media & PR

The slow death of comments on newspaper websites continues

Livefyre comment thread exampleEarlier this month Reuters axed the comments threads on its website. This was no idiosyncratic whim but rather part of a wider trend, as Charles Arthur has pointed out:

Re/Code is turning off comments. This comes after Reuters turned off comments, and many other sites have dialled back on allowing comments – Popular Science, the Chicago Sun-Times, and so on. Huffington Post stopped “anonymous” (actually pseudonymous) comments in August 2013.

The quality, or rather lack of quality, of many comment threads is a big part of this change. Why do so many sites run into this problem? It is in large part because, as Charles Arthur goes on to point out, the bad drives out the good:

Newspaper sites get huge numbers of people passing by, though the number who comment is tiny (typically far less than 1% of those who view an article).

But a significant number of those commenters are persistent – and this is where the “bad” can drive out the “good”. There are determined people who just want to leave comments, and view the space below the line as “their” territory. They aren’t interested in adding quality, or bringing new information to the discussion. They just want to dominate.

For an example, look at the comments below this article by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes. There’s a couple of people in there who I can recognise as “regulars” from just having read two of AKH’ articles in the past 24 hours, and looking at the comments: “Owl;Net” and “William.Farrel”. It’s clear that they don’t really have any new information to bring; they’re just there to wind people up.

For people who might have useful experiences, or insight, to bring, the sight of comments and threads like those are a natural STOP sign. Why would you invest your time, knowledge and special insight adding a comment to a thread when you have idiots like that already busy (and commenting repeatedly, and repetitively)? Why would you want to be the 133rd commenter on a story, if you have an insight that you consider has a separate and unique value?

… The smart people will tend to stay away from places like that. They might try it once or twice, but then discover that nothing special happens to their comment; it’s just left to twist in the morass of snakes.

In my experience, especially of moderating comments over on Liberal Democrat Voice for many years, there are a couple of other important factors too, which combined with this point all add up to why if you want a comment thread that really adds value for more than a tiny minority of readers, and if you’re running a site with more than a very small audience, you need to have quite an interventionist moderation policy.

One of those factors is simply the problem of abuse, often disproportionately directed at female commenters and especially at people who disagree with comments expressed by a small hardcore of regulars. Why take the time to express a different view when, as Charles Arthur points out, your comment is likely to make no impact on others – save that you may well be labeled an idiot and stupid (at best) in return?

The other is that some of those hardcore who drown out and put off others do know what they’re doing, I’m sure, but others just don’t realise how repetitive, rude or both they are being.

One of my favourite memories from time as a Lib Dem Voice moderator was the really long and detailed email of outrage I got when someone’s comment was moderated for being personally abusive. I had been quite wrong to moderate them because, as they explained at such length I’m sure it wasn’t a wind up, “odious scum” wasn’t an insult, it was a factual description. How could I have possibly thought it reasonable to moderate such a piece of factual accuracy?

Of course, sometimes that lack of self-knowledge (especially, it seems to me anecdotally, when it comes to men shouting down women) is deeply embedded. Often however it can also be a passing mistake – which is why I no longer believe in ‘don’t feed the Trolls’. Rather, you should try feeding them once. But if one feeding doesn’t work, you need to be willing to moderate.