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They may be filled with trolls, but comments still have value — and they could have even more

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Every now and then, the war that traditional media entities seem to be continuously fighting over reader comments — where they should be placed, how they should be managed and even whether they should exist at all — erupts into the open. This time around, the spark was an announcement earlier this week that the Chicago Sun-Times has eliminated the ability for readers to comment, while it tries to think of a way to handle them that won’t result in “an embarrassing mishmash of fringe ranting and ill-informed, shrill bomb-throwing.”

The Sun-Times is just the latest to make this decision — some, confronted with the same choice, have ultimately decided not to have comments at all, or to allow Facebook to manage them. Popular Science was the most recent publication to do away with them entirely, a decision the magazine said was influenced by research that showed comments can negatively influence how readers perceive research. The Huffington Post, meanwhile, recently ruled out anonymity.

The consensus among many of those who vote against comments — including a number of bloggers like TechCrunch writer-turned-VC MG Siegler — is that they add virtually no value, and that anyone who wants to comment can turn to Twitter or Facebook, or publish a critical take on their own blog. In other words, comments are unnecessary. But I think this is fundamentally wrong.

Social media doesn’t fill the gap

I’ve argued here a number of times that comments have value, even if they are filled with trolls and flame-wars, and also that anonymity and pseudonymity also have value — even if outlets like the Huffington Post choose to attribute all of their problems to those features. There is a long tradition of pseudonymous commentary in the United States in particular, especially when it comes to politics, and even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to have loosened his views on whether “real identities” are required for some social activity.

As I tried to point out in a Twitter discussion about this topic with journalism professor Jay Rosen (who says he is agnostic when it comes to the subject of whether sites should have comments, but does have them on his own site), as well as Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab and a number of others — a conversation I have embedded below — I don’t think it’s enough to say that we can afford to do away with reader comments because Twitter and Facebook exist. In many ways, that’s just an abdication of responsibility.

It’s true that much of the commentary on blog posts and news stories occurs on Twitter and Facebook, and probably Instagram and Snapchat for all I know. And there’s no question that social tools have eaten into the market for old-fashioned blog comments — even at Gigaom, we’ve noticed a decline over the past few years, in all likelihood because people have moved to other platforms and comments are no longer the only method for providing feedback.

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That said, however, I think there are a number of risks involved in handing over the ability to comment to Twitter, Facebook and other platforms. As I argued in a separate debate with Scott Smith — who wrote a blog post arguing that we shouldn’t mourn the decline of comments — one of the dangers is that if your engagement with your readers occurs solely through these platforms, then they effectively control that relationship in some crucial ways. Smith argued that Facebook was “just the microphone,” but it is more than that: It’s the microphone, the hall, the electricity and even the town.

Doing a service for readers

Another risk is that journalists — who might be held to account for mistakes, or provided with additional useful information about a story or a point of view, which is one of the major benefits of two-way or multi-directional journalism — will cherry-pick the responses they wish to see on Twitter or Facebook, and miss others. It’s easy to say that you will follow up with everyone on every social platform, but it’s another thing to do so.

Not only that, but handing everything over to social networks also diminishes one of the other major benefits of having comments, which is that everyone can see at a glance which journalists are interacting and which aren’t — and what their responses are. Sure, you could find out all of that by searching Twitter and Facebook and every other platform, but it would take a long time. Why not provide readers with that ability in a single place, right next to the content itself?

Rosen and others argue that many bloggers and journalists respond via email, which is undoubtedly true. But there again, there is little to no transparency to those conversations (although some who use this method, including Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish, are good at publishing both the emails and their responses).

But for me, one of the biggest criticisms of doing away with comments is that too many sites are throwing the baby — and a potentially valuable baby — out with the bathwater, without trying to come up with a solution or spend any time fixing them. Anil Dash has argued that if a site has a comment section that is filled with trolls and bad behavior, the responsibility for that lies with the website owner, because he or she has failed to spend the time necessary to improve the environment there.

I should point out that I say all this as someone who is male and white, and therefore has likely never experienced the kind of flaming and outright abuse that women and people of color are often exposed to in comments. Writers like Quinn Norton and others have pointed this out, and they are right to do so. Moderation or even engagement in those kinds of threads can be a toxic experience, and I can understand why some might choose not to put up with it.

Why not try to improve them instead?

As I’ve pointed out before, there are a number of interesting experiments going on with comments, including the “annotations” that Quartz has — which appear next to the paragraph they refer to, and were inspired by the way that Medium handles comments, which can also be attached to an individual section. Comment-software maker Livefyre just announced a new version that adds much the same ability to websites, instead of lumping comments at the bottom of a page. Even the New York Times has experimented with something similar.

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There are a number of sites that have shown the potential value of comments — and not just individual blogs, like that of Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson, but sites like Techdirt. Founder Mike Masnick has turned his often-turbulent comment section into the foundation of a true community, and one that not only provides feedback but is a crucial part of his membership-based business model. It wasn’t even that hard, he says. Gawker’s Nick Denton has bet the farm on Kinja, the discussion platform that turns every commenter into a blogger — and is even prepared to take commenters and turn them into paid staff.

For me at least, too much of the complaining about comment sections and the decision to do away with them seems to be driven not by the bad behavior in them, but by a lack of interest on the part of some journalists and media outlets ing engaging with readers at all — and the hope that if there are no comments, maybe there won’t be any way to see the mistakes or call them to account.

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Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Flickr users Tony Margiocchi, as well as Jeremy King

20 Responses to “They may be filled with trolls, but comments still have value — and they could have even more”

  1. Martin L. O'Shield

    Hello All,

    Crains Chicago Business, last year, removed the following comments, (this is ALL in line with the recent post Scott Smith @ourmaninchicago,

    “Race & Class Matters @ 1871” per a 1871’er commenting in
    Crains Chicago
    Ryan W.

    Jeff, it’s a noble aim to say that “No one cares who you are or where you came from,” and that race and class have no impact on someone’s ability to participate in entreprenurial settings. It’s just not true. Startup culture is ruled by people with access to investment income, whether their own or someone elses. In Chicago, everyone cares who you are and where you came from.

    This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but the base monthly membership fee to use 1871 is $125 a month to $400 a month. To people like you and I that’s two weeks of Starbucks. To 30% of the people in Chicago, it might be the difference between staying housed and ending up in a shelter.

    The entrepreneurs of the tech sector pride themselves as creators of a bright equitable future where technology democratizes all, and I’m thrilled with their creations. But it’s a future that runs on iOS and doesn’t include people who can’t afford to buy the latest iPhone with an unlimited data plan. Without access to the platform, the hottest new iPhone app doesn’t mean much to a teenager born to a single mother crossing gang boundaries to get to class every day.

    We like to think that the entrepreneur community wouldn’t care if he wandered curiously into 1871 to work on a project, but I’ve been there and I know better. It’s a gated community like any other.

    I love 1871 and I’ve worked with people on great projects there. But my conscience won’t allow me to pretend that race and class are invisible to the people who use that space =

  2. mjjfeeney

    External commentary through social media is really its own beast: fleeting, quickly devoid of context, and ultimately discarded.

    Having comments embedded–and archived–with their source material is absolutely critical. If we’re ever going to refer back to- or make use of the worthwhile ‘stuff’ people are adding to a conversation then it is vital to keep it as an integrated part of the publishing process.

    For that matter, I think those wanting to do away with comments are missing the point in a lot of cases. Comments aren’t there for the writer’s gratification. Nor are they necessarily there solely for ‘feedback’ or commentary. No, comments exist because the days of static content are dead and buried, and whether you like it or not, publishing online means you *must* accept that people are going to interact with and do things to your content–even undesirable or malicious things. And for better-or-worse, you’re going to have to keep facilitating that.

  3. Jeremy Mott

    “Moderation or even engagement in those kinds of threads can be a toxic experience, and I can understand why some might choose not to put up with it.” Why should anyone put up with it?

  4. Hmmm. Let’s see, shall I comment here or go back to Linkedin where I came across the discussion originally?
    Oh, heck, I can do both.
    Wherever I end up last is the easiest place to vent, so that’s the site that gets my little bit of traffic. But aggregate all those tidbits and you have a major migration over time. That’s why I agree that “one of the biggest criticisms of doing away with comments is that too many sites are throwing the baby — and a potentially valuable baby — out with the bathwater, without trying to come up with a solution or spend any time fixing them.”
    I think that’s an understatement.

  5. Adrian Hogg

    Maybe I have become jaundiced by having moderated comments on a UK regional paper, but my experience was that, having started off full of enthusiasm over the concept, in the end we felt the time and effort required, together with the potential damage to the paper’s good name by being associated (however wrongly) with some of the posters was just not worth the effort. The site tended to become hijacked by a small number of people with a (local) political axe to grind, who seemed to have little better to do than abuse each other at 2am – or even worse, post under a different name to agree with what they had just said!! I’m not sure if it would be a problem in the US and elsewhere, but the UK libel laws also led to many bizarre phone calls from outraged posters who didn’t like it when comments on the lines of “such and such a project was only approved because he plays golf with the mayor” were deleted. They seemed surprised when we were unimpressed by their argument of “but it’s my opinion” or, my personal favourite, “but everyone knows it’s true”. Sigh. Oh yes, and explaining that, no, the paper is not biased, but we carried 20 posts with one view and 1 with another, because that is how it is!! In theory I still believe comments are better than FB etc, not least of all because, as has been said, they are actually linked to the stories, but sadly, for me and the paper I work for, the nutters outweighed the benefits!!

  6. Martha Cichelli

    I agree that some (perhaps many) comments on newspaper sites are ” fringe ranting and ill-informed, shrill bomb-throwing.” However, better that they should be posted on a site where the original columnist has the opportunity to rebut. Twitter and Facebook entries do not necessarily get to anyone “on the other side” and leave the fringe ranting unopposed.

    Besides, even the ill-informed should have the right to be heard.

  7. Ann Brocklehurst

    I think a lot of journalists are just snobs about comments and interacting with readers. They see it as beneath them.

    (I do agree that most comment sections are awful, but sometimes they are pure gold, or there’s a fantastic comment or two buried in the mess that never gets the attention it deserves.)

    Part of the problem is that because of the snobbery, no one senior is ever really involved in commenting and how to make it work. It’s an add-on. The fact that so many newspaper execs’ first reaction is to kill comments altogether pretty much sums up the problem.

  8. John Mark Troyer

    It’s hard to talk about “comments’ without the context of the digital community that surrounds them. The commenting communities that seem to work require a strong shared culture, which often includes moderation. It also takes a lot of elbow grease, including coding for a good digital experience, good processes, and people skills. You’re essentially throwing a party with an open mic. This didn’t exist in the non-digital publication world, and we see that even for digital natives like bloggers, it’s not always worth it. I’m sure we’ll evolve better software systems over time, but we’ll also need to evolve our ROI judgments and cultural behaviors and expectations.

  9. lynda farah

    If I go to the trouble of reading a piece, I always read the comments. Some are absurd but often they give texture and can be most informative. If you are reading a piece loaded with click bait, your comment section can be hair raising. Just avoid those pieces.

  10. There is is still a big confusion in journalism between comments and contribution, between “commenting” and what we call a “news making community”. A comment is something that “all our readers” are allowed to do at the end of our product: it’s an opinion, a “comment” on a finished product. And comments themselves are judged as another product: good comment, bad comment.
    On the other hand, a “news making community” is based on the model of the “community of practice”: people collaborate online for making a (news) product. Studies show that the core of collaborators is made only of 1% to 10% of our readers. These communities are not products: they are made of people who have a stable identity on a platform where they contribute to the making of the news product.
    So, in fact, we can have at the same time, in the same organization, a “community of known and useful collaborators” who are helping us shape the news product before the product is published AND comments at the end of the finished product. But they are two different spaces, open to different people, with different rules of identity, memory, reputation, incentives and management.
    Eventually, we will have to create ways for our readers to graduate form the larger group to the smaller, restricted one. But meanwhile we should stop thinking and writing about these two very different kind of readers as if they were an undifferentiated mass.
    It has been 10 years since Dan Gillmor wrote “My readers know more than I do”. And it has become the mantra of Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis and a whole generation of journalists, including yourself, Mathew. It’s time to create platforms to work with these readers.

  11. Comments via social platforms disappear, and social platforms have notoriously poor search.

    Finding those relevant conversations at the time of publishing is actually hard for an author at the time of publication without extensive investment in social media monitoring tools.

    It is even hard for the people commenting in that manner to find what they said even a week later.

    There is also the possibility to identify a user within tracking applications based around personal information given at the time they comment.
    This can be great for followup marketing with permission. People who comment make a very interesting cohort.

    Advanced tracking can also combine other data such as social media sharing activity and even clicks on links in social media (even to 3rd party sites)

  12. Rann Xeroxx

    I have written under my pseudonym for over 10 years now, it actually has more trackable reputation than my own actual name. The main reason I write under this name is due to people out there who don’t like what you’re writing and then either call 20 pizza orders to your door or worse call a swat team to your front door with a tip that you have guns and are planning to kill someone. I could see them calling your work and harassing you there, etc.

    As far as usefulness, I sometimes find more truth and details in the posting section of a story then the story itself. Trolls and flames are easy to bypass and igore. If someone corrects me, I look up what they say and many times I’m schooled and learned something new.

  13. Rachel Cunliffe

    There’s plenty of reasons why commenting right on the same page as a post or article is more beneficial than on Twitter/Facebook.

    Here’s one: accessibility. Finding reactions on Twitter/Facebook from articles in the past is incredibly difficult. Reading a comment conversation which is right on the site itself stays easily visible for all time and for all involved: journalists, and the public. How often have you stumbled across an old blog post or news article with comments and found something of extreme value in the comments – often a helpful tip, clarification or suggestion from other readers?

  14. keninca

    Guys like Siegler fancy themselves as Yodas, spewing wisdom down on their readers (at least he used to when he was blogging and not investing other people’s money) without the need for any feedback or alternative viewpoint. Saying people can post comments on their FB or twitter accounts or their own blogs is patronizing and insulting – I comment a lot on various websites, and yet I don’t know (or care) if any of my friends ever read the same blogs/sites. If I post a comment (like here), it’s not because I want to tell my friends what I’m reading, but rather that I don’t accept what is written, and feel the urge to challenge some statements (like “The number of people who use a comments section but don’t use Twitter/FB/blogs can’t be very significant” – that would be insignificant me). Commenting on a private platform suggests that the only reason for commenting is to read one’s thoughts.

    One of the great values of the internet is that it is a bi-directional communications link. Radio and TV stations would broadcast their (biased) opinions, and nobody would have an opportunity to call them out when they were making stuff up or just plain wrong. Apparently, some bloggers want that same kind of unchallenged bullhorn. Is that a sign insecurity or defensiveness? Yes, comments can degenerate into hate and name calling and general nonsense, but that is often more an indicator of the kind of audience the writer attracts. If you write a blog that is essentially a string of fan letters about your favorite companies, it shouldn’t be surprising that you get a lot of comments from fans or anti-fans that appear to be teenagers.

    If I’m going to invest my time reading somebody’s opinion, and have to endure the ads that pay their salary, then I should have the opportunity to rebut (or endorse) those opinions.

    • Peter Sigrist

      @keninca I agree there’s a categorical difference between bleating about a blog post or article to one’s own community and laying down objections at the source. I think it’s intellectually vital that comments attach to a writer’s arguments for the benefit of future visitors to a post. Certainly, any valuable challenges or counterarguments made on Twitter or Facebook will, years later, be invisible.