AUSTIN, Texas—The five-person team behind a simple WordPress plugin, which took three hours to code, never expected to receive worldwide attention as a result. But NRKbeta, the tech-testing group at Norway’s largest national media organization, tapped into a meaty vein with the unveiling of last February’s Know2Comment, an open source plugin that can attach to any WordPress site’s comment section.
“It was a basic idea,” NRKbeta developer Ståle Grut told a South By Southwest crowd on Tuesday. “Readers had to prove they read a story before they were able to comment on it.”
The story has since been told a few times, but Grut’s recent refresh on the topic is just as compelling for its comment-section impact as it is for NRK’s thought process on how to make Internet media a better place: invite readers to have an active stake in improving it.
Smarter coffee, smarter webcasts
NRKbeta’s very small staff focuses squarely on two goals within the larger, thousands-of-employees world of NRK: develop internal, low-cost boosts to productivity, and write about them. Grut began the story of Know2Comment by framing NRKbeta’s role in the company, and he used an example of one huge change to its webcasting pipeline in 2012. That story began with nothing more than Arduinos and coffee.
“Coffee was never ready when we wanted coffee,” Grut said, and one team member suggested a low-cost Arduino solution to enabling hands-free coffee-machine activation. The team was able to quickly code a system so that a connected Arduino could toggle a physical lever when it recognized directed voice input. Talk to machine, get coffee.
After this goofy experiment worked, one of the NRKbeta staffers thought about how a voice-activated Arduino system could do something more relevant to their NRK duties. Grut posted an image of the company’s existing Web-broadcasting pipeline, which required mic handlers, live feed mixers, and other staffers (basically, 3-4 per radio host) just to turn a radio broadcast into a professional-looking video version. This was in 2012, when the GoPro HERO2 model had just launched, and NRKbeta took its coffee-voice Arduino system and connected it to a series of HERO2 cameras. The result: NRKbeta automated the process of switching camera feeds and uploads based on voice input—well before services like Google Hangouts and Skype launched working versions of the same concept. In doing so, the team enabled far more of NRK’s radio shows to be filmed and streamed than ever before.
Grut also pointed to examples of the NRKbeta team exercising little restraint when it got stuck on a particular problem. “How do we display cloud information” in weather charts? “What does your inner calendar look like?” (Meaning, what geometric shape makes the most sense for NRK to display lengthy calendar data when articles need it?) The resulting comment sections tended to be productive and thoughtful, and in both of those examples, readers’ responses drove the visual approaches the team employed across the entirety of NRK’s online presence from there on out.
“Use your audience,” Grut told the crowd. “Talk to them; play with them. They’ll like you better for it.”
NRKbeta took its own advice when a staffer’s 2016 article about “pictures of young girls shared on a ‘boys forum'” exploded with “shouting and poor discussion” in the comment section. These posts came from readers who don’t traditionally visit the NRK’s tech-specific subsite, Grut noticed, and his team members decided to write about the rare eruption by asking readers, “What can you learn from meeting the comments section from hell?”
Commenters offered a variety of ideas, which included everything from comment voting to more active moderation. The staff mulled over what they could implement that would be low cost and low impact to its community, and Grut had his own eureka moment while showering before biking to the office: why not a quiz? A WordPress plugin could force users to correctly answer a few multiple-choice questions before the page’s comment field would appear. Once he got to the office, he and fellow staffers spent three hours building the plugin, which Grut reminded the crowd is wholly open source.
“Naturally, this was paid for by Norwegian people, so you can thank them if you want to implement it,” Grut said when emphasizing that he was happy if more sites tried it out.
Should you slap the plugin into your own WordPress install, it’s then a matter of having a story author or editor come up with multiple choice questions (and Grut says he’s still unsure whether basic facts or fuller comprehension make for better quiz questions in this case). He admits having no A/B testing data to confidently determine Know2Comment’s impact, but he says “99 percent” of NRKbeta’s most frequent users were “overwhelmingly positive” about the function.
Still, he and NRKbeta have softened their use of the plugin in the past 13 months. “In the first period after we did this, we thought it was really fun to write these quizzes,” Grut told Ars Technica. “We had a good time writing them. But then we realized not every article is in need of this. We are a tech site; we don’t have a lot of controversy, so there’s not a big need for it. We use it now on stories where we anticipate there’ll be uninformed debate to add this speed bump.”
He added that the plugin has been contained to solely the NRKbeta sub-site and that it hasn’t been rolled out to the larger NRK content base.
While he’s a big fan of data-driven examinations of articles—and thus is a geek about having quizzes attached to articles—Grut points out that comment-section health is a much bigger puzzle than a single WordPress plugin can solve. “We had a specific problem, and this is our specific solution. I don’t want anyone to think that a quiz will solve all your problems.”
In the spirit of Grut’s suggestions, I invite you, Ars readers, to offer your own ideas for Ars’ comment sections. We’re all ører… I mean, ears.
Listing image by Sam Machkovech
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