from the irredeemable-trolls dept
For years now the narrative du jour in online news circles has been that the news comment section is an irredeemable menace. Outlet after outlet has informed us that they care so much about the integrity of public dialogue online that they’ve decided to ban website visitors from commenting on news articles entirely. Usually, these bans are accompanied by some sanctimonious claim that banning people from speaking on site was done because the outlet in question just really “valued conversation,” or because they’re just ultra-interested in building better relationships.
In reality, the motivation isn’t quite so noble. Most websites just don’t want to spend the time and money it takes to cultivate a healthy online community, in large part because bean counters can’t monetize or measure the impact of quality discourse. Other outlets don’t like having such a visible area where users can point out errors in news coverage. Most really would prefer we return back to the era of “letters to the editor” where the medium gets to dictate whose voices are deemed important, and whose are not. In that way it’s often part power play, and part laziness.
Time and time again, these outlets have claimed that banning comments is the only option because cultivating on-site community is too expensive and time consuming. Again though, there’s every indication that making the news comments section useful again doesn’t take all that much work. In Norway, for example, a five-person team tookt all of three hours to code a WordPress plugin with a comically-simple premise:
“It was a basic idea,” NRKbeta developer Ståle Grut told a South By Southwest crowd on Tuesday. “Readers had to prove they read a story before they were able to comment on it.”
The plugin doesn’t take much work to install, and website operators simply have to build a simple multiple-choice Q&A based on the article to make it work. The coders work for NRKbeta, the tech-testing group at Norway’s largest national media organization. And they were quick to point out that asking your on-site community for help (as opposed to, say, implying that their input is no longer relevant) often pays dividends:
“Use your audience,” Grut told the crowd. “Talk to them; play with them. They’ll like you better for it.”
A WordPress plugin could force users to correctly answer a few multiple-choice questions before the page’s comment field would appear. Once he got to the office, he and fellow staffers spent three hours building the plugin, which Grut reminded the crowd is wholly open source. “Naturally, this was paid for by Norwegian people, so you can thank them if you want to implement it,” Grut said when emphasizing that he was happy if more sites tried it out.”
And while the folks behind the plugin note that it’s not a magic panacea for all news comment hostility, the fact that they were able to modestly tame news comment hostility with a bare modicum of effort suggests the “irredeemable” and widely maligned news comment section isn’t quite the unfixable hellscape many lazy, cheap and threatened media outlets profess it to be.