51 Comments

Summary:

Critics of reader comments often argue that they are worthless because they are filled with trolls, and not that many people read them. But despite these flaws, building community through comments and other social features is more important than it has ever been for online media.

6495017375_90d6fbb14d_z

If you spend long enough reading blogs — or even newspapers, for that matter — you will eventually come across an essay about how a site is struggling with the question of whether to allow comments, or has decided to shut them down. The latest example of this genre comes from former Gawker Media and Wired staffer Joel Johnson, now managing editor of an arts and culture site called Animal New York, who says comments are worthless because they are filled with garbage and hardly anyone reads them anyway. As tempting as this conclusion may be, I still believe it is wrong for a number of reasons, as I have tried to point out in the past.

In his post, Johnson says he is revamping the Animal New York website and thinking hard about whether to have comments. He argues that comments used to be a worthwhile thing because they built a sense of community and created a “sort of virtual street team to share your stories with friends,” but Twitter and Facebook have made the sharing of content easier than ever. The other rationale for having comments, he says, is that they help drive engagement, which causes readers to return more frequently — and all of that is good for pageview metrics and other things of interest to advertisers:

People want to read good comments, goes the theory, which increases their involvement on the site, which leads to more traffic, which leads to more ad impressions, which leads to a one-billion dollar sale to Facebook.

But this math doesn’t work, Johnson argues — since most comments are trolling or spam, and therefore few people read them anyway. He says that friends who run mid-sized internet properties have told him only “a small fraction of one percent” of their visitors even read the comments, let alone contribute. As a result, Johnson says it’s impossible to defend comments as being valuable even in an overall business sense, because they don’t drive enough readership to make it worthwhile.

Reader comments are a crucial element of any online community

It seems like only a few months ago we were having a similar debate — probably because it was just a few months ago. A spate of bloggers, including former TechCrunch writer-turned-venture-capitalist MG Siegler, wrote about their decision to either close comments on their blogs or to never have comments in the first place, and justified these moves by pointing to the low quality of comments. Siegler said they were “99.9-percent bile,” and that he didn’t buy the argument that comments should be supported because they are a democratic expression of the right to free speech. As he put it:

I welcome feedback. Just do it on your own site or on Twitter, Facebook, etc. That small barrier alone removes most of the idiots. Let’s be totally honest here: anyone worthwhile leaving a comment should do so on their own blog. Very few read blog comments anyway. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Commenting is a facade.

As I tried to argue then, no one is going to claim that reader comments are always a rich and rewarding glimpse into the best of human nature. Having spent part of my previous newspaper career trying to moderate comments that ran to the tens of thousands every day — from readers who wanted to make points on stories about everything from the Middle East to homosexuality — I am intimately familiar with how bad comments can get. But I also believe that having them is important. And I think Johnson and others are missing the point when they dismiss them as worthless.

In fact, my argument is the exact same one that MG Siegler dismisses so quickly: I think comments are the equivalent of free speech, and that they serve a similar purpose — to keep those in power honest, and to enhance our online lives in much the same way that democracy does offline. Are many voters ignorant or uneducated or fickle in their choices? Of course they are. But that doesn’t mean we silence them, or implement an autocracy, it just means we have to try harder. And when comments are closed on a contentious post, it is rightly held up as a sign of how the blog in question wants to smother debate or silence dissent in some way (although of course it just moves to Twitter).

Closing comments sends a message: “Go away”

People like Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures illustrate every day just how good a comment section on a blog can be — and the reason it is so good is that Wilson himself appears regularly in those comments, and he responds to and engages with his readers (and even finances their startups). As Anil Dash of Expert Labs and Activate Media pointed out not long ago, if you have horrible comments on your blog — or your newspaper, for that matter — you have no one to blame but yourself. And there are ways to help encourage good behavior, which outlets like the New York Times are experimenting with.

Let’s face it: bloggers who say “everyone can just start their own blog, or go on Twitter or Facebook if they want to comment” are being disingenuous. Not everyone has a blog or chooses to comment on Twitter, where comments often get lost. What I suspect these writers really want is to get no feedback whatsoever — to simply hold forth, oracle-style, just like columnists and newspaper writers used to do in the bad old Web 1.0 days. Is that really an improvement? No, it is a step backwards (not surprisingly perhaps, comments are closed on Johnson’s post).

It’s not just that having comments often reveals things of value, such as a mistake that needs correcting, or an alternative viewpoint that is worth considering — although all of that is true. It’s that building the kind of community that Johnson is talking about is even more important now than it has ever been, when the profusion of content has become a maelstrom. And what better way to build it than by talking to your readers? By contrast, closing comments is a statement that says: “We don’t care what you think. Just read and click our ads and then go away.” And that is a recipe for disaster.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Tony Margiocchi and Jeremy King

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  1. If you only want people to respond to you via their own blogs, why make anything public? I love the format because it allows for a conversation that isn’t possible in other media.

    ‘“everyone can just start their own blog, or go on Twitter or Facebook if they want to comment”’

    What I heard when I read that was ‘Write about it on your own blog and I will hear about. IF you’re important.” It comes off as terribly elitist.

    1. Great point, Ryan — totally agree.

    2. I agree with the elitist angle. However, isn’t that just one of the basic consequences of how social media/social web works? Those who are better in formulating their opinions or have more means to do so to their disposal are more valuable in the social fabric of the web and therefore, others get neglected, which also means that the opportunity for those others to “grow” gets smaller and therefore enforces the elitism.

      One could argue that this is a problem, and I would agree with that, but then again, since people control the actions on the social web, you could say that this behavior is embedded in the social fabric of humans (something like: people are followers instead of leaders by default). I wonder, however, whether technology could really solve that.

      Or am I mistaken?

      1. Well, I don’t have a problem with bloggers who only listen to others who have already established themselves. With a couple caveats:

        1) Be honest about your preference
        2) Don’t be surprised when it creates distance
        3) Don’t call it a blog

        Maybe we’re missing each other in some way, but I actually think that social media tends to give equal voice to those who contribute, regardless of status. I have had trivial interaction on twitter and in blogs with folks who I would otherwise have no interaction with at all.

        I think, at the heart of it, if you have an audience you have a choice: you can use the bad apples as an excuse to hold your audience at a distance or you can accept that there will be noise and decide to wade through it in search of a signal.

        Are we on the same page, or did I completely misunderstand what you were saying?

    3. Agree, totally elitist and speaks to the death of innovation. When companies or individuals refuse to listen to the common sense (and nonsense) of others, they become close-minded. And that leads to a loss of innovation. I assume Joel Johnson and MG Siegler also refuse to believe the earth is round and dinosaurs existed?

    4. Excellent point, Ryan.

    5. Excellent point Ryan.

  2. “…bloggers who say “everyone can just start their own blog, or go on Twitter or Facebook if they want to comment” are being disingenuous. Not everyone has a blog or chooses to comment on Twitter, where comments often get lost. What I suspect these writers really want is to get no feedback whatsoever — to simply hold forth, oracle-style, just like columnists and newspaper writers used to do in the bad old Web 1.0 days.”

    Bingo! That sums it up perfectly. Sure, there are lots of useless comments, but there is definitely more noise on twitter than most comment sections on blogs. And I don’t buy the argument that nobody reads the comments – if I read an interesting post, I always want to know if others agree or disagree as I do. Anyone pushing a position should always be asking themselves if they are full of $hit, and if you don’t ask, you’ll never find out. I don’t think guys like MG want to know.

    So there’s my comment, Matthew, thanks for writing this.

    1. Thanks, Ken — appreciate the comment!

    2. I agree. I have a blog and don’t want to fill it up with reblogged content and I don’t think twitter replaces this experience. I’ve found some pretty good gems pages through the comments section.

  3. Keith Townsend Tuesday, April 10, 2012

    Reblogged this on Virtualized Geek Blog and commented:
    So, I’ve debated this myself. I often read and recently started commenting on posts. I find that the experience varies from site to site. I only visit ZDNET now because of the comments section.

    I’m often put off when a site closes the comment sections. I don’t personally have a large Twitter following or even care to use it and 140 characters is just not enough. I thing MG might be a little out of touch (and I like MG).

    I do like GigaOM’s approach to comments. The full integration with wordpress.com gives me the ability to know more about my fellow commenters and I have the option of re-blogging or just commenting. I’m finding the overall experience pretty rich.

    1. Thanks, Keith — glad to hear you like the way we do them. Appreciate the comment.

  4. The Horizon Hub Tuesday, April 10, 2012

    Reblogged this on wcchorizonblog and commented:
    An interesting take on commenting and social media.

  5. Phillip Smith Tuesday, April 10, 2012

    I think the tension, as you’ve outlined, is that the value isn’t always clear to *publishers* (who are often focused almost exclusively on the business side of things), and is only occasionally clear to authors/contributors/writers because comment systems are not great at letting the authors of the content know that people have responded, and authors — as a generalization — are notoriously bad at checking back in on their old stories.

    The technology is partly to blame: many publishers are not using “batteries included” blogging software that treats comments as first class pieces of content and can keep authors aware of comments on their posts (good and bad). In many cases, the comment technology is bolted on, or hosted by third party and not well integrated, and the moderation — as you know — at times is entirely outsourced to another company. When you get to that point, it must be hard to see comments as anything other than a cost center, no?

    The other piece of the puzzle, in my mind, is helping content authors see the value of interacting with their readers directly. The more “drive-by” contributions a site has — where the author sends in their piece and then moves on without another thought about what happens after it’s published — the more opportunity there is for comments to not be valuable or regarded highly.

    It’s easier for folks like Fred Wilson because he’s the sole author on his site and, thus, it’s easy for him to keep tabs on the comments because they’re all directed at him. On a large site with lots of contributors it gets increasingly difficult to make the connection between author, reader, and commenter.

    Anyway, three cents. There’s more here:
    http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2011/05/comments-are-dead-we-need-you-to-help-reinvent-them131.html

    Cheers,

    Phillip.

    1. Totally agree, Phillip — the technology in some cases is at fault, because writers may not know that there are comments that require a response. But even more important is the cultural shift required to see them as being worthy of a response. Thanks for the comment, and the link.

    2. Yeah, we actually noticed the multi-contributor issue too a couple years ago and came up with a technical solution so that mod permissions and new comment notifications could be more easily assigned to individual authors (http://docs.disqus.com/help/46/). In fact I think PaidContent – now part of GigaOM – was one of the first sites to use this.

      1. @Ro: I’d be interesting in hearing/learning more about that.

        More specifically, I’m wondering if it would be possible for a system like Disqus to simply look for a meta tag or something in the content that could indicate the author’s Disqus ID and — from there — highlight the author’s comments and ensure the author receives comment notifications, etc.?

        A thought,

        Phillip.

      2. I should have read that help page link first. That’s clearly what you’re already doing, yes? If so, very cool. :)

  6. My own opinion is that even though some comments are pretty dumb, in general comments include lots of interesting views which are definitely worth reading.

  7. Derek Powazek Tuesday, April 10, 2012

    I basically agree with you, as I usually do, Mathew, but there’s just one pebble in my shoe about your argument.

    You say: “Reader comments are a crucial element of any online community” which is true enough (though I’d phrase it: “giving your members voice on your site is the first step toward engendering community,” but whatever).

    Here’s the thing: not every site needs to be an exercise in community-building. Using a weblog format to create a one-way column, intended to broadcast a voice and let it be discussed elsewhere, is a perfectly acceptable way to use the web. In fact, it’s completely awesome, because in the bad old newspaper days we both remember, that kind of personal distribution was impossible.

    I don’t have a particular dog in this fight. I’ve pushed clients and bosses hard to get them to add comments where I thought they were valuable. I’ve also turned off comments on my personal site because having them there was disturbing my calm.

    Basically, what grates on me is the idea that there’s only one right way to use the web. That’s not true, and it’s never been. There are lots of websites that exist for lots of reasons. Some will want to host community feedback, some won’t. That’s okay. The feedback will always find a place to grow.

    And there are many, MANY kinds of community tools. Comments are one of them, but they’re far from perfect. It’s a crime that some people think that clicking the “comments enabled” box is all they need to build a community on their site. “Community” means more – much more – than appending some text to the bottom of a webpage.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Derek. And you are right, of course, that there are many ways to use the web. The one-way column or post with no comments is a totally valid approach, and people like John Gruber do that kind of thing well. I would never tell people they can’t do something a certain way — but I do have my own preferences, and I have to say I prefer comments. My argument was mostly about sites that are more institutional rather than a single-person blog, but I would say I prefer them even for the latter — to the point where I feel uneasy reading a site without them. If it’s a site where someone is just posting images or poetry or something, that’s fine; but if it’s a blog where someone is posting arguments or opinions about things that spark debate, I feel ripped off in a way that I can’t respond without writing my own blog post — or that I have to post a link on Twitter and only get 140 characters to respond. And I would agree that there are many tools other than comments, and perhaps we need better ones. But what we really need is more engagement from writers with “the people formerly known as the audience,” not less.

      1. Mathew: I appreciate the reply, the tweet, and that you’re taking the time to think out loud about this.

        You’re right: You did not say there was only one right way to use the web, but you did say that turning off comments was “a recipe for disaster.” Perhaps that was just a bit of hyperbole to end the piece, but I think that’s where you lost me.

        In my experience, enabling comments without really thinking through why you want them, what you want from your audience, and how that should happen … THAT is a recipe for disaster.

        As I wrote here a couple years ago (http://powazek.com/posts/2463): “The choice is not really to have comments on or off. The choice is: What is the level of community interaction you want to foster on your site? What’s the purpose of the site, and is community interaction part of that purpose?”

        Think about how many sites have comments enabled and have not given their readers any guidance for how to use them. If you put an empty box out on the street, of course it collects garbage.

        So, for example, when I enabled comments on my plant blog, I put up these guidelines (http://plantgasm.com/guidelines). They’ve helped immensely. (Aside: Where are the GigaOm comment guidelines?)

        The point is, we shouldn’t lock ourselves into a black and white discussion of “comments are good/evil.” It’s easy to see that they can be both. It’s the deeper questions (“How do I want to interact with my readers? And how do they want to interact with me and each other?”) that publishers should be asking.

      2. I’m with Derek here. Having spent three years deep in the comment trenches when I was independently covering local Portland politics (up to and including allowing a pseudonymous person to accuse me of taking bribes for coverage), I feel no hesitation on not allowing comment on my personal blog today.

        Flip side: I do allow comments on sites I run as part of Joss Whedon fandom, but those are outward-facing activities. My personal blog is where I get to have my say without having to worry about feeling like I’m at war.

      3. By saying that turning off comments would be “a recipe for disaster,” I was referring to sites that (arguably) should be thinking about building community, and instead would be sending a message to their readers that they have no interest in what they think. I totally agree that any media outlet needs to consider what they want to do and why, and be totally committed to that, whatever form it takes — whether it’s comments or some other format. And yes, asking those tough questions is very important. As for GigaOM’s comment policies, that is a very good point — it is something we should have.

      4. Personally, I really enjoy reading writers who couldn’t care less what I think.

        Well, some of them, anyway. The good ones.

        When I write, sometimes I want to engage in a conversation. Other times, I want the story to stand on its own. The point is, the writer (or publisher or editor) makes that call, not the reader. If the audience wants to respond, and the publisher doesn’t want to host it, well, that’s their decision to make, for good or ill. I just wouldn’t take the lack of a comment box as an insult. I find bad writing far more insulting.

        I’m okay with it being up to the writer/publisher. You should be, too. After all, this here, now, is your house. You make the rules. Comments are go! But when you come over to my house, you wouldn’t expect to make the rules, right?

        It’s the *expectation* of comments on all things that bothers me. The web is bigger than that.

        Anyway, we’re mostly agreeing. Thanks for giving me a place to respond. ;-)

    2. Robert Babak Rowshan Derek Powazek Tuesday, April 10, 2012

      Derek, I agree with you. One size does not fit all, the wise will take into account what their goals are and how to best achieve them.

      Comments can be a great source of enrichment for the web but it requires cultivating a community if you want to receive high quality comments. But as you say, not every single web presence is about building community.

  8. When comments are working well, they seem to work really well, The Verge is a good example of this I think. The comments are often funny, sometimes insightful and sometimes bad, but they definitely add to the experience of visiting the site and make me prefer visiting to just seeing the stories via a feed. Is it a critical mass of engagement and setting the right tone that does it, the commenting system, or some other factor?

  9. This is what you see when attempting to post a comment on the Australian news site news.com.au:

    “Thank you for your comment

    Please note that we are not able to publish all the comments that we receive, and that we may edit some comments to ensure their suitability for publishing.

    Feedback will be rejected if it does not add to a debate, or is a purely personal attack, or is offensive, repetitious, illegal or meaningless, or contains clear errors of fact.

    Although we try to run feedback just as it is received, we reserve the right to edit or delete any and all material.”

Comments have been disabled for this post