“Don’t read the comments.” It’s a mantra one chants while surfing the Internet. There is a Twitter feed tasked with drilling it into your head. A Google search on the phrase reveals thousands of hits and images bearing this message. It seems to be a universal truth.
And yet, we continue to have comments.
Why? What is the purpose? If no one reads them, then they’re neither driving page views nor building a community, the two things they’re credited with. It’s more or less unthinkable for a site NOT to have comments, and yet they’re universally reviled. It’s like someone was building a car and then said, “Wait, we need to put a rattlesnake in it. No one likes the rattlesnakes, but you gotta have a rattlesnake in a car.”
I especially don’t understand comment sections on news sites. Reporters and journalists are supposed to be well-trained on news coverage, yet their hard work is footnoted with whatever ignorant foolishness someone who can slap a keyboard can come up with. “Here’s a professional journalist on the proposed ballot question, and here’s slim_shady_69 with a rebuttal.” How is this an integral part of news coverage?
My local paper, the Springfield Republican, has its web presence over on MassLive, where you can get news about all the area’s happenings and brain-squeezins from a clutch of individuals ready to explain how this ties into “thugs” and Obama. Here’s an innocuous article about Green Day being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And here’s a comment on it.
Well, that’s a worthwhile addition to the story. At least it’s not racist or sexist.
Let’s look at the comments on a story about the attack at a school in Pakistan:
And here’s a comment on a local TV station’s website, about a racketeering lawsuit against the mayor:
That one’s been fine with the staff at WWLP for two months now.
What are these things adding to the site? Who is this for? Why would any professional want this garbage automatically slapped onto their work? How can these sites be expected to be taken seriously?
The absolute lowest point was when Wired magazine ran a piece by software developer Kathy Sierra, a long essay on how misogynistic trolls had worked to run her out of the industry…and then stuck a comment section underneath it. You can imagine how this turned out.
I used to think the problem was anonymity, and a way to lessen the amount of trash would be to force commenters to use their real names. That’s not a solution, though. First, many commenters have no problem using their real names (see Ron above). Secondly, as this article points out, many people choose anonymity to protect themselves from garbage commenters who don’t have a problem with real names. This was something I hadn’t thought of (as a white guy, I hadn’t had to think about it) and made me reconsider my stance. I now think the problem is just that comment sections are just plain toxic and should be disposed of.
Fortunately, some places might be finally getting the picture. Political website The Week announced it was closing its comments.
Too often, the comments sections of news sites are hijacked by a small group of pseudonymous commenters who replace smart, thoughtful dialogue with vitriolic personal insults and rote exchanges of partisan acrimony. This small but outspoken group does a disservice to the many intelligent, open-minded people who seek a fair and respectful exchange of ideas in the comments sections of news sites.
And so today, the smartest, most thoughtful, and most spirited conversations are being driven not by pseudonymous avatars in the comments sections of news sites, but by real people using their real names on the social web. It is no longer a core service of news sites to provide forums for these conversations. Instead, we provide the ideas, the fodder, the jumping off point, and readers take it to Facebook or Twitter or Reddit or any number of other places to continue the conversation.
As editor-in-chief Ben Frumin points out, there are plenty of other places you can have these discussions. There’s no need to provide a harbor for trolls and fools, and this news site will be able to devote its resources to actual reporting instead of having to babysit a bunch of dipshits it for some reason invited in.
We need to stop chanting “Don’t read the comments” and instead make it “Do away with comments”. They are part of the problem. There is nothing of value that is being lost if we get rid of them. People can still write letters to the editor if they feel their spleen must be vented. They can still dump their dumbass opinions on anyone unfortunate enough to follow them on Facebook. We don’t need them anymore and I’m not sure we ever did.