Yet Another Website Kills Comments, Despite Study Showing You Can Have Civil Comments If You Give A Damn

from the gags-help-communication dept

There's a trend afoot among some website editors to kill the comment section, then proclaim that they've courageously decided to reduce conversation to help improve conversation. It's a random bit of logic we've noted doesn't make any sense if you're interested in actually fostering a local community, and care about not having all conversation outsourced to Facebook. The pretense that you're killing comments because you're nobly trying to further human communications (and not, say, because your website is cheap and lazy) is also disingenuous. That hasn't stopped ReCode, Reuters, Popular Science, or some newspapers from killing comments in order to push humans to the next evolutionary level (or whatever).

This week, yet another website joined the "comments are evil and have no use" parade. In a now familiar treatise, TheWeek.com announced that while editors "truly do value your opinions," you're no longer going to be allowed to express them on their website. According to TheWeek, this nuclear option was required because comments are just filled with horrible, nasty people:
"There was a time — not so long ago! — when the comments sections of news and opinion sites were not only the best place to host these conversations, they were the only place. That is no longer the case. Too often, the comments sections of news sites are hijacked by a small group of pseudonymous commenters who replace smart, thoughtful dialogue with vitriolic personal insults and rote exchanges of partisan acrimony. This small but outspoken group does a disservice to the many intelligent, open-minded people who seek a fair and respectful exchange of ideas in the comments sections of news sites."
Of course if news outlets spent a few minutes actually moderating the comments section and treating it like a valuable community resource (instead of oh, a drunk uncle with a bad goiter and nasty halitosis at your wedding), that probably wouldn't be as big of a problem.

In fact, it's worth noting that a recent paper published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication found that it's not very hard to increase civility in your comment section. In some cases all it took was the writer of the article entering the comment section and treating the people there relatively well, even if they're all busy acting like jackasses:
"One surprisingly easy thing they found that brought civil, relevant comments: the presence of a recognized reporter wading into the comments.

Seventy different political posts were randomly either left to their own wild devices, engaged by an unidentified staffer from the station, or engaged by a prominent political reporter. When the reporter showed up, “incivility decreased by 17 percent and people were 15 percent more likely to use evidence in their comments on the subject matter,” according to the study."
Note by "recognized" the paper just means somebody relatively recognized from the outlet or the reporter themselves. They also tried their very best to actually define "incivility" as a quantifiable metric:
"To develop a list of characteristics that signaled incivility, we drew from past research on the characteristics of uncivil discourse (Papacharissi, 2004; Sobieraj & Berry, 2011). To be coded as uncivil, the comment needed to include one or more of the following attributes: (1) Obscene language / vulgarity (e.g. “A@$#***les”), (2) Insulting language / name calling (e.g. “you idiots”), (3) Ideologically extreme language (e.g. “Liberal potheads”), (4) Stereotyping (e.g. “Deport them illegals”), or (5) An exaggerated argument (e.g. "It’s very easy to solve all of this just keep your legs closed if you don’t want a baby.”). Comments containing any one of these characteristics were coded as uncivil."
Having been a blogger (and a moderator of one of the Internet's larger tech forums) for more than fifteen years, I can anecdotally note that even the biggest jackasses generally do dial back the antisocial angst when you calmly and politely talk to them (whether I've always been able to do that every day without piling on antisocial angst of my own is another discussion). But between actual involvement and reasonable moderation, it's not hard to reclaim a comment section from the encroaching, troll-induced apocalyptic jungle. What websites that close comment sections are doing is telling everyone they don't give quite enough of a shit to work to improve them. Proceeding to proclaim this is just because you really love conversation informs that same community you also think they're kind of stupid.

Filed Under: comments, community, journalism


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 24 Dec 2014 @ 2:34am

    'Well, I got a splinter, time to chop the limb off'

    This small but outspoken group does a disservice to the many intelligent, open-minded people who seek a fair and respectful exchange of ideas in the comments sections of news sites.

    So the loud minority is doing a 'disservice' to the open-minded majority by muddying the comments, and in response they close the comments entirely... It's as though they saw the trolls and thought, 'Hey, I bet we can top that'.

    The minority may have been mucking things up for the majority, but by closing the comments entirely, the people running that site have completely overshadowed the trolls' best efforts, and essentially handed them a complete and total victory.

    Or, to put it bluntly, various sites are too lazy to actually put some effort into moderating their comments and dealing with the trolls, so they're giving up and allowing the trolls to win. And of course at that point they add insult to injury by claiming that they're doing that for the sake of those that were commenting, as though entirely losing a forum for discussion was supposed to be an improvement over having that forum, but having to deal with a few noisy and/or obnoxious individuals.

    If they're going to screw over their visitors like that, the least they could do is be honest about it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 4:45am

    There's a trend afoot among some website editors to kill the comment section, then proclaim that they've courageously decided to reduce conversation to help improve conversation.

    They are improving conversation by using the shut up and listen to me approach.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 5:03am

    Well, they wouldn't want their lies and propaganda debunked in their own comments now would they?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 5:10am

    So basically the Terrorists won.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    fail, 24 Dec 2014 @ 5:12am

    Unless it's Youtube or Yahoo comments

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), 24 Dec 2014 @ 5:18am

    on that note...

    I just realized I put this story up right at the time Karl headed out on vacation. This is a bit ironic, since part of the post is about the importance of the reporters wading into the comments... So, I assume this particular thread will go completely off the rails shortly. ;)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Groaker (profile), 24 Dec 2014 @ 6:10am

      Re: on that note...

      The best comments (excluding the trolls) are those that wander as they will. Serendipity is one of the most wondrous actors in both academia and blogs.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      harbingerofdoom (profile), 24 Dec 2014 @ 6:12am

      Re: on that note...

      i wanted to toss in a completely off the rails over the top response here.... but im too tired and its christmas eve.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 6:59am

      Re: on that note...

      Lemme help:

      Anybody got a good recipe for sherry syllabub?

      How about wassail?

      Oh, and while we are at it, what are Santa's favorite cookies, and does he prefer whole milk, 2%, non fat, chocolate, or non-pasteurized?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 1:16pm

      Re: on that note...

      THIS IS ALL RIGHT-WING LIBERAL BULLSHIT. YOUR DUMB AND YOU CANT EVEN READ. U STUPID REPUBLICAN BIG GOVERNMENT LEFTIST BUREAUCRATIC ANARCHISTS!!!!!1111!1

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    paul, 24 Dec 2014 @ 5:53am

    Comments are expensive

    "if news outlets spent a few minutes actually moderating the comments section "

    I can assure you, comment moderation comes at a significant cost in both time and people power.

    There are plenty of places to comment about stories. Facebook, google +, twitter, to name a few.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 6:03am

      Re: Comments are expensive

      There are plenty of places to comment about stories. Facebook, google +, twitter, to name a few.

      Which has two major problems, they require accounts, and the conversation is disconnected from the original article making it harder to find.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 7:50am

        Re: Re: Comments are expensive

        Not to mention that not everybody has any of these accounts, nor wants any of them.

        Disqus(?) is ok though.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 24 Dec 2014 @ 7:31am

      Re: Comments are expensive

      I can assure you, comment moderation comes at a significant cost in both time and people power.


      Eh. Not that much cost. Both Karl and I have spent years dealing with large online communities. Yet, it takes some time, but it's not as crazy as most people make it out to be.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        JEDIDIAH, 24 Dec 2014 @ 9:40am

        Re: Comments are expensive

        Some communities can even be self-moderating.

        This isn't a "labor" problem. It's a technology problem. Effective solutions have existed since before the Internet was ever a "consumer product".

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 1:55pm

      Re: Comments are expensive

      No, comment moderation can be extremely cheap in the grand scheme of things. I used to do comment moderation for Gawker a few years back and I was an independent contractor who got $200 a month for it (basically some extra beer money). It worked for me because I was already reading Gawker site articles and I could do the job while working my primary job since only required internet access and downtime. That's a paid model, but places like Slashdot have crowd-sourced models that seem to work well.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Groaker (profile), 24 Dec 2014 @ 6:08am

    The internet is today's public square. It speaks, and it is easy to guestimate it's truth by at hand research.

    The NY Times has finally admitted that the Bush cabal committed torture and murder. They have known this from their readers since the early 2000's. They have known that the CIA and NSA were wire taping the US public since at least 2002, but decided not to publish because it might affect the 2004 elections -- of course it would have.

    The present "public square" tries to keep the politicians clean, and there should be more of them rather than less. After all it is more than Sisyphean task to keep this brood of war mongers and thieves clean.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ed (profile), 24 Dec 2014 @ 6:21am

    There are a few places, such as here on Techdirt, where reasonable conversations about the topic exist. I like to think it is because the typical viewer of Techdirt is just a bit more enlightened, perhaps? But sites like Yahoo News, or most standard news sites, actually, bring in the lowest, most vile people who have no tact or even a shred of common decency. From my casual observations, these people tend to be "conservative" or lean "GOP". Why? I don't know. I could posit theories, but it would only be my unscientific opinion.

    I learned long ago to only venture down to the comment sections of news sites for entertainment purposes only. There is absolutely NOTHING of value there otherwise. Nothing. If Yahoo or other sites shut the comments down, there would be no loss to society.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Pragmatic, 24 Dec 2014 @ 7:34am

      Re:

      As someone who hates the vitriol I often see there, I sympathize with your viewpoint, Ed.

      However, stupidity is often very amusing as long as it's contained. Some people simply like to vent, and that's where they vent. In forums like the TD comments section, we're generally not here to vent but to talk about the issues. I often learn as much from the commenters as I do from the articles because they're so erudite and thoughtful.

      Yeah, we get trolls here sometimes but even they tend to be more civilized than the whackos you see elsewhere — and their more obnoxious or nonsensical comments tend to get reported and hidden by the community so we're not drowning in them.

      The news sites may have awful commenters but if they implemented a similar system to the one here on TD we'd probably see less of the nastiest comments.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        anonymous me, 24 Dec 2014 @ 8:13am

        "In forums like the TD comments section, we're generally not here to vent but to talk about the issues. I often learn as much from the commenters as I do from the articles because they're so erudite and thoughtful.

        "Yeah, we get trolls here sometimes but even they tend to be more civilized than the whackos you see elsewhere — and their more obnoxious or nonsensical comments tend to get reported and hidden by the community so we're not drowning in them."

        This.

        When I hear of websites killing the comments section I wish they would take lessons from Techdirt before going to that extreme. Techdirt is an excellent example of making it work.

        On the other hand, if shutting down the comments section has less to do with trolls and more to do with not being able to handle criticism of the articles posted,(which I think may play a large part in such decisions) the websites could just include the stipulation that heavy fines will be imposed for critical comments, right? There. Fixed it.
        /s (in case it wasn't obvious.)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 7:29am

    The is known as the Dark News Rule of Two

    Two there should be; no more, no less.
    One with editor power,
    the other to write it

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    a drunk uncle with a bad goiter and nasty halitosi, 24 Dec 2014 @ 7:44am

    I am the very type of commentator TheWeek is banging on about.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 7:45am

    It is a buttload of work if you are stupid and antagonize the commenters instead of dealing with them politely. Just randomly use the banhammer for someone using the word "stupid" and you will have created a lot of work for yourself.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 8:07am

    Techdirt is one of the few places that even with the trolling the comments tend to center on the actual story posted. Fun drinking game. Go to just about any news story and drink for every time someone blames Obama. Extra drinks for racial slurs used to blame him. If you want to rig the game and get drunk... start the drinking game by clicking on links from the drudge report.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 8:31am

    The site that has closed down it's comments has lost sight of it's original goal, which was to connect and engage with the public. When you do this successfully, you increase readership and bring a sort of loyalty to your site. People that care enough to post thoughtful comments also develop a ownership of sorts for the same.

    Without the comments showing an involved community you degenerate into just another site that doesn't care enough about it's readers to maintain a comment section. That in turn gets a response from the members that the site doesn't care enough about them to keep them. Members start leaving for other places as they no longer have a loyalty keep them there.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 9:07am

    Really what they should do is outsource their commenting engine to something like Twitter, then they still have comments (in theory have it default reply to a twit link post) and you get to reduce some of the anonymousness without reducing the potential feedback.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 10:06am

      Re:

      Really what they should do is outsource their commenting engine...


      Sorry but I highly disagree. Torrentfreak did this with Disqus. I refuse to be folded, spindled, and mutilated, just to make a comment. I went from commenting thoughtful comments compared to the bulk posts, to no comments at all. Simply I refused to join Disqus to do so. I want less data-mining and spying, not more.

      Nor was TorrentFreak the only one to do this. In each and every one of them the answer has always been the same. No anonymous commenting means no commenting at all. I don't develop an ownership feeling that comes with participation so no brand loyalty there.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        tracyanne (profile), 24 Dec 2014 @ 5:44pm

        Re: Re:

        I absolutely agree. I have stopped posting at every site that has moved to Disqus. In fact Disqus is blocked on my browser, making those site effectively have no comments section, as far as I'm concerned.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        tracyanne (profile), 24 Dec 2014 @ 5:46pm

        Re: Re:

        I meant to add, I try whenever I can find a valid contact link, to inform the site owner of my decision.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    JEDIDIAH, 24 Dec 2014 @ 9:33am

    Get off my lawn.

    Back in the old days, trolling seemed to have a much more stringent definition rather than just being a catch-all term for any idea that you find inconvenient. I have often been accused of trolling for nothing more than expressing a contrary opinion. I suspect sites that flee from comments because of "trolling" really just don't want their echo chamber disturbed.

    Contrarians interfere with the media narrative.

    The modern tendency to avoid insult had pretty much totally killed public political discourse before the Net. That's far worse than any of the alternatives.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 10:22am

    Another thing is calling people you dont agree with "trolls".

    Even on youtube, the "comments closed" or whatever is written is a clear sign of the author being dishonest or just too incompetent to even defend his work. Laziest attempt at manipulating the public. Disgusting.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    alan turing, 24 Dec 2014 @ 11:00am

    This is one of the few comment sections I read anymore. The one with little to no over site. Huh!!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Whoever, 24 Dec 2014 @ 11:03am

    Old media is dying because of broken model of journalism

    On almost every story on which I have some knowledge or do some research, the traditional media outlets get at least one major part of the story wrong. This may be because of editorial bias, but I think it is more likely due to a broken model of journalism. The current model has hordes of journalists, who have no special knowledge reporting on many varied stories. Ultimately, many unqualified people are reproducing the work of others. It's inefficient and produces a bad work product. The controls in place in traditional media outlets (fact checkers) have been shown to be ineffective by Stephen Glass and others.

    Instead, focused news blogs can provide accurate, timely reporting, using specialist knowledge to analyze the events. Unfortunately, the blogosphere is also full of shills, pushing a particular viewpoint and it may not be obvious to casual readers which blogs are really informative and which are shilling.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 29 Dec 2014 @ 8:14am

      Re: Old media is dying because of broken model of journalism

      "On almost every story on which I have some knowledge or do some research, the traditional media outlets get at least one major part of the story wrong."

      This. This is why I stopped paying much attention to newspapers well before the internet posed a "threat" to them. Over the years, I've been on the inside of four front-page news stories, none of which were politically or socially sensitive or controversial or even difficult to report on. All of them contained multiple factual errors that were severe enough to cause the story to be highly misleading or just outright wrong.

      I figured that a 100% failure rate on the stories that I happened to know the actual truth about is very unlikely to be coincidence. It's far more likely that all of the other stories are equally error-ridden as well.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Bill, 24 Dec 2014 @ 1:09pm

    The comments section on a news story is actually a great way to poll how people are thinking about the actual content of the story and how it was written. It is true that there are worthless people out there who have nothing better to do than spit vitriolic hate without even bothering to look at the facts. Just look at all the stories about Ferguson. Just look at any story about gun control. They come out of the woodwork like a disturbed hornet's nest. When you have a comments section and then take it away, that's called censorship.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 29 Dec 2014 @ 8:17am

      Re:

      "The comments section on a news story is actually a great way to poll how people are thinking about the actual content of the story and how it was written."

      You should be very, very careful about taking the comments section of any site at all as representative of what most people are thinking. They are not at all indicative of that for a number of reasons (starting with selection bias).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    toyotabedzrock (profile), 24 Dec 2014 @ 2:37pm

    Arstech is really good with engaging with comments and responding via Twitter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Pronounce (profile), 24 Dec 2014 @ 3:26pm

    Reality is More Than One View

    I like to make comments, because in doing so I hope to offer some pithy insight. But even if insight alludes me there's a good possibility that someone will offer up a perspective that I hadn't thought of or had forgotten. And in doing a more holistic view of the topic is served to the global community.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2014 @ 4:17pm

      Re: Reality is More Than One View

      There is also trying to start a discussion, participating in a discussion, and let us not forget vieing for funniest or most insightful, though that last option may be limited to this site.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DocGerbil100 (profile), 24 Dec 2014 @ 5:01pm

    Comments

    When I'm regularly visiting a site like Techdirt, I like a good comments-section as much as I like the site.

    If the topic matters to me, I don't want just the reporter's view, which is inherently bound to reflect his or her concerns. I want to hear what other people think and feel about the issue, especially if it's something contentious, where I'm less likely to agree with the reporter.

    Closing down comments - or limiting them too heavily, by whatever means - robs a site of a substantial part of its value to me as a reader. I want the truth of things, not one-sided propaganda, however well-intentioned.

    There are many sites where I would spend time (or spend more time), but because they don't have good comments, or bury them too deeply under layers of scripts, I just can't be bothered.

    If newamazingtechblog-dot-com really can't be bothered to ask my opinion, then I'm a lot less likely to want read theirs.

    At the opposite end, I can't really be bothered with sites that let the trolls run amok, either. TorrentFreak is the perfect example.

    It's a great site, it's where I started commenting online and is, in many ways, an ideal place for me to speak up - but the comments-section has always been over-run with endless, tedious trolls and after being ground down by too many years of reading their bullshit, I absolutely fucking hate it.

    Of late, they seem to have disposed of the more obvious trolls (or perhaps the trolls finally bored themselves to death, instead of just everyone else), but it's still beset with endless horseshit-ping-pong masquerading as debate.

    There are a few there who's comments I enjoy reading, such as SJD and Violated0, but for the most part I stay away, reading comments infrequently, commenting even more rarely.

    Fair's fair, after all: TorrentFreak has made it clear how much they value their readers' views, I can hardly do less in return.

    Techdirt, by contrast, is a case study in how to do it right. The comment-section is excellent, very civilised and apparently very well-moderated, unless the trolls just don't visit here so often. The only thing missing is an edit-capability, but I can live without it. Reading (and occasionally writing) comments here is enjoyable and rewarding, worth my time and effort.

    That's my tuppence-worth. I'm not sure what my point was, but I had fun getting there and I'll certainly come back for more.

    Kudos to Techdirt, for keeping it shiny.
    Merry Christmas, TD. :)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 24 Dec 2014 @ 6:46pm

    Meh I like comments sections, and that is just not because I like telling people to fuck off. :D
    I enjoy debating, learning more (people sometimes post new links to more stuff), and sometimes just making fun of things.

    I think more sites could benefit by giving the unwashed masses the tools we have here. When a majority dislike a comment, it just sorta folds down... but you can still look and see if it was actually relevant. (protip often they are not). The community engages trolls, and pisses them off to no end by dragging them back to the topic and watching them squirm (or just run away) when it doesn't devolve into a mire.

    I think much of the oh its to hard is also driven by fear that someone will sue. Why yes the site has protections under the law, but if we turn off comments we don't ever have to pay to have a lawyer file the answer & motion for dismissal.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Michael Price, 1 Jan 2016 @ 2:52pm

    Must. Resist. Urge. To. Simply. Post. "Fuck". "you".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Richard Bennett (profile), 13 Jul 2018 @ 1:39pm

    Most hilarious post ever!

    Techdirt's comment code is absurdly limited, denying commenters the ability to correct typos and delete comments. The "community" is dominated by surly anonymous commenters and most comments simply scream "daddy issues!"

    Of all the web sites in all the world, this is not the one to be preening about civility.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Jul 2018 @ 7:00am

      Most fail comment ever!

      Says the guy who doesn't even ALLOW comments on his site yet provides a giant button labelled "Join the Discussion" that, shocker, doesn't actually let you join the discussion. Maybe try criticizing someone else's code after you actually know what you're talking about, ok little Richard?

      most comments simply scream "daddy issues!"

      Psychiatrists and psychologists would likely disagree with you on that. Maybe try looking up the clinical definition of "daddy issues"? Unless you are claiming that you and the organizations/individuals discussed in the article are acting as a "father figure", in which case I laugh in your general direction.

      Of all the web sites in all the world, this is not the one to be preening about civility.

      Says the guy who can't be civil in one. Single. Comment.

      You thought I was gone, but NO! Here I am!

      Try again Richard.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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