How Gimlet Hacked Slack to Reinvent Its Comments Section

The internet may seem noble and libertarian on the outside, but the deeper you go, the uglier and more repressive it gets. Everyone can have a voice online, but that democratization has also prompted rampant cyberbullying, trolling, and other kinds of abuse. According to a 2014 Pew study, 40 percent of internet users have been harassed in some form.

Publishers have struggled mightily to curb such behavior in their comment sections. Virtual anonymity stokes rage. Flagging and blocking offenders is a futile slap on the wrist. And monitoring an entire online community isn’t a practical alternative for newspapers and magazines with dwindling resources. (A notable exception is The New York Times, which employs a full-time team of “community managers” and just announced a partnership with Google Jigsaw that will rely on “robot helpers.”)

Gimlet Media, the podcast network founded in 2014, is trying to change all that with a creative experiment meant to increase positive engagement. Like many companies, including Contently, Gimlet uses Slack for internal communications. The messenger app is a wonder tool that helps large organizations connect and brainstorm. Since Gimlet’s listeners can’t comment on podcast episodes as they would a blog post, Gimlet Chief of Staff Chris Giliberti decided to create a second Slack account for the network’s premium members.

“If we created a member Slack, our staff could just be in there all day and hang out with folks when they have a few minutes between things,” Giliberti said. “Members love it because they have a direct line to us in a way that most media companies don’t provide.”

Giliberti initially worried his audience would rush in and stick around for a bit, but stop engaging as the novelty factor wore off. Thus far, the opposite has been true. Giliberti told me that members organize meetups, suggest stories to producers, and discuss the shows when they go live. There are now more than 1,500 members active across 40 Slack channels.

“The thing that continues to surprise me is how sticky it’s really been,” Giliberti said. “The community only continues to grow and has doubled week over week so far.”

While Gimlet is experiencing early success engaging with its audience, others have gone the opposite direction. Wired declared 2015 the end of the comments section. NPR was the latest major publisher to get rid of commenting. NPR’s managing editor for digital news, Scott Montgomery, explained in a blog post, “After much experimentation and discussion, we’ve concluded that the comment sections on stories are not providing a useful experience for the vast majority of our users.”

A number of publishers have used alternatives to the standard comments section on an owned property. Since last April, The Washington Post has maintained a private Slack community dedicated just to the issue of the gender pay gap. WaPo also tried Genius web annotations. The Ringer turned to Medium, which has comments that are somewhat difficult to access. As social networks have emerged as the popular place for discussion, publishers seem more comfortable investing time and resources there. (It’s still debatable how “useful” those conversations have been. Twitter has had problems preventing harassment despite a decade trying to stop it.)

Gimlet’s Slack community isn’t a mainstream fix yet, but it has potential. Most significantly, everyone in the space has been incredibly respectful, according to Giliberti.

“I was planning on there at least being some troll presence, but we haven’t had that whatsoever,” he said. “It’s the largest online community that I’ve seen be one hundred percent positive. I’m shocked.”

The company even created a #feedback channel for members to give candid feedback about what they like and dislike about the initiative.

Granted, there’s a big difference between listening to a podcast and reading a news article. The average article can be skimmed; podcasts often require an hour of the listener’s time. Negative commentary is more conducive to text than audio—if you’re going to troll a podcast host or guest, you really have to be committed.

Perhaps Gimlet subscribers are nicer or more thoughtful than the general population. There’s also a financial component at play. Listeners pay $5 per month to become a Gimlet premium member, and only premium members can access the Slack community. With trolling free in most places, it seems unlikely that someone would pay money to intentionally ruin a discussion in a Slack channel.

However, what makes the Slack experiment noteworthy is not only how it generates conversation but also how it bridges the gap between publisher and audience, which is something only Gawker was able to master with a Live Conversation system powered by Kinja. Perhaps fostering audience discussion hinges more on the quality of the bridge than the specifics of the audience. We may not be able to eliminate digital trolling and harassment on a large scale, but Gimlet is showing that it’s possible to build an intimate space where people feel inclined to respect each other.

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