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.