Fixing Comments Sections with Financial Incentives

Jess Zimmerman offers "An ingenious way to save the comments section," if she does say so herself.

Jess Zimmerman offers “An ingenious way to save the comments section,” if she does say so herself.

Make comments cost money.

Hear me out before you decide I’m a capitalist swine. I’m not proposing just charging to comment, which would mean the richest people had the most voice. I also believe we should pay people when their comments reach a certain threshold of value.

How do you determine whether a comment has value? Probably editorial judgment—that’s how you determine whether an opinion piece should be published—but in the spirit of democracy and not overburdening the editors, we might fold in votes from users. The point is, the comment has to do something for someone else, not just act as a release valve for a particular person’s poison.

I’m obviously not talking about paying very much per comment; the state of Internet writing is such that most sites can barely pay staffers, let alone drive-by volunteers. Something on the order of a few cents per high-quality comment, enough that a diligent and thoughtful commenter could buy a couple extra lattes a year if she decided to cash out. (Most users, of course, would just put their profit towards more comments.)

The pay for a good comment should be slightly more than, but not double, the cost of commenting—meaning that a high-value comment will pay for itself, plus give you some profit, but not enough profit that you can post one “Obama is a tard” for every thoughtful point you make. Not for free, anyway.

Result: Good commenters have a chance to make a little pocket change, which seems appropriate if we believe that comments actually enhance news sites. (They don’t, but anyway.) Good commenters, in that case, are shoring up the site with valuable content—something short of an op-ed but more worthwhile than the usual dirty graffiti—so it makes sense to pay them a tiny bit.

Meanwhile, bad commenters are free to get down with their shitty selves—but they have to financially support journalism while they do it. You want to weigh in on every article with a female-sounding byline, telling the author to get back in the kitchen? Be our guest—the money you spend will help subsidize more feminist writing.

Of course, implementing this would require a lot of new infrastructure. So it’s unlikely to happen, or at least to happen any time soon.

It’s an amusing idea, if an impractical one. First, as Zimmerman herself notes, implementing this would be an administrative nightmare worse than comment moderation, which is itself so tedious and labor intensive as to have sparked the problem that this solution aims to fix.  Second, even if this could somehow be automated, few people are going to be willing to pay money up front for the privilege of providing thoughtful commentary in hopes that they’ll eventually break even or even come out ahead. Third, it’s quite likely that this would actually encourage trolls even further. After all, they’re paying for the privilege of being jerks, so they’re entitled.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Economics and Business, Media, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Moosebreath says:

    And fourth, the spammers would find a way to robo-upvote themselves, thus making spamming pay.

  2. John Peabody says:

    I know of at least one site where you have to pay to post (via an annual fee). The quality of the comments is definitely higher than any other site I’ve seen. Also, the group is a bit self-policing, and a strict code-of-compliance keeps threads from turning to Hitler after awhile.

  3. gawaine says:

    As Moosebreath says, if there are financial incentives, spammers will take advantage of them, so I wouldn’t actually let people pocket money and take it out of the system to buy some lattes. Instead, just let them carry the balance to cover their future posts.

    Assuming that the determination of a good post is based on votes, it doesn’t have to be 1 account/1.0 votes. If you have weighted voting – starting with a kernel of trusted moderators/commenters who have more weighty votes – then you can reduce the amount of fraud in the system. Spammers would need to create a large number of accounts and pay for them. If your trusted moderators downvote something as spam, you can have that carry down the whole pyramid of people who voted for it – causing them to start in the hole/have their votes count as fractional.

  4. PJ says:

    Nothing new here, the same has been argued for emails.
    It’s a stupid idea.


    Pay to say ™. Sponsored by the Koch Brothers/George Soros/etc….

  5. C. Clavin says:

    @John Peabody:
    I went to check out that site.
    I found this in a scintillating post…with comments as you would expect.

    For some years now, the President of the United States and his minions have been lying to us about the threat posed to our well-being and our security by global warming.

    So they’re paying to be ignorant dupes???

  6. There’s also an infrastructure problem. There is actually a number of situations where the ability to make large numbers of very small payments would be useful online, but there’s no mechanism for processing them right now.

  7. ernieyeball says:

    Hear me out before you decide I’m a capitalist swine.

    I don’t see that as a problem.

  8. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @C. Clavin: Beat me to it.

  9. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @C. Clavin: Also, an interesting name for the site, and the comment stream, considering that a ricochet is a projectile (i.e. bullet) that bounces of another object after missing it’s target.

    Hmmmm………. they may be on to something as a metaphor of both current conservative thought and Libertarianism. But they were probably thinking that the shooting metaphor sounded manly.

  10. Kylopod says:

    New Republic has long allowed only paid subscribers to comment. My impression from reading their comments section is that they’re not always high-minded–there’s some name-calling–but there aren’t really any random hit-and-run trolls, and the number of commenters is relatively small for a major periodical.