Should You Allow Viewer Comments on Your Science Video?

Video_comments_thescientistvideographerIn the previous post, I began exploring the topic of how online commenters can influence reader/viewer opinions about a science article or video. I pointed out two studies, which showed that negative comments can sway how readers perceive a science news article or how viewers perceive a public service announcement. In this post, I’d like to talk a bit more about what you can do as a creator of online content to minimize potential distortion of your science message—focusing specifically on videos.

Given the potentially negative impact of fractious commenters, what should the scientist videographer do? Allow all comments on posted videos, regardless of civility or agreement with your video content? Block all comments? Compromise by filtering out personal attacks, off-topic discussion, and profanity-ridden diatribes? Something else?

As I mentioned in the previous post, some science outlets have chosen to completely block all commenting on their videos. The U.S. Geological Survey, for example, blocks commenting on its YouTube channel but allows voting. This decision means that people who’ve watched the science videos that I published through USGS have no way of asking questions or providing me with feedback (e.g., about whether the video was clear or confusing). I do get some information from the statistics—number of views, likes/dislikes, embeds, and shares—that tells me something about how my video is being used. However, without specific comments, I don’t know what someone liked about my video or if someone else disliked the way I presented some aspect of the topic. That is important information for me to improve my videos and make them more understandable by my target audience.

Other science agencies, such as NASA, do allow commenting on their videos. And they don’t seem to police the comments, as there are off-topic or abstruse comments on some videos. Not surprising, though, considering their channel has over 500,000 subscribers and over 3,000 videos.

Most of us don’t have the level of interaction with our videos that NASA has. Our situation is often quite different from that of a science agency. So what should the individual video maker do?

The decision depends on several factors, specific to each situation. There is no right way or best way to go. But I can tell you what I do and why. On both my YouTube channel and this blog, I allow only approved comments. I’ve set the preferences so that I’m able to review each comment and then decide whether to allow it or delete it. Any comments that contain profanity, personal attacks, off-topic statements, misinformation, or spam are immediately deleted. If anyone repeatedly makes insulting comments on my channel, I have the option of banning them (which blocks them from ever posting a comment to my channel again). I can also report spam or abuse to YouTube as well as set up a “blacklist” with keywords to identify unwelcome comments. Note also that all commenters must have an account to comment on a video, which means no one can make anonymous comments—anyone can hover their cursor on the commenter’s name or pseudonym and find their account and any content they’ve posted. See this page for help setting comment moderation preferences on YouTube.

By the way, I do not respond to the insulting commenters. Many are trolls who are trying to get a rise out of the content creator or to cause general mayhem on a site. Others are people (I suspect teenaged boys) with the manners of a warthog. You might be tempted to lash out and write a scathing putdown, but that just feeds the fire and invites more insults. Instead, by simply deleting their comment without reacting to it, you consign them to an electronic purgatory where they are uncertain about whether their offensive missive even hit its target. And they are essentially helpless to do anything about it.

On this blog, my main problem is spam. For this, I use a plug-in (Akismet) to trap spam—and there’s a lot of it; over the past six months, there have been 210,000 comments identified as spam posted to this site. Still, a few slip through, but I can easily delete the three or four that the spam filter misses.

Sometimes, there are borderline comments that are difficult to categorize.  Some of the spammers are getting better at hiding their true nature in an almost human-like comment, and a few of these slip through. But over time, I’ve gotten much better at spotting spam comments. If I’m suspicious, though, I’ll usually delete the comment, figuring that if it is legitimate and important, the commenter will try again. That’s rarely happened, however.

So that’s how I take care of the trolls and spammers. What about people who are just critical of my videos?

Most of the comments I’ve received on The Scientist Videographer blog and on my YouTube channel are positive. However, a few commenters have pointed out errors or provided constructive criticism that I’m happy to correct or otherwise address. I’m grateful to all who have taken the time to write thoughtful, constructive comments. So, I allow all comments that point out an error in a video, simply disagree with something, offer an alternative opinion, or complain about not understanding something. I also try to reply to such comments—I view these as another opportunity to inform users about some aspect of the topic or to explain a particular point in greater detail. Even if the tone of the comment borders on aggressive/aggrieved/sarcastic, my reply is polite and respectful—and I try to resolve whatever the problem is or point the commenter to another site where they can find the information they need. My goal is to turn a complaint into a lesson or opportunity for additional learning by all viewers.

In summary, I consider the time it takes to filter comments to be time well spent—for the following reasons.

1. As I said above, I welcome critical comments as opportunities to provide more information to viewers or readers. I often get questions about why I chose one video approach over another, for example. My reply then provides details that could not be easily included in the video, and this addition enriches my original posting.

2. Critical comments help me improve my videos. The nice comments that thank me for a video tutorial are great, but they don’t help me improve. It’s the critical comments that show me where I could have done better. If you are a scientist who’s published papers, you already know this.

3. I put a lot of time and effort into creating content for my blog and video channel and also spend time optimizing that content for search engines. The comment section is an important component of each online posting, and as such deserves some attention. If comments influence how future viewers/readers perceive the quality of my videos or blog posts, then it’s essential that I ensure the comment section is not bogged down with spam or off-topic conversations.