There’s been a lot of sound and fury around reader comments lately: Gawker Media founder Nick Denton is rolling out a new platform that he hopes will help improve them, the New York Times magazine ran a long piece that tried to analyze how and why they got so bad, and now Popular Science magazine has decided to shut off comments altogether because they are apparently “bad for science.”
I’m tempted to argue that it’s also bad for science when you jump to conclusions based on very little evidence, or when you close off potential avenues for informed debate that might help your reporting, but there’s a bit more to it.
Comments are “bad for science”
In a blog post about the reasons behind the move — a post that, not surprisingly perhaps, is closed to reader comments — editor Suzanne LaBarre says the magazine thought long and hard about the decision, and eventually came to the conclusion that whatever thoughtful debate or intelligent commentary actually took place in the comment section wasn’t worth putting up with all of the spam and trolling that came with it. As she put it:
“As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.”
Presumably, fighting the trolls and spam — which almost every internet site, including this one, has to deal with as a matter of course — sucked up valuable resources that Popular Science believes could be better used for actually writing about science rather than trying to moderate comments, as a number of defenders of the magazine’s decision argued. The site also used the by-now-familiar argument that readers can always discuss articles on Twitter and other sites, although whether anyone would pay attention if they did so is unclear.
Yes, comments can be polarizing
Popular Science didn’t leave it there, however: LaBarre’s post also referred to a recent research paper that looked at the effect of reading comments on the perceptions of readers about the content of scholarly articles. According to the study, which was widely reported earlier this year, negative comments can skew the viewpoint of readers — hence Popular Science’s view that comments can be “bad for science.”
But as Nature magazine editor Noah Gray pointed out, the study seems to show that readers who were already negatively inclined towards a topic became more so when they were asked to read uncivil comments about the article and then respond to questions. Is that really a surprise?
Comments can definitely be polarizing, but that still doesn’t justify shutting them down entirely. Why not try to fix them, the way YouTube is with its recent announcement about threaded and ranked discussions? Or use readers as moderators, as Michael Erard suggests in a post related to his NYT magazine piece? The evidence tends to show that writers who moderate their own comments have a consistently better community than those who don’t — why not incorporate that into the job?
Comments can also have a lot of value
I’ve seen a number of examples of significant errors in research being discovered through comments on scientific articles and blogs, something that is arguably similar to the peer-review process. One example — which I found, fittingly enough, in the comments section on a blog post about Popular Science’s decision — talks about how the science writer in question learned of an error through a comment:
“Sure, managing comments on a science-based website is challenging, but I managed it for five years on a popular science blog. In fact, the discussions in the comments were hugely valuable, and contributed greatly to scientific discussion. A comment on a post about some dubious chemistry lead me to test the science, which we debunked, and the paper was withdrawn.”
Obviously, that’s only one example. And when it comes to how much trolling and spam a site should be expected to go through in order to create that possibility, that’s ultimately up to each publisher to decide. At Gigaom, we believe that reader comments are an important part of what we do — and if Popular Science cares as much as it does about science, I would think it might want to try and come up with a better way of doing comments rather than just shutting them down.
There are all kinds of interesting experiments going on out there, from the “annotations” or “notes” approach taken by Quartz and Medium, or a similar effort from the New York Times — which highlights certain comments alongside the article — to Nick Denton’s effort to turn engaged readers into bloggers and moderators, something that harkens back to the early days of sites like Slashdot or Metafilter. Closing them down seems like an admission of defeat.