagled” are very technical terms, we’ll just put aside the “how” part of this argument and agree it can be done.
I propose we make this the minimum requirement for engagement.
Fix the conversation
I’m not the first to think this a problem worth solving. A Norwegian broadcaster made headlines earlier this year for using quizzes to ensure an article is understood before a reader can leave a comment. But that’s a bit harsh — for one, it’s punishing those who have done the work of reading an article rather than rewarding them. Secondly, it’s okay if readers don’t understand an article before commenting; the comments section is a perfect place to ask questions.
That’s why I think a better solution is to use analytics and triggers to identify behavior that at least looks like an article has been read. Then we can decide what to do with those who haven’t even bothered to fake it.
Here are a few options, all of which would improve the conversation:
- Don’t let them comment at all. If that user hasn’t triggered the verified reader tag, then don’t even show them the comment input box. Maybe don’t even show them the sharing options. In fact, there’s a lot you can do based on this conditional logic.
- Hide their comments. One of the drawbacks of the above option is that those who want to comment without reading always have an astounding — and vocal — sense of entitlement. So when they find they can’t comment, they’ll contact you to complain. Who wants that? I always liked Facebook’s ability to hide toxic comments. You can automatically do that to those who haven’t read the article.
- Prioritize the informed: some publishers might have a philosophical or business argument against barring the ignorant from the public discussion. I haven’t heard a good one yet, but this option could work for them. Simply put more emphasis on commenters who have read the article by placing those comments first, or presenting them in some other notable way.
- Shame the stupid: Similarly, if you have a particularly cruel sense of humor, you can try to shame those who comment without reading. Stylize their opinions in hot pink, 7-point Comic Sans, surrounded by animated gif poop emoji.
Let’s be clear. This strategy doesn’t rid us of bad ideas, bigotry, or ill-informed arguments. But it filters it down to those who’ve read the source material. That’s a big step forward in elevating the conversation, in my opinion.
Platforms need to get on board, especially Facebook
I’m thinking of Facebook because, for most publishers, it’s the biggest driver of traffic — and the most shallow of engagements.
Remember when publishers switched to Facebook Comments because they hoped people would be less likely to post dumb things if there was a real name and photo attached?
They were wrong.
Facebook has been making a lot of moves to address media manipulation on the platform. It includes fact checks and banning some malicious distributors of misinformation. But a lot of misinformation gets spread in the comments section of legitimate news articles when people who haven’t RTFA make some outrageous claim and dozens or hundreds of people pile on. Since Facebook emphasizes articles with engagement, the news posts with these claims attached to them get spread more widely, and get even more comments. This is a significant problem that poisons discourse and undermines the publisher’s credibility.
It can be harder for Facebook to know whether a reader has completed an article, but from their algorithm it can at least discount engagement from readers who haven’t clicked the link, and perhaps prioritize those who have. And there’s a certain amount of behavior Facebook can measure on a publisher’s website via the Facebook pixel, login APIs, and whatever else they have their tentacles in. So it’s not so far-fetched, with their access and resources, that they can actually solve this problem better than the publishers themselves.
One area they can build this into right away: Instant Articles. Since they’re hosted on Facebook’s servers, they can begin measuring completion rates immediately and weight engagement towards users who got to the end.
By verifying and prioritizing in their algorithm some level of intellectual effort on the reader’s part, Facebook can trigger an industry shift away from lowest-common-denominator interactions.
Bonus: improve your content, readership
There are other benefits to prioritizing article completion rates as a metric. If news organizations begin taking seriously the percentage of readers who finish reading a story, then they can use that information to strengthen their storytelling, and to build a more valuable audience.
Newsrooms can improve their reporting if they have a better sense about what drives a reader to finish an article. Does it help if there are more subheads? Does tone or point of view make a story more compelling? How best to place images and multimedia to keep momentum? If we’re measuring completion rates, you can start A/B testing against it.
Similarly, if you know that certain audience segments are more likely to complete an article, you can pursue those readers. Simply put, unless all you care about is pageviews, readers who take the time to read an entire article are much more valuable than the ones that bail.
Toxic and uninformed comments are nothing new. The best community moderators combat it with unyielding vigilance, steering the conversation with a combination of polite, intense engagement and a relentless enforcement of community standards policies.
That’s a lot of time spent weeding out those who haven’t bothered to do the bare minimum to join a conversation. That time could be better spent engaging contributing members of the community to build loyalty, sources, and a better base of information.
It’s not perfect. This approach won’t stop trolls and malicious actors. It won’t stop people from having bad ideas. But it’s a step in the right direction.
Ned Berke is the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. In that role, he manages the News Audience Development Community of Practice, a space for senior level practitioners to share experiences and collaborate to tackle industry challenges. Professionals working on audience development strategies at news organizations can be considered for membership in the community of practice by filling out this form.