A little more than a year ago, Popular Science announced
they were shutting of news story comments, stating that comments were "bad for science." Earlier this month Reuters Digital Executive Editor Dan Colarusso also announced
that the company would also be eliminating comments from news stories. Comments, Colarusso proclaimed, were no longer necessary thanks to the rise of social media. Reuters still values conversation about the news, he insisted, but the old-fashioned idea of allowing users to directly comment on stories must give way to "new realities of behavior in the marketplace":
"Much of the well-informed and articulate discussion around news, as well as criticism or praise for stories, has moved to social media and online forums. Those communities offer vibrant conversation and, importantly, are self-policed by participants to keep on the fringes those who would abuse the privilege of commenting."
That's a lovely way of saying that Reuters didn't care enough about its readers to pay for moderators. This is the same Reuters that a few years ago threw the baby out with the bathwater when they banned anonymous commenters
, ignoring the fact that anonymity isn't synonymous with jackassery, and can often allow people to give valuable insight they might not be comfortable with otherwise.
On the heels of the Reuters announcement the folks over at Re/code this week announced a similar plan
, again insisting that social media is a good enough replacement for direct, on-site reader feedback:
"Our writers are all active on services like Twitter and Facebook, and our official Re/code accounts on social media post our stories all day long. Readers aren’t shy about offering their opinions to us on these and other social media services, and you are likelier to be able to interact with us there. In effect, we believe that social media is the new arena for commenting, replacing the old onsite approach that dates back many years."
Should you visit Re/code now, you're informed that your comments are considered so important
, you're encouraged to leave:
This sudden disdain for traditional comments raises the question: is Facebook somehow immune to stupid comments? Is forcing all news conversation on to Facebook's terms really an improvement in meaningful dialogue? The rush to declare the comment section dead seems to ignore the fact that on-site comments create value by building a sense of local community, something GigaOM's Mathew Ingram recently put rather succinctly
"The bottom line is that if the discussion and debate and interaction around a news story occurs somewhere else, then soon the readers who are interested in that engagement will start to think of the platform where it occurs as the important part of the relationship — not the site that actually created the content."
Offloading moderation costs to social media websites is of course their prerogative, but I find the pretense that this is about some kind of concern for an evolution in conversation to be disingenuous. It's like a local bar owner saying they value intelligent conversation so much
they'd really prefer it if patrons held their conversation at the massive stadium down the street. It's a way to keep your readers -- both the obnoxious ones and those offering interesting insight and corrections -- at arms length. The fact these announcements tend to be dripping
with disdain for site readership doesn't generate the impression that participatory feedback is actually welcome.
That's not to say comments aren't frequently a raging cacophony of nitwits, partisan blowhards and spambots when moderated poorly. However, there's a number of older tech communities like Slashdot that have been able to moderate communities and cultivate intelligent conversation for more than a decade on a fraction of the budget of Re/Code and Reuters. Sites like Reddit and Gawker have similarly tinkered with community self-regulation and systems that work to dull the boldest bullhorns in said nitwit cacophony. This sudden trend toward waving your face like a Southern belle at the overwhelming and brutish nature of Internet conversation seems dramatic. We're herding a few jackasses here, not splitting the atom.
Obviously news comments are an ongoing evolution, and it takes a little work to cultivate meaningful conversation. But offloading your Viagra spam and bile-soaked comment section to Facebook because you can't be bothered to hire moderators is a cop out and it's lazy. Pretending you're doing it because you value conversation adds insult to injury. What Popular Science, Reuters and Re/Code are really saying is that they don't care enough about their communities -- or those regulars who do
stop by to have intelligent conversation -- to pay somebody to weed the garden.