431: Comments

Do you read the comments?

Full episode script

Seven years ago, when a story about my wedding ended up on a number of news websites, I had a bit of an awkward conversation with my mom. She called me to express concern and frustration with the mean things that some people were saying in the comments on the news story. I ended up repeating what has become a mantra of the internet — just don’t read the comments. Never read the comments.

But is that really the best advice about the internet? Many news websites tend to agree, and are taking steps to ensure that the comments are no longer even a consideration — partially by removing them alltogether. CNN, Popular Science, and thousands of other news websites have eliminated the comment sections.

Jessica Valenti wrote in The Guardian in 2015:

“It shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m not fond of comments sections. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many female writers who are. On most sites – from YouTube to local newspapers – comments are a place where the most noxious thoughts rise to the top and smart conversations are lost in a sea of garbage. It’s true, I could just stop reading comments. But I shouldn’t have to. Ignoring hateful things doesn’t make them go away, and telling women to simply avoid comments is just another way of saying we’re too lazy or overwhelmed to fix the real problem.”

Yet not everyone is running away screaming from comment sections. In June of 2017, CNN reported:

The New York Times currently has a team of 14 moderators reviewing approximately 12,000 comments manually every day. And that’s just on the 10% of stories where comments are enabled. Starting Tuesday, The Times will open up comments on about 25% of articles; it hopes to grow that to 80% by the end of the year. “If The Times has innovated in the comments space, it is by treating reader submissions like content,” community manager Bassey Etim wrote in a New York Times article announcing the news.

And perhaps it’s not so much that comments are inherently the worst part of a place online. Maybe it’s the fact that an open space with no guidelines, no moderation, and no active community tends to become might-makes-right, Hobbesan spaces. A little effort could make the comments one of the most valuable places online. As Wired author Andrew Losowsky wrote in October of 2017:

If a site chooses not to dedicate resources to community management, then closing the comments is probably the best option. However, this is a dangerous and short-sighted position for the news industry to adopt. It’s damaging not only to the bottom line, but also to the future of journalism as an industry.

Let’s start with three of the key metrics that advertisers care about: number of views, time spent on a page, and the loyalty of the audience. Who spends the most time on the page? People reading comments after the article and engaging in the discussion. Who creates multiple page views? Commenters who return to reply to conversations they’re involved in. Who are the most loyal audience members? Almost certainly your commenters.

Every site needs to be thinking about more than just improving comments, Publishers should also be more clear about what the goals of the space are, and should try to build strong digital communities that members are actively involved in managing.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.