Do website comment sections serve any other purpose than being forums where people can fight anonymously? We all know what to expect from website comment sections. Depending on who you talk to, they remain our digital society’s deepest cesspools, dankest wastelands, most snark- and shark-infested waters. It’s no mystery why a parade of media outlets have assessed the value of their own comment sections and have come to the conclusion that they’re just no longer worth the trouble. And for those doing PR, this is relevant because you want to advise your clients to be socially open but not exposed to trolls. In the last few years, citing “uncivil comments” and a slew of other reasons, many have eliminated comments entirely, including Vox, Reuters, Re/code, Grantland and Popular Science. They allow conversations around their content to take place instead on social media – take a look at how Grantland’s Bill Simmons responds to commenters on a Facebook thread.
Other outlets, like the New York Times and the
Gawker Media sites, continue to heavily moderate their comment sections, in hopes of retaining some degree of decency and humane discourse. In some cases though, comment sections do fulfill their role as collaborative forums and facilitators of insightful dialogue between readers and authors. They house ongoing conversations. They allow readers to fill in blanks that an author may have missed, or to correct reporting mistakes.
For traditional media outlets and, increasingly, brands launching their own in-house publications (think Adobe’s CMO.com or Dell’s Tech Page One), the question of comment sections is a difficult one. Is it better to eliminate comment sections entirely, thereby allowing conversations around their content to happen on social media instead, or do they try to foster an engaged community of comments?
Let’s explore both sides of the coin – first, with an example of a highly successful comment section, and then with some examples of the worst behavior made possible by the Internet and social media.
The ‘Golden Horde’ Takes the Gold
One of the most prominent comment section success stories comes from The Atlantic, through the efforts of Ta-Nehisi Coates. In a piece for Longreads.com, Eva Holland explores in great detail how Coates built what she dubs the “best comment section on the Internet,” starting when he joined The Atlantic in 2008. It took a few years, but eventually, he helped build a diverse, insightful group of commenters, who felt so empowered and full of esprit de corps that they took on the collective identity of the “Golden Horde.”
That type of success is rare today. What was Coates’ secret? First, he policed the community, closely and heavily, and enforced strict rules of etiquette. He often punished rule breakers with bans and even closed off comments on posts in which the discussion had completely devolved.
Coates also engaged with the commenters regularly, even shouting them out by name in his own articles. In a nice bit of symbiosis, some members of the Horde would even go on to become official Atlantic contributors. One of Coates’ early commenters, Yoni Appelbaum, went through two separate three-year stints contributing to The Atlantic – one as a serial commenter beginning during the 2008 election season and another as an online contributor – before being named politics editor late last year.
Yet, even though the Horde helped launch the careers of Coates and contributors like Appelbaum, The Atlantic comment section has since been “undermined by its own success,” as Holland put it. Because of Coates’ new notoriety, the comment section has since been flooded by those who choose not to abide by the rules Coates so meticulously laid out. At scale, the type of thorough policing that worked so well with a small, close-knit community, has proven to be unsustainable.
While The Atlantic hasn’t gone as far as to shut down its comment section, like some of the sites mentioned earlier, its editors may eventually find the benefits are far outweighed by negatives – a list of downsides, by the way, that other sites have seen grow very quickly.
When Comments Go Wrong
Holland’s takeaway from the Coates story is that the world would be better off without comment sections, which she calls “tumors on otherwise good journalism.” It’s a harsh assessment, but it’s one I’m reluctant to really disagree with. Comment sections have become the most expedient way for faceless attackers to brandish words as weapons, and that’s why so many websites are just shuttering comments entirely.
As Reuters Digital executive editor Dan Colarusso told Mashable:
“It’s like when you invite someone to your house, you want to make sure the bathroom is clean.”
But the act of keeping them clean – well moderated and in good working order – is such a chore that for some outlets, it’s better to just condemn the bathroom entirely than to continue a 24/7 cleaning. But closing down a comment section doesn’t choke off engagement – the good kinds or the bad kind. Trolls don’t give up when you take away their platform – they just relocate to another bridge to harass those passers-by instead. Their landing spot is often Twitter, which is problematic for the company.
As Jezebel’s Lindy West described in horrific detail on a late 2014 episode of “This American Life,” one of her own Internet trolls even stooped so low as to masquerade as her recently deceased father through dummy social media accounts. That’s about as low as the Internet can possibly stoop, and it shows that shutting down comment sections does not, in isolation, stop the problem.
To Comment Or Not To Comment
This is an issue that will no doubt evolve as the Internet continues to become more central to all of our lives. If you have any thoughts to share on the matter, please leave me a comment… wherever you’d like, but just be civil.
This post was first published by James Young on March Communications’ blog PR Nonsense.