Chat room: online discussions and Mosaic

Online discussions are now a staple of any digital publication. ‘Below the line’ comments, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit – there are any number of places readers go to voice their thoughts and opinions.

We wrote in our Content Strategy that Mosaic would “aim to open up the storytelling process and involve our audience”. Rather than a purely publish/broadcast relationship, our thinking was to try to involve our audience more, both in generating ideas for future stories and in further discussions of the issues raised by current stories. And over the first few months of Mosaic’s life, we’ve done a few experiments.

Comments

One of the earliest decisions we faced was whether to have comments under our stories or not.

There are many pros and cons, but the main ones were obvious. On the one hand, it’s nice to have an obvious place directly underneath an article where readers can write what they think and discuss the topic there and then. On the other hand, online comments are notoriously either empty fields of tumbleweed or full of trolls and flame wars, requiring major resource to moderate.

Having looked at many other publisher and website models, we decided against comments, for 2 main reasons:

1) Aesthetically, the page is cleaner, friendlier and shorter (bearing in mind our articles are already quite long) without multiple comments underneath.

2) Our aim is to “share our content as freely and widely as possible” and reach new audiences wherever they may be, in the places they already go (rather than force them to visit our site necessarily), it seems churlish to force them to come to our site for their discussions (an environment that may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable sharing on). Far better that those discussions take place where they already feel comfortable talking, be it another website, community, or their own social media.

Four months in, I personally think this has been justified. Some of the richest discussions around our articles have taken place not on our platforms, but in places that already have a large and engaged audience, often around on a particular subjects. Jezebel’s republish of Rose George’s Blood Speaks has so far garnered 655 comments and a rich discussion of menstruation and taboo. We also saw similar on Australian site Mamamia. Similarly, Gizmodo – one of the major publishers to have taken up our Creative Commons republish license enthusiastically – has seen wide ranging discussions over subjects like the next-generation female condom. And in terms of reaching other, new audiences, Hacker News readers seem to like our stories, prompting discussions of everything from ageing to electric brain stimulation and Brazilian gyms.

We also publish all our stories in a collection on Medium, which allows readers to annotate any part of the story with a note, something several readers have taken advantage of (this one on our Mind Readers story for instance, shares a relevant link to further the discussion).

Reddit

We wanted to be more pro-active with discussions and debates around our stories and the issues they raise. So we made a conscious effort to think where else, besides comments, people might be interested in talking.

Reddit is one of the biggest communities on the Internet and famous for its AMA (Ask Me Anything) Q&As with just about anyone who wants to do one, be it a Hollywood celebrity or a local nurse. Reddit also has an audience with a strong interest in science, with their Science subreddit one of the most popular on the site.

Working with their moderators, we’ve thus far featured in 3 Reddit AMAs related to our stories, putting the scientists and authors directly involved in the story in contact with the Reddit readers. We’ve been pleasantly surprised with how much the Reddit readers and the scientists themselves have taken to the experience.

Social media

Of course, readers don’t need comments or a discussion page to voice their opinions.

Many of Team Mosaic, as well as our writers, are avid tweeters, and the nature of the quick messaging service make it perfect for discussions and Q&As. We’ve done a number of them so far, ranging from Q&As with the authors – this one with Rose George on her experience reporting in Bangladesh and Nepal for instance – to wider crowd-sourced information about the dangers of cycling in your city and tips from runners for marathons. We also partnered with non-profit #MHchat to host a moving and enlightening debate on the nature of mental health and stigma during Mental Health Awareness Week, based around our Last Chance Saloon series. It helps when authors like Rose and Hayley Birch are familiar and comfortable with the quickfire nature of Twitter. And the #MHchat experience showed us how candid and open people are willing to be when the barrier to entering the discussion is low but the quality of debate is high.

We’ve had mixed success with Facebook. On the one hand, discussion around the meaning of ‘normal’ (linked to our film AbNormal) garnered a number of comments, but not as wide a discussion as we’d hoped (perhaps the question was too abstract?). On the other hand, Facebook was a crucial part of our #BigQuestions launch campaign, with a photo album of images forming the voting mechanism for the campaign. This garnered some very rich discussion under each one, 200,000+ views  and over 1000 votes through likes, shares and comments. Facebook definitely has the largest number of users of any of the social networks we use and we’ll be thinking carefully about how to best deploy discussions on here in future.

Google Hangout on Air

One of Google+’s most useful features is the ‘Hangout’ – essentially a group video chat, which you can also choose to broadcast publicly via YouTube. We’ve seen some excellent uses of this in recent years and have been keen to see if we could use these ourselves.

Our first experiment took place back in April. The culmination of our #BigQuestions launch campaign, we organised a panel discussion on the most popular question – Is sexuality genetic? – between a group of biologists, psychiatrists, campaigners and journalists, connecting from around the country. Mosaic readers were also invited to pose questions directly via a chat panel on the Google+ event page itself. 

The whole thing was broadcast live on our Google+ page and YouTube channel, with the video automatically uploaded to our YouTube channel for posterity. We learned a lot from the experience – not least the level of planning and resources needed for a larger-scale broadcast – and hope to do more of these, probably on a smaller-scale, involving our writers and their subjects.

The Future

What else might we do? We had ideas of trying out Branch for one. We’d also like to follow in the footsteps of our friends at MATTER, who have in the past crowdsourced ideas for new stories based on what an editorial board drawn from their audience voted for. Whether this is something our readers would want to take part in, we’d like to find out.

So watch this space. And as ever, if you have any feedback or ideas, we’d love to hear them. [email protected], tweet us @mosaicscience or comment - this blog does have them.