In a cabana in Progreso, Mexico, overlooking the blue waters of the Gulf, Canadian Chuck Dueck cracks open his laptop and logs into the comment forums of several news websites.
Over at cbc.ca, home to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., an article on child obesity has drawn this gem: “It is VERY simple. People who are FAT eat too much. There were no fat Jews in Auschwitz -- they did not have much food. Stop eating so much!”
At npr.org, one comment is directed specifically at Dueck. “GO F--K YOUR SELF A--HOLE, You are making me hate this site!!! F-G!”
One by one, Dueck, a professional online moderator, deletes these comments and scolds the people behind them, either on the forum or over e-mail, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Dec. 5 issue. If things really get out of hand -- say, in the case of repeat offenders -- he bans their accounts. Over the course of each day he chips away at the cussing and swearing, the spammers, haters and trolls, temporarily restoring civility to his corner of the Internet.
Since the first messages were posted on bulletin boards some three decades back, comments and free discussion between anonymous users have been a central part of the Internet’s appeal. Sites such as Gawker and the Huffington Post built their empires on page clicks driven by endless streams of commenters and flame wars.
Cleaning Up Comments
Still, what’s good for Gawker isn’t always great for established brands, and as companies have embraced the Web and eagerly interacted with their customers, they’ve often been overwhelmed by the response.
A lethal combination of anonymity, opinion and the safety of typing from a remote location all but guarantees that comment forums get out of hand, falling prey to the Hobbesian tirades of the Web’s most nasty, brutish and vocal denizens -- hence, the increasing need for moderators such as Dueck to intervene and sanitize sites’ comment boards.
Dueck works for ICUC Moderation Services Inc., the brainchild of Winnipeg businessman Keith Bilous, which started out in 2002 as Captain Interactive, broadcasting text messages onto nightclub screens after vetting the content.
‘It’s So Disgusting’
Today, ICUC employs more than 200 moderators globally and was acquired in June by London’s Aegis Group Plc. Bilous, like all his employees, still works from home. The company says it had $10 million in revenue last year, cleaning up the comments on the websites, Twitter Inc. feeds and Facebook Inc. pages of blue-chip brands such as Chevron Corp., Starbucks Corp. and the Boston Globe.
“Some Fridays you feel like you need to spend two hours in the shower because it’s so disgusting,” Bilous says.
EModeration, a 160-person community-management firm with $7 million in revenue whose clients include Viacom Inc.’s MTV, the Economist and Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN, has doubled in size each year since it began in 2002. Like ICUC, it also started as a text-to-screen nightclub gimmick. The firm charges clients anywhere from $4,000 to $50,000 a month for moderation.
“We see the dark underbelly of the world,” says Tamara Littleton, chief executive officer of London-based EModeration. “It used to be a lot about keeping things clean, safe and legal for brands. All they wanted was people not to say horrible things. Now it’s about engagement . . . Now you want to manage Facebook pages and Twitter accounts.”
While the social networks don’t allow for anonymity in comments, she says, they’ve increased her company’s workload tremendously, as consumers demand instant responses from brands online.
Torrent of Comments
Littleton cites an incident last year when Nestle SA public-relations people tried to stifle criticism from Greenpeace on their Facebook page, which was not professionally moderated. The event unleashed a torrent of comments and resulted in a PR disaster. In such cases, EModeration’s team might have defused the situation before it blew up.
Although escalation training and sensitivity are parts of the job, comment moderation requires unusual equanimity.
“It’s art, not science,” says Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr and a former community manager for various early online comment forums. Moderators are largely middle-aged and well-educated. Most work remotely, on flexible schedules.
“Ours tend to be women over the age of 35 working from home, sometimes in addition to other jobs,” says Peter Friedman, who has been hiring comment moderators since he set up Apple Inc.’s internal social network in 1984. Today he’s CEO of LiveWorld Inc., an $8 million online community-management provider with 200 to 400 active moderators working at any time for clients like Pfizer Inc. and Bank of America Corp.
‘Mods’ Model Behavior
Jessamyn West, a Vermont librarian, initially volunteered to moderate comments on MetaFilter and is now one of two full-time paid moderators on the site.
“I can work with a community to make a model of good behavior.” Most of the time, that means jumping into overheated conversations and reminding users that “we don’t call each other a--holes.”
Moderators -- or “mods,” as some call them -- can earn $40,000 to $80,000 annually, but need to be prepared for daily exposure to humanity at its vilest. Extreme racism and bigotry, images of pedophilia, and even personal threats are all too common. Littleton, who has even had her home address and phone number posted by disgruntled commenters, makes sure new recruits undergo extensive background checks.
“You need good common sense, and you need a really thick skin,” she says.
Calling the Cops
The strain can take its toll. Although nasty comments make up less than 10 percent of what appears online, according to Littleton, the bad apples are what moderators are paid to deal with. A significant number of new hires with ICUC last less than two weeks. To cope, moderators work on sites in short shifts, flipping between forums prone to maliciousness -- news stories about Israel, say -- and something more joyful, such as LEGO fan pages.
Sometimes comments escalate to the point where law enforcement is called in. Friedman recently contacted authorities when threats against President Barack Obama appeared on a website discussing Home Improvement reruns.
Fake and other moderators once helped stop a case of human trafficking. After a MetaFilter user commented that two Russian girls he’d met online were going to interview for jobs at a bar, another commenter noted that the bar was a known brothel, and the girls were alerted.
And both LiveWorld and EModeration have successfully intervened with police to stop attempted suicides. In one incident, cops raced to a house provided by moderators from the commenter’s IP address, breaking down the door as the individual was tying a noose.
Many companies, like the New York Times Co., still moderate their own websites, though the costs of employing full-time moderators can add up. Often, a brand will simply abandon control of their comments, as was the case with npr.org, which hired ICUC last year to manage all its commenting.
Others have taken a more lighthearted approach. In 2008, Deadspin, Gawker Media LLC’s sports blog, embraced its reputation for vicious commenters and let the site’s moderator, Rob Iracane, write a short-lived column about the current state of the site’s comments.
Moderation outsourcing services will continue to grow, predicts Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst specializing in online customer service with Altimeter Group. Still, he says, “expect emerging markets like India and the Philippines to offer services to brands direct, with retrained call-center staff.”
“There’s a huge surge of companies coming into this market offshore” charging clients $5 an hour, versus the $30 to $40 EModeration does, says Littleton. But, she says, moderating a conversation requires more than just a list of swear words in a native language and a spam filter.
“We want our moderators to help our members navigate and have empathy for the community,” says Tina Sharkey, president and chief executive of BabyCenter LLC, one of the largest international maternal sites. BabyCenter’s 10 in-house moderators are all mothers, recruited from the site’s chat rooms. “It’s a much more authentic experience when someone’s coming in to be part of the conversation, not just an observer with their nose against the glass.”