Community Discussion Guidelines for our Digital Branch

Remember my post from last summer about comments at my library’s website? Here’s a follow-up post to that earlier discussion.

Because of all those comments (some of which were mean, snarky and personal), we needed a good, fair, “official” way to deal with them. So I started poking around other websites with commenting policies and guidelines, and came up with a library version of commenting guidelines.

I ended up adapting ours from NPR’s Community Discussion Rules. Want to see a whole bunch of these? Check out  the Online Database of Social Media Policies – good stuff.

Our discussion guidelines are posted (via a link) beside the comment box on each page of our website. Here’s what it says:

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Community Discussion Guidelines:

Here are some guidelines to posting comments and content at Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library’s digital branch. The goal? To help you have fun!

We encourage comments:

  • We want to hear from you! Please post comments, questions, and other thoughts … as you think them. That’s what we’re here for.
  • Stay on Topic – stick to the subject and issues raised by the post, not the person who made it or others that commented on it
  • Think before you press the publish button. Remember that this is a public forum, and your words will be archived on this site and available for anyone to find for a long time – the web has a very long memory.
  • If you can’t be polite, don’t say it. Respect is the name of the game.  You must respect your fellow commenters.

Some Don’ts:

  • Don’t post copyrighted materials (articles, videos, audio, etc) that you do not have permission to reproduce or distribute.
  • Don’t post content that installs viruses, worms, malware, trojans, etc.
  • Don’t post content that is obscene, libelous, defamatory or hateful
  • Don’t post spam
  • Don’t post personal, real-life information such as home addresses and home phone numbers.

What will we do?

  • We’ll respond to comments, answer questions, and provide suggestions as appropriate.
  • Sometimes we’ll join a comment thread to help focus (or refocus) the discussion, or to get people talking.
  • If you break one of the guidelines above (or come close to it), we’ll email you and ask you to stop. We might also post a reminder to the discussion. If it continues, we will delete your comments and block you from posting.
  • We will remove any posts that are obviously commercial or otherwise spam-like.
  • We will remove content that puts us in legal jeopardy, such as potentially libelous or defamatory postings, or material posted in potential breach of copyright.
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Does your library or organization have similar policies or guidelines? Drop a link to them in the comments!

Dealing with Comments on your Website

First, a bit of backstory: my library is going to start charging late fees. Wow – exciting, David! Most libraries do that! Yeah, yeah – I know. But we haven’t had a late fee for 35 years or so, so it’s a bit of a big deal in Topeka right now. We’re starting to share our plan with our community, and one obvious place to share has been on our library’s website.

Guess what? People have been sharing back. Quite a few (check the comments! It’s interesting reading). That one post, so far, has gathered a whopping 89 comments (a first for us). Comments by 36 people, mostly from customers (there’s about 7 library staff who have chimed in, including me). One customer has posted 14 comments! It’s been a rather hot blog post for us.

Here’s how we’ve been handling our comments:

  • Normally, the blog author (ie., library staff) get an email when there’s a comment on their post, and they respond to the comment – thank the person for commenting, answer questions, etc.
  • Once in awhile (as in this particular blog post), the questions are passed off to appropriate staff to answer (if you look through the comments to the post in question, you’ll see that happening).
  • I actively monitor comments (that’s part of my job)
  • When there’s a misperception or misinformation being shared, we correct it
  • If there’s a personal attack (which has happened twice so far), I step it and email the person individually, telling them that they’re welcome to post, please stick to the topic, and stop attacking others…  then I also post a comment on that blog post stating what I did and why. We’re going for transparency.
  • If there’s a comment that’s highly inappropriate, I delete it (there’s been one so far).
  • And we delete spam comments.

Otherwise, we let it go – after all, we created an open forum, and people can say whatever they want (for the most part). I am also working on some online Community Discussion Guidelines. We’ll probably put a link to them somewhere around our blog comment box. It’s been an interesting lesson in online forum management for me!

Why are we putting ourselves through this? Why don’t we just close comments and move on? Because we are in control of the conversation. Think about it. If people were talking about this issue on their own blogs, the library might or might not be able to respond. If people were discussing this on the newspapers editorials/comments (which they have been), we’re not in control of that conversation either – the newspaper is.

But when the conversation happens on our website … then we’re in control. We can correct misinformation easily, and point to the correct answer. We can add phone numbers, email addresses, etc. We can even email the commenter individually (assuming they used a valid email address).

This allows  us to hold the conversation in “our building” – on our digital branch. One of my co-workers recently said she was putting on her fireman’s hat when we started getting negative comments. I reminded her that she was right – but we were doing a “controlled burn.” Because we’re in control of the conversation.

Have you had similar experiences with your organization’s blog and/or website? If so, how have you handled:

  1. lots of comments?
  2. inappropriate comments?

I’d love to know!

Pic by Vetustense

Complainers and Blog Comments

Two more posts from my reading of Mobilizing Generation 2.0: A Practical Guide to Using Wb 2.0 Technologies to Recruit, Organize, and Engage Youth, by Ben Rigby. On pages 51-52, Beth Kanter (make sure to check out her blog) wrote Overcoming the Barriers to Blogging – a between-the-chapters essay, answering some common objections to blogging. One is this: “What if a blog reader complains about our organization so that everyone can read it? What if their complaint is not based on facts or the truth?”

Beth’s answer: “Truth be told, people are going to complain, and complaints aren’t always based on the facts. But isn’t it better that you hear from your constituents so that you can (1) address their perceptions directly and (2) use their comments as an opportunity for free market research?”

My library’s digital branch allows commenting without up-front moderation. We think of it almost like a controlled room – we can listen to all the discussions, and we can correct them when needed. People WILL complain and get facts wrong. If you provide an easy-to-use discussion space on your organization’s blog, you have an opportunity to hold conversations with your customers – and you can correct them and explain what’s REALLY going on when needed. Much better to supply a controlled place to air complaints than to let them be aired elsewhere (like the local newspaper’s editorial section) where you DON’T have any say in the matter, or even in your response.

I’d also go a couple steps further than that, and subscribe to some ego feeds for your organization. I have set up Google Alerts, Technorati searches, and Summize searches for variations on my library’s name. They come to my Google Reader inbox, and I can scan through them and respond or pass the info along when needed. It takes next-to-no time to do, and it’s a way to digitally “meet” your customers in their favorite hangouts.

Real conversations. Real useful. And we can easily respond. This is a no-brainer!

Working Your Community’s Blogosphere

Recently, Darren Rowse at ProBlogger posted Five Reasons Why Mom Blogs Are the Blogs to Watch. Darren says “Mom blogs are poised to become the next big “It” when it comes to the internet–they’re gathering power like no other blogging niche and will only get bigger and better.” Then he lists some reasons why – go read the article to get that list.

And now, a thought (that I’m swiping from more than one presenter at PLA) that continues to swirl through my head weeks after PLA is over: what local community blogs are you reading? Sure – you read 800 library technology blogs, and another 500 non-library tech blogs (no, I don’t read that many blogs). But how about some local blogs?

The gist of what I heard at PLA goes something like this: subscribe to some blogs in your local community and start participating on them via commenting. What does that look like? Here are some initial thoughts:

  • answer questions they ask – even link to library content in your comment
  • answer those questions they needed to ask, but didn’t – you know what I mean…
  • Make normal, interested-sounding comments… that is, if you’re really interested
  • Supply useful additional details when you see them – again, linking to the library’s stuff in the process
  • Friend some locals on twitter/facebook/myspace/etc
  • Set up some vanity searches in technorati and Google alerts, and thank people when they mention your library! How cool would that be?

So yes – this is a bit more “active” than what librarians tend to be used to… but if you want to make an impact in your local [digital] community, you need to be participating. Because if you aren’t participating, you don’t exist.

Valuing Users by Allowing Comments

Casey Bisson said this during his Internet Librarian 2007 presentation: “sites that allow comments value their users.” When he said that, my mind started making connections… what a great way to illustrate why the ability to comment is such an amazing thing to include on a website! So riffing off that quote, here are some thoughts (and I encourage you to continue riffing and see what more you come up with – if it rocks, I’ll add it to my list).

When you allow comments by users/customers/patrons, you are valuing them:

  • You are validating their voices: By offering a way to let customers comment, the library becomes an enabler for conversation. You are saying the library cares about customers, and the library wants to hear from customers. And any voice or thought is valid – praise and criticism, complaints and suggestions.
  • You are saying you want to listen: no cold shoulders! How many companies actually want to hear you? Have you ever hunted for hours for a 1-800 number for eBay or gone through their complaint/get-your-money-back process? I have – and I came away with the feeling that eBay, cool business that it is, didn’t really want to listen, and was more interested in getting my money than in helping me have a successful selling/buying experience.
  • You are asking them to participate: opening up the possibility to comment is a form of invitation to participate. It allows actual interaction with real, live people. it also sets up a type of digital town hall meeting where someone’s expressed opinion can be heard, discussed, debated, and distilled by others within earshot (ie., other readers)
  • Users can add value to website content: Libraries hire smart people. Your customers are ALSO smart people, and libraries are just starting to use those amazing customer brains to add to the value of library content. Some libraries do this by allowing customers to create book reviews. Others allow customers to comment on blog posts or on wiki pages. A few libraries allow customers to add relevant content and notes to local history projects (ie., seeing an old photo and telling others who is in the photo, etc).
  • You are valuing their time: In my eBay example above, I wasted a lot of time trying to find that 1-800 number. By allowing comments on most pages of a website, you are saving the time of your users. They no longer have to hunt for a single online comment box or find the “contact us” page to find the phone number. Instead, they can leave their comment or question right there, right then – in a place that makes sense (the page where the question or comment came up)
  • You are adding value to their words: By not hiding a customer’s words, thoughts, questions, or comments, you are getting more bang for the buck – you are adding value to the content on that page. Value is added by giving the customer a digital megaphone – since the comment fits contextually on the same page as the comment, and might even visually use the same colors and font sizes, you have just given the customer’s comment the same weight as the website content. Words that before the web might have been said in a private phone conversation or in a private letter now have been given the added benefit of reaching a much larger audience (potentially a global audience).
  • You are adding value to their experience: You improve the customer’s experience by allowing comments in as many places as possible. Steve Krug’s book says “don’t make me think” many times. When the customer has easy-to-reach comment boxes on every page of a blog or a website, they don’t have to think about website functionality or about how to find a way to contact the organization – that part is done. Instead, it frees the customer up to think about what’s REALLY on his/her mind. And that creates a positive experience for the user.

Again, some thoughts. Do you have any to add?