The BBC is featuring a report this week which examines the trend of news and opinion sites doing away with their comments sections. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but it does seem to be picking up steam. The article features a couple of popular sites which have recently pulled the plug.
Vibrant online communities? Or cesspools of abuse? Have comments had their day?
The debate about comment sections on news sites is often as divisive as the comments themselves. Recently outlets such as The Verge and The Daily Dot have closed their comments sections because they’ve become too hard to manage. And they’re far from alone. Moderating comments is a full-time job (or several full-time jobs) at many news organisations. Officiating comments on a BBC News story requires knowledge of more than a dozen different disqualifying categories. Alongside shouting, swearing and incivility, comment sections can also attract racism and sexism. BBC Trending recently found evidence of the latter when looking at live streaming app Periscope.
The editor of The Daily Dot goes to great lengths to talk about how the comments section wasn’t really representative of their community, and that interaction on social media was far more the norm. He also notes the incredible amount of work that it takes to keep control of the comments section and not let it turn into a place where “a mob can shout down all the other people on your site.”
There are other case studies and some of the common themes seem to be that the comments section is more trouble than it’s worth. There’s also a rather startling view – even among those who haven’t eliminated the function – that the owners not only control the front page content, but that they should control the “tone” of the discussion and “protect” their commenters.
For our community, a lot of what they go online for is to connect with other people like them. The comments section is a place where people make friends, and where we get valuable feedback and build community among our writers and readers. From the start, we never considered not having comments.
I’d like to have more sympathy for the managers of these sites, but in the end your approach to managing the level of interaction on your site is strictly in the hands of the owner and the results are simply a case of reaping what you sow. If you just have a wide open system where anyone can comment when and how they wish without even verifying an email address, you’re going to attract trolls in epic numbers if the site is at all popular. Many of them may have no interest at all in the subject matter at hand. If that’s the case, you’re going to be investing a lot of time and money in trying to moderate a mess such as that.
We’ve heard more than our share of complaints about the fact that Hot Air generally holds open registration periods which limit the pool of commenters and that there are strict rules on what can’t be said in the comments on penalty of the ban hammer. (Excessively foul language, threats of violence or to the life of public officials, etc.) Open enrollment always winds up bringing in some people who are only here to troll, but it’s actually our commenters who are faster and better than the editors in identifying them and they are generally removed. By the same token we wind up with any number of people who join up and vigorously espouse some views which run directly contrary to the general, more conservative tone of the site. But as long as they follow the above noted rules, they stick around and get into all sorts of verbal firefights with the rest of the commentariat.
Why would we stop that? This goes back to the author’s notes from the article above. We have enough trouble managing our own content on the front page. What the “tone” of the community turns out to be is up to the community as far as I’m concerned. If we tried to moderate the tone it wouldn’t be much of a community at all. Rather than just shutting down the conversation entirely, perhaps some of those sites could have considered a more “harsh” approach to building their forums.