In the early days of web publishing, commenting sections were a fast, easy way to facilitate “engagement” around stories. At the time, it was downright revolutionary — real-time feedback to stories was impossible in the print era. But that was before Twitter and Facebook. Today, it makes much less sense to append to articles a poorly-moderated playground where readers can spout often bilious opinions on an organization’s precious web property.
That’s why many news organizations, from Popular Science to the Chicago Sun-Times have killed comment sections. And now Reuters becomes the latest and arguably the highest-profile news outlet to jump on the anti-comments bandwagon, killing off these sections for all news articles. Comments will remain on opinion pieces and blog posts.
The death of comment sections may sound like a trend, but for every news outlet that comes out against them, there are others putting comments at the forefront of their design and business model. Quartz, for example, has invested heavily in comment innovation, allowing readers to leave annotations in the margins of articles, much like Rap Genius. Livefyre, the commenting platform we use here at Pando, has launched a similar tool called Sidenotes that any publisher can use without requiring a huge development build out. And with its discussion platform Kinja, Gawker has democratized its media empire allowing anyone who posts a comment to feel like a content creator, and not just an Internet rabble-rouser shouting into the abyss.
So are comments dead? Or long live comments?
There no easy answer here. If you don’t devote any resources to moderating these comments, then the law of the Internet dictates your site will become a cess pool for racist, sexist bile. Unless you have a dedicated social media editor to delete comments that are merely hateful and add nothing to the discussion, then perhaps you’re better off letting those “discussions” happen on Twitter or Facebook, far away from your web property.
But even with moderation, both at an editorial level and a community level, comment sections can be problematic. In one of Gawker’s classic examples of being outraged at something Gawker itself created, Jezebel writers criticized Gawker Media for not doing more to police rape GIFs across its sites. Sure, moderators can delete these posts, but it became such a problem that Jezebel likened the situation to “playing whack-a-mole with a sociopathic Hydra.”
Gawker eventually implemented a “pending comment system” which would place all comments from “non-approved” commenters into a separate queue that readers can choose to see or ignore. Slicing your comment section in half is far from a perfect solution, but such is life when dealing with this quandary.
But what about comments that raise legitimate questions about an author’s thesis or reporting? You could charge individual authors with monitoring their own stories for these pieces of insight. However, I’ve found that the most insightful questions raised about my own stories usually happen on larger forums like Twitter — after all, if readers have something smart to say, they want as many people to see it as possible. And because so many journalists live on Twitter these days anyway — or if nothing else, they spend more time on Twitter than they do mired in comment sections — it makes sense to leave the discussion there.
Some observers, the most visible one being GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, are quick to call decisions like Reuters’ “dumb.” In a discussion on Twitter, Ingram calls the move an admission that “we don’t have the time or desire to hear from readers in the place where we publish our content.” (Take a moment to note the irony that this discussion, which was carried out with intelligence and class, took place on Twitter, not in a comment section). Mic’s Jared Keller is more blunt, saying it comes down to hard economics: “The ROI on community mods isn’t clear enough to justify salary and healthcare.”
I agree with Ingram that farming out the discussion around your articles to Twitter and Facebook is an uncomfortable move, particularly at a time when publishers are going so faras to dispense with having a website at all, posting stories on Facebook’s servers, next to Facebook’s ads, and read on Facebook’s apps. Publishers need their own real estate to collect their own data and to avoid having to share a chunk of revenue with Facebook every time they want to run an ad. But when it comes to comments, the smartest readers will be most incentivized to leave the smartest comments on outside platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Why settle for anything less?
[illustration by Brad Jonas]