Morrison & Foerster* –
Earlier this year I helped moderate a lively panel discussion on the social-media business and legal trends.
The panelists, who represented well-known brands, didn’t agree on anything. One panelist would make an observation, only to be immediately challenged by another panelist. Hoping to generate even more sparks, I asked each panelist to identify the issue that most frustrated him or her about social-media marketing. To my surprise, the panelists agreed that online trolls were among the biggest source of headaches.
This contentious group proceeded to unanimously bemoan the fact that the comments sections on their companies’ social-media pages often devolve into depressing cesspools of invective and hate speech, scaring off customers who otherwise would be interested in engaging with brands online.
And it isn’t just our panelists who feel this way. Many online publishers have eliminated the comments sections on their websites as, over time, those sections became rife with off-topic, inflammatory and even downright scary messages.
For example, Above the Law, perhaps the most widely read website in the legal profession, recently canned its comments section, citing a change in the comments’ “number and quality.”
.. trolls “aren’t interested in a productive outcome.”
The technology news website Wired even put together a timeline chronicling other media companies’ moves to make the same decision, saying the change was possibly a result of the fact that, “as online audiences have grown, the pain of moderating conversations on the web has grown, too.”
Both brands and publishers are right to be concerned. Unlike consumers who visit an online branded community to voice a legitimate concern or share an invaluable insight, trolls “aren’t interested in a productive outcome.”
Their main goal is harassment, and, as a columnist at The Daily Dot has observed: “People are generally less likely to use a service if harassment is part of the experience.” That’s especially true of online branded customer communities, which consumers mainly visit to get information about a brand (50%) and to engage with consumers like themselves (21%).
Of course, it’s easy for a brand to eliminate the comments section on its own website or blog. But, increasingly, brands are not engaging with consumers on their own online properties; they’re doing it on Facebook FB, +0.44% Instagram (which is owned by Facebook), Twitter TWTR, +1.24% and other third-party social-media platforms, where they typically do not have an ability to shut down user comments. Some of those platforms, however, are taking steps to rein in trolls or eliminate their opportunities to post disruptive comments altogether.
The live-video streaming app Periscope (which is owned by Twitter) also recently took measures to rein in trolls
The blog-comment-hosting-service Disqus, for example, recently unveiled a new platform feature that will allow users to “block profiles of commenters that are distracting from their online discussion experience.”
The live-video streaming app Periscope (which is owned by Twitter) also recently took measures to rein in trolls, enabling users to flag what they consider to be inappropriate comments during a broadcast. If a majority of randomly selected viewers vote that the flagged comment is spam or abusive, the commenter’s ability to post is temporarily disabled. And even Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have stepped up their efforts to help users deal with harassment and unwanted messages.
Of course, brands are seeking a greater degree of control over user comments than what is currently being offered even by Disqus and Periscope. Given that branded content and advertising are crucial components of many social-media platforms’ business models, we can expect to see platforms becoming more willing to provide brands with tools to address their troll concerns.
In fact, the user-generated content site Reddit has already taken steps in this direction. Because of its notorious trolling problem, Reddit has had trouble leveraging its large and passionate user base. Last year, in an effort to capitalize on the platform’s ability to identify trending content and create a space where brands wouldn’t be afraid to advertise, Reddit launched Upvote, a site that culls news stories from Reddit’s popular subgroups and doesn’t allow comments.
Other platforms will presumably follow Reddit’s lead in creating comment-free spaces for brands. Although this may prove to be good news for many brands, one can’t help feel that this inevitable development undermines — just as trolls have undermined — the single most exciting and revolutionary aspect of social media for companies: the ability to engage one-on-one with customers across the entire customer base.
John Delaney, a longtime technology commentator, is a partner in the New York office of Morrison & Foerster, and former chair of the firm’s Technology Transactions group. He founded, edits and contributes to the firm’s popular blog on the law and business of social media, Socially Aware. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.