[IMAGE] A paper prototype presentation from Beyond Comments at the MIT Media Lab. Three people stand in front of a table with the person in the center holding a large piece of paper containing rough sketches. Behind them are various presenters. The person on the left has a microphone.

If our software was an event, what would it look like?

On Saturday February 27th, we teamed up with the MIT Future of Media initiative to try and answer that question. We called it Beyond Comments: Building Better Conversations.

The first thing that we learned: there are so many people who want to have this conversation. And not just people in newsrooms – we invited activists, commenters, community organizers, academics, technologists as well as engagement editors and journalists. We expected around 40 people to come. More than 120 people showed up on a cold Saturday in Boston to talk about comments and community.

We packed as much into the day as we packed people into space. We had two panels, twelve lightning talks, one paper prototyping session, plenty of breaks for conversation… and more than 50 people followed us to the bar to keep talking afterwards.

It felt like a lot. It also felt important, and in equal parts exhilarating and terrifying.


How we designed the community space

We started with a clear code of conduct. We announced it ahead of time, and encouraged others to help us improve it. There is always much debate on whether events need such codes, and our event was no exception. We enjoy the discussion, but to us it’s a non-negotiable part of a creating a respectful space. A code of conduct isn’t just words, it’s caring enough to plan and to frame the kinds of discussion you want, as well as reassuring people with an explanation of how you will ensure that it will happen.

We framed the space as we would an ideal online community.

Some of the features of productive online community spaces:

  • respectful interactions among a diverse range of voices
  • clear guidelines for conversation
  • a communal acknowledgement and enforcement of what happens if rules are broken
  • a consent model centered around the ability to set your own preferences for the sharing of your words and images
  • highly visible participation by, and availability of, staff members
  • a collective attempt to improve knowledge and understanding through respectful engagement
  • information is easy to access and easy to share


What we learned

So many things. If you want a comprehensive run down of the day, check out Adrienne Debigare’s Storify of the event.

Our lightning talk speakers covered new tools, including SMS tool GroundSource, Civil Comments and open source annotation tool Hypothes.is. Academic researchers presented some of their work, including J.Nathan Matias’ formula that showed how much work time is lost to “mansplaining”. Bianca Laureno walked us through how Latinegr@s took the difficult steps of making someone accountable for actions that negatively impacted the group.

Our panels focused on tangible ways to combat harassment and build community around journalism. On our first panel, Whitney Phillips challenged us to “find a more robust understanding of free speech […] Communities that are inhospitable actually limit free speech.” She even persuaded a self-identified “robust” commenter from the Boston Globe to rethink his approach.

The second panel built on that, looking at how to scale these ideas inside a newsroom. Monica Guzman observed that “people get burned out by the experience” and places have to “be held accountable for their culture and values.” How do we give readers the protections they need in order to responsibly make them part of our journalism?

Finally, we used a paper-prototyping exercise to get participants focused on real people’s needs. Rather than imagining pretend people on the other sides of a screen, we asked them to interview, share, and design with each other. From sexual health education apps, to mentoring services, to celebrity-backed issue platforms, teams designed for things they needed to exist in the world.


Learn more about the event

Greg kept comprehensive notes during the event.

We have running conversations in our Twitter hashtag #beyondcomments and on our Community board.

Anika Gupta, who initially approached us about the event, has written about her experience on Medium. Also on Medium: Civil Comments wrote up how it was for them, and Emily McManus shared her notes from the day.

Adrienne Debigare storified the event’s tweets.

Jessamyn West collected the handles and urls of the speakers.

We wanted to do this right and we saw moments of amazing: the former head of Metafilter’s community throwing up her hands in victory every time someone mentioned the site as a great example to follow; committed commenting duelists hugging it out when they met for the first time; hearing a community activist say that she’d never realized that newsrooms even cared about the bad comments on their site; seeing people gather around the gentle moderation of a crying baby. It was a truly special day.


What’s next?

We’re still figuring that out. Before ‘Beyond Comments’, we gathered together students from several of Boston’s colleges to prototype new ways to engage and discuss stories that matter – we’ll be doing more of that in the future.

We’re still building our software, of course, and we want to open up more conversations between groups who aren’t usually in the same space. We want to drill deeper into some of the issues that were raised at the event. We want to see if we can actually solve some problems during an event, not just prototype how we might.

We’ll keep on building in the open on GitHub,, talking on our Community board, and modeling the same kinds of interactions in the real world through various different methods, with a diverse range of people, in numerous locations around the country.

What would you like us to do next? Let us know on our community board.


Huge thanks to Matt Carroll, Anika Gupta, Erik Westra, Sam Ford, our amazing volunteers, and everyone who helped make Beyond Comments such a success.