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Are Online Comments More Trouble Than They’re Worth?

Apropos a recurring discussion here, Animal‘s Joel Johnson declares “Comments are Bad Business for Online Media.”

Most comments are terrible. Out of any given 100 comments, say, perhaps one or two will actually provoke discussion or elucidate another’s argument. This is including a large helping of spam, mindless me-too or right-on kudos posts, or the sort of drive-by internet hate that comes with the territory.

This is almost universally true, especially on high traffic sites. Few political blogs have useful comment sections. And it’s even worse on mass media sites without heavy moderation. If anything, it’s worse on sports and pop culture sites than it is on those focused on politics.

OTB’s comment section is, for whatever reason, far better than most but it’s not as good as it was in the early days when the readership was very small and specialized. Indeed, the only highly traffic political blogs with markedly better comment quality are those with very focused readerships: Volokh Conspiracy, Crooked Timber, and Unfogged. The latter is especially remarkable in that most posts generate well over 100 comments, the threads rarely degenerates into name calling, and this has persisted even though the pseudo-namesake founding bloggers long ago turned the reins over to a variety of other pseudonymous posters.

The occasional brilliant comment maintains the illusion of the worth of comments in general. This is the trap in which Gawker’s Nick Denton is currently gnawing his leg: every once in a while on the internet, for reasons largely outside of individual author control, you get a crazy good comments thread that is full of information, often outshining the post that provoked it. Denton’s spent probably several hundred thousand dollars building the new “Pow Wow” comments system for Gawker, but last I saw it was still hamstrung by Nick’s attempt to make it achieve two diametrically opposed goals at once: encourage amazing comments, while still allowing anyone to post with no heavy-handed comment moderation. I don’t think you can have both high quality comments and lots of comments: there just aren’t enough intelligent, civil people on the internet with the time to do free work for you out of the kindness of their heart. Or the smart, engaged people with the time aren’t the ones who have the information that would add real value to a thread.

Again, I think this is largely right, especially at the volume that Denton deals in. The last part of the analysis is wrong, though. The success of Wikipedia and similar enterprises demonstrates rather conclusively that people really enjoy sharing their insights and opinions with the world at large. Even the rise of blogging as a major medium a decade or so ago illustrates that; none of us thought we’d ever get paid for it and yet we still spent crazy amounts of time generating free content.

Comments don’t make any money. This, to me, is the most damning of all: comments are likely a cost-of-doing-business for most content sites, not a revenue generator. This has been somewhat known for years for any high-volume site that is forced to require human content moderation-humans cost money, whether they are hand-moderating content, shepherding conversation, or building automated tools to allow user-moderated content.

This is probably true. As noted later in the piece, on really high traffic sites, less than one percent of those who stop by ever look at the comments, much less comment. For the most part, they come for the top-level content, not the discussion forum.

Moreover, the most active commenters are given a sense of entitlement by the deference they’ve been given by media experts and all-internet-is-good-internet cheerleaders over the years, leading to authors who live in perpetual fear of shaming by the very people who are supposedly their most ardent fans. We somehow fooled ourselves into thinking we owed random people the right to comment on our work literally on our work, that this was somehow an integral part of the commons. This is perhaps my most controversial personally held belief about comments, but only so to the people who are so insecure they take personal offense at being they haven’t earned the respect to be listened to more than a basic, stranger-level civility. This was the previous culmination of my thinking, which accounting for personal vitriol that occluded my argument, I still fully endorse.

Comments are a dinner party. If I’ve invited you to have a seat at my table, at least have the courtesy to not call me an idiot for serving you food slightly different than you preferred or flinging the china at my dog because that isn’t even the right color of dog anyway, duh.

This is funny because it’s true. It’s especially true of drive-by commenters, who apparently have nothing better to do than spout off about things they don’t understand. I’m particularly amused by complaints about the quality of the journalism of the site on posts that basically just pass along news and about people excoriating me for not pointing out something that I pointed out in the second paragraph of the post.

There’s never been much consideration of doing away with comments here, since the discussion is generally a value-added experience. There has been discussion of more cumbersome moderation procedures, including requiring registration. In the end, we’ve settled for banning the most egregious offenders of our comments policy and deleting obvious spam and trolling.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    Actually some of the comment on the economic blogs is of a very high standard. Probably because it rapidly becomes apparent if you don’t know diddly squat.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  2. rodney dill says:

    OTB is probably the exception, rather than the rule. You’ve gotten away without an overly complex comment or registration process, and most threads contain useful discussion.

    I always liked Slashdot’s system of setting a threshold on what you see, but that is very high volume and requires registration. The overhead would be unsuited to OTB.

    The big question here at OTB is, would the site traffic or whatever metric generates site revenue be as good without the comments. I would think probably not.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  3. The web is cobbled together from successive technologies but also successive cultures. The blog-comment architecture was a great breakthrough. There were sites with page architectures, then suddenly there were millions of bogs, and then tens of millions of blogs with comments.

    Every little guy who both posted an essay, and then responded to criticism, was doing good work.

    Millions of people did that, which is pretty amazing.

    I sense that we are about to move beyond this though. I don’t think it will just be “twitter killed the blog” as many claim. I don’t think twitter is quite robust enough. I don’t think Facebook or Google+ will quite do it either. They are huge, obviously, but I don’t think they are going to get everybody.

    Heh … maybe I should get busy and write it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  4. Comments don’t make any money.

    Not directly, but they can help build loyalty which leads to people viewing a site more often than they would otherwise. I know I spend much more time here than on other blogs specifically because I enjoy the comment discussion.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 0

  5. PogueMahone says:

    If OTB and a few other sites I read did away with comments, I most likely wouldn’t read them anymore.

    So what if you have to wade through a few of the more annoying comments to get to something worthwhile.
    When I stumble across a site that doesn’t allow comments, I think what is wrong with these people… are they frightened by what people might say about their work? However, I do understand some blogs that are comment free because of the non-stop hate and bigotry. (Michelle Malkin and Andrew Sullivan come to mind.)

    I think it compliments the proprietors here that the commentary (myself not included) adds to its value significantly.

    Cheers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  6. CSK says:

    It’s an obvious observation, I suppose, but in my experience reading the comments section of any political or current affairs blog, Gresham’s law seems to apply: increasing numbers of bad commenters (the illiterate, the deranged, the proselytizers) almost invariably drive out the good.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  7. Hey Norm says:

    The comment section here makes the site. Absent it, I’m not sure how much time I would spend reading BOTH SIDES DO IT pseudo-analysis.
    I enjoy being able to rant, tilt at windmills, vent, etc., and for that I thank the proprieters.
    I’m not about to jump through the hoops other sites require in order to comment. I would hate to see those hoops set up here.
    But nothing is more inevitable than change for changes sake.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  8. Hey Norm says:

    @ Norm…
    BOTH SIDES DO IT analysis…peppered with I HATE OBAMA screeds for good measure.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  9. Huffington Post only became the money machine that is because of the comments threads.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. MarkedMan says:

    FWIW, although I contribute to these threads, I think the site would be better off without them… now. At least for a while. I suspect they forced the posters (with one notable exception) to think twice about what they post, to check that “everyone knows it” fact with a couple of searches, to leave out that extra nasty little comment. But now the posters are all as good as they are going to get and the comments section is full of “you’re so stupid you don’t even know you’re stupid”/”I know you are but what am I” and “You’re the racist”/”No you’re the racist” type dual-logs. So kill the comments for a year and then bring them back. Just to keep you honest.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4

  11. michael reynolds says:

    I think for most blogs comments are more trouble than they’re worth. But my sense of the OTB bloggers is that you are less pedants than seekers. You strike me as still being interested in the give-and-take because you’re still looking to learn. Granted most of what you “learn” is that you’re idiots, RINOs, tools and probably deviants, but hey, hope springs eternal, right?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  12. ptfe says:

    @MarkedMan: I think OTB’s commenters are actually a big draw. Yes, you end up with some of the usual sniping entering the real political boards, but OTB has a large number of distinguishable personalities who regularly make solid comments. I’m far more willing to wade through the opining morass when a good number of people in the room look familiar and are likely to have something worthwhile to say, even if I know the two guys in the corner are just calling each other racist.

    Equally good: OTB’s commenters are numerous enough to get discussion but few enough that comment/response threads aren’t separated by dozens or hundreds of posts. That’s a stark contrast to a HuffPo-style (or, far worse, CNN-style) comment board, where the number of regular posters is too high to keep track of and readable comment/response requires a different board layout that separates all the threads — yet another (to my mind) very limited format that degenerates much more quickly into those “Your side sux and your guy is poo” streams.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  13. @Stormy Dragon:
    @PogueMahone:
    @Hey Norm:
    @michael reynolds:

    It’s agreed then. The regular commenters all think the regular commenters are great. ;>

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. Kit says:

    Number me amongst those who probably would not stop by very often without the comment section. Lest that seem too hard on James and Doug, I probably would also stay away were they not inclined to regularly mixed it up down here themselves.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  15. *pokes the mod queue*

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. qtip says:

    I enjoy the comments here as much as the articles. OTB would not have the same value to me without the comments.

    I also like the thumbs up/down system – even if it is ‘misused’ by the two ‘tribes’ it gives me a small feeling of contributing and satisfaction.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  17. Rob in CT says:

    Having a no-registration comment system is a big plus in my book. It’s a major part of why I stuck around here. Intermittant engagement by the front-pagers in the comment section is also a plus.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  18. Moosebreath says:

    I agree with many of the comments above, especially Stormy and Norm’s. The comment threads and the give-and-take that I want to be a part of are what keeps me checking this several times a day. Most political blogs I read are once a day.

    To the extent that you are paid per eyeball, and the same person coming in several times a day generates more revenue than once per day, the comments don’t generate revenue idea is simply wrong.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  19. Hey Norm says:

    @ Reynolds….
    I resemble that remark…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. My website has a very good comments section. My commenters are informed, respectful, and love good debate.

    Of course, my site also gets about 5,000 uniques a week. If I ran one of the larger video game sites like Kotaku or Gamespot, man alive would I hate our comments section.

    The larger you are, the more casual of an audience you bring in. Once that starts happening, you start bringing in the dingbats. The dingbats are annoying, but they’re not going to dig deep to find the smaller places; they pretty much just scattershoot whereever they can.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  21. JohnMcC says:

    When I feel the urge to comment is usually when I have a factual (or at least a documentable) item to add to the conversation. (Pause to ruminate on ‘the reality-based community” etc.) So most of my comments actually cite what seem to me to be authoritative sources which I interpret straight-forwardly.

    I don’t have much interest in vociferously asserted opinions without sources and reasoning. Any more than I have an interest in that part of the human anatomy of those whose opinions are like — well, that part — in that everybody has one.

    That goes for Left and Right. (Although I find it most often disqualifies those who claim to be conservatives — who often would not know real “conservatism” if it slapped them in the face in the full light of day.)

    And for some reason I have not thought much about I find most of the reasonable and interesting comment threads on RINO websites. I was often on the now-defunct David Frum site before wandering over here. And I am glad to have found this place, having a larger-than-deserved-no-doubt fondness for tossing my thoughts into the fray from time to time.

    Which is all a way a saying: Y’all done good. Keep it up. And: Thanks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  22. legion says:

    The value-vs-buttpain factor for comments is also highly dependent on the atmosphere & crowd fostered by the site’s runners. This place is fairly sedate & the articles are reasonable & well thought out. It shouldn’t surprise anybody that the comments at someplace like Politico or Slate would be quite different…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  23. Fiona says:

    For this site, the comments section is a plus and one of the main reasons I visit the site. There’s enough diversity of opinion to make it interesting and most of the majority of those commenting are reasonably polite. There’s always going to be some sniping at political sites, but name-calling here isn’t overwhelming. The fact that the proprietors often participate in the debate is another plus–it’s nice to have the give and take.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  24. MBunge says:

    I think other people have touched on the real issue here. The problem with comments isn’t the comments, it’s the site and/or the post that draws them. If your site gets massive traffic, the percentage of idiot comments is going to increase. If your posts are tripe, tribal or antagonistic, the comments are going to be harsher and more confrontational.

    I would say Andrew Sullivan is probably a great place to look to see the value or lack thereof with comments. I can only imagine the garbage the average response thread there would garner, but the absence of immediate and sharp ridicule and criticism allows Sullivan to still be defending The Bell Curve after all these years.

    Think of it like a radio talk show. You can actually produce a much better sounding show if you tightly control the callers you put on the air, like Rush Limbaugh does, but that also allows the host to get away with all the BS he feels like.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  25. Janis Gore says:

    I can’t imagine your stable of writers being happy without some engagement with readers. Would you be satisfied with e-mail discussions among experts regarding your blog posts? Why did you start a public blog in the first place?

    I read the comments on all the blogs I visit — right and left. That’s the “social” part of social media. It’s a way to get a feel for how people are thinking, and sometimes I can pick up infomation in commenters’ posts. I can ask questions of the writer and other commenters.

    And sometimes I get a laugh out of a good quip or phrasing. Get ‘em where you can.

    As commenters go, this isn’t a bad crowd. It’s a heck of a lot more educated and literate than I am.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  26. anjin-san says:

    If OTB and a few other sites I read did away with comments, I most likely wouldn’t read them anymore.

    I agree. Comments are at least 50% of the value here. A great deal of the power of the internet lies in interaction.

    Most of the complaining about thumbs up/down and comment hiding is coming from a few people who have, IMO, brought the derision they receive on themselves – witness Wayne’s attack on Steven yesterday in response to a polite request to back up his claims.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  27. Janis Gore says:

    As for likes and dislikes and hidden comments — I ignore the markers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. pcbedamned says:

    Comments are a dinner party. If I’ve invited you to have a seat at my table, at least have the courtesy to not call me an idiot for serving you food slightly different than you preferred or flinging the china at my dog because that isn’t even the right color of dog anyway, duh.

    This. This is one of the reasons I stopped reading and commenting at Hot Air. (yes, I said Hot Air). After the inauguration of Obama, the flaming became intense. They opened up registration far too many times and the real ‘crazy’ began. Prior to Obama, you could actually have a conversation and different points of view were given and honoured. Once the crazy happened, many of the good commenters left (hence the reason, IMO, they opened registration more often). Besides the vapid name calling, and cries of RINO, the thing that pissed me off most, was the abuse thrown at Allapundit. You could pretty much count on much of the comments in his threads (especially the ones about his “crush” Meagan McCain) on being all out flaming. Once the commenters realized what they could get away with, it flowed over to all the other threads. This then made reading the comment section pretty much unbearable. Even worse, the front pagers began to pander to the crazies in their posts. That was the death knoll for me.

    I too come to OTB for the insightful comments. Many times I am forced to comprehend a point of view that is different from my own, and there are times that I have actually changed my view on a subject due to a well thought out and presented argument. To me, this is the real purpose of a commenting section – to learn from others something I may not know, or a point of view that I may not have considered previously. OTB is one of the very few sites that provides this on an almost consistent basis, and what keeps me coming back day after day. Bravo to the front pagers and commenters alike.

    {now, if we could just keep the Doug slamming to a dull roar, it would be almost Nirvana ;-}

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  29. mattb says:

    As other’s have pointed out, I think OTB proves an exception to these rules.

    I think a key to cultivating comments as content is for the authors to actively participate in the commenting threads and use the commenting threads as a source for future posts. A great example of this can also be seen at The Atlantic, in particular Ta-Nehisi Coates and some of the tech writers. Likewise the writers at Volokh often contribute to threads.

    While this requires more work on the part of the writers, it creates an environment that tends to encourage quality debate and discourage sniping.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  30. Brett says:

    I’d be okay with some types of required registration for commenting here at OTB. Setting up a DISQUS account is really not that difficult, and Kevin Drum over at MoJo has said that it heavily reduced the number of bad comments.

    If you guys went to Facebook Commenting, though, I’d probably stop clicking through from my RSS feed. That type of set-up has killed most comment sections at blogs I follow, and the interface itself is terrible.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  31. Rick Almeida says:

    @Kit:

    Number me amongst those who probably would not stop by very often without the comment section.

    Ditto. OTB, Volokh, and (occasionally) Marginal Revolution are the only places where I read comments, and this is the only place I comment more than sporadically.

    If OTB eliminated comments, I would miss OTB very much. This place is a gem.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  32. mattb says:

    BTW: to the more conservative lurkers who are coming here to get a different point of view…

    PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE join the conversation. Most of use who lean towards the left would really like to have a broader *discussion* and hear grounded viewpoints other than our own (that’s why most of us are here as well).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  33. Nikki says:

    In the end, we’ve settled for banning the most egregious offenders of our comments policy and deleting obvious spam and trolling.

    Ya know, I’m actually flattered because my comments haven’t been deleted and I haven’t been banned. I’ve passed the troll portion of the test.

    You like me! You really like me!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  34. al-Ameda says:

    Why would the authors of OTB (or any other blog) bother to write their essays and observations if there was ability for the readers to provide comment or feedback? Part of the appeal of finding a good blog and visiting it often is the ability to make a comment.

    The Helpful or Unhelpful ratings? It does no harm. I use it to indicate that I generally agree (or disagree) with a comment. Keep it.

    As for “hiding” a comment the is net negative 25? It definitely entices you to check it out. You not have it be hidden, rather have it be shaded scarlet in color.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  35. al-Ameda says:

    @al-Ameda:
    I apologize for the typoes … “if there was NO ability … ”
    and “You MIGHT not have it hidden”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  36. george says:

    I’m another who partly visits OTB for the comments – group discussion can often be more interesting than one person’s dissertation.

    Of course, that’s because there’s a fairly high signal to noise ratio in the comments here. There are places where the comment section is rarely worth looking at.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. Ebenezer Arvigenius says:

    Which is all a way a saying: Y’all done good. Keep it up. And: Thanks.

    Seconded. While I still do not feel that the rating thing is a good idea (it contributes to the piling-on effect that scares away people in whose opinions I’m interested) I must say that the comment section and the fact that the authors use it themselves is a large part of the appeal of this page.

    Not to mention that 3/4 of my daily re-visits are for new comments. Articles can be easily and quickly scanned once a day (like I use, for example, Sullivan’s page). Comments are not if you want to get involved at some point. So they might even be monetarily beneficial ;-).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  38. G.A. says:

    As always, I shall sum it up:)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ht672-wYelc

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  39. danimal says:

    The comments are a major draw for this blog, though I find it ironic that most comments here are vaguely leftish while most of the postings are vaguely rightish. An interesting mix.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  40. G.A. says:

    The comments are a major draw for this blog, though I find it ironic that most comments here are vaguely leftish while most of the postings are vaguely rightish. An interesting mix.

    lol….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  41. An Interested Party says:

    PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE join the conversation. Most of use who lean towards the left would really like to have a broader *discussion* and hear grounded viewpoints other than our own (that’s why most of us are here as well).

    That looks similar to the plea for the GOP to engage in some sanity…alas…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  42. Hoyticus says:

    The vibrant commentariat is what makes me come to OTB so frequently…that and the fact that it feels like there’s always at least one excellent post a day. On comments however I almost never thumbs down anyone, the only time is when our resident Romanov makes a comment and then attaches a weak appeal from authority (the whole I’m a former energy insider/intl finance thing) that no one can verify to power his argument.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  43. LC says:

    Nobody, I think, is going to read 3,000 comments on a HuffPost post, so those who comment probably just want to vent. But does a daily blogger or site like OTB get nothing, no psychic benefit if nothing else, from responses to posts which obviously involve a lot of thought and/or research?

    Would a better alternative be Sullivan’s practice of selectively posting parts of email responses?

    Perhaps it comes down to your objective in blogging? Are you writing simply to publish your ideas, or do you want to engage in a conversation?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0