How can online communities improve the quality of content and increase user engagement?

Technology blogs and news sites have struggled with the quality of their user generated content for almost as long as they have existed. The comments section at the bottom of any tech related post is often be a dangerous place to be, as users discuss their passions with their peers, often seeking to get one over on supporters of another games console, operating system or mobile ecosystem.

Forums are traditionally segmented down to a specific user interest, with little opportunity for sharing of ideas outside a users immediate peer group, and are often frequented by users (referred to as trolls) who look to deliberately ruin the experience of others that they disagree with by posting abuse, off-topic comments or by attacking genuine users.

Engadget.com (a popular tech news site owned by AOL) has struggled for several years to improve the quality of the comments section at the bottom of posts. Various tactics have been employed, including complete removal of the commenting functionality for a nominated period of time, with the goal of reminding users that the ability to comment on their content is a privilege and not a right.

The Editor in chief will post reminders about etiquette every few months, and new technologies such as Disqus have been rolled out in order to encourage the use of social network accounts in order to capture “real” identities and encourage them to behave more like human beings and less like feral animals hunting through the bins outside a busy restaurant.

“Hey guys, we know you like to have your fun, voice your opinions, and argue over your favorite gear, but over the past few days the tone in comments has really gotten out of hand. What is normally a charged — but fun — environment for our users and editors has become mean, ugly, pointless, and frankly threatening in some situations… and that’s just not acceptable. Some of you out there in the world of anonymous grandstanding have gotten the impression that you run the place, but that’s simply not the case.”

These efforts have proven largely ineffective, and have done little to encourage user input of a higher quality. Users are used to being treated as children, subject to draconian moderation and deletion of comments, along with limited control over how their posts are presented on the site – and as such they often behave as children, becoming preoccupied with being the FIRST to comment on a new post, provoking arguments with other users and generally being a nuisance. All of this does little to encourage the cultivation of a new user base, with the vocal existing user group acting in a hostile fashion towards newcomers, generally making them feel unwelcome and treating them as outsiders.

A new way of thinking about user generated content

Following the restructuring process undertaken by AOL in the wake of its acquisition of the Huffington Post, many of the editorial staff left the site to seek employment elsewhere. The former Editor in chief, Joshua Topolsky, and several of his ex-colleagues soon began working on a new site backed by the successful sports news and blogging network SB Nation and six months later the new site was launched to the world.

The new website, ‘The Verge’, has an entirely different approach to user generated content, pushing it to the fore and giving users similar controls and flexibility to the editors of the publication. There is no “secret sauce”, no magic ingredient that makes The Verge so successful in generating higher quality user generated content and vastly improved interactions, instead it takes advantage of a simple approach that gives users responsibility, encouraging greater thought about what is being written and released to the community.

Examples of higher quality debate on The Verge – via f.cl.ly

The Verge allows users to produce content that looks almost as good as that created by the editors of the site and provides a place where community content is given the opportunity to shine. Editors are active in the discussions, sharing personal opinions and experiences, and users appear to receive this very well. Several posts from the community have been featured and highlighted by Verge staff members and even discussed in length during the weekly podcasts.

With the incentive of the above, combined with an intuitive design and the feeling of a clean start on a new website, it is simple to observe the vast improvement in the quality of user interaction, the reduction in trolling behaviour and other barriers to entry for new users. It is possible to comment on an existing editorial post, posts created by other users or to create your own new post, which others can then comment upon.

Formatting controls are provided, allowing users to add images, links and videos, and soon more controls will be rolled out allowing even greater control over the way content looks, providing a further enhanced incentive to think carefully about what is being posted before hitting the submit button.