from the this-muzzle-represents-my-love-for-you dept
We’ve noted time after time how the trend du jour in online media is to kill your news comment section, muzzle your valuable on-site community, then couch the decision under all manner of disingenuous prattle. Reuters and Recode, for example, killed visitor news comments several years ago because, they claimed, the companies really value conversation. The Verge also tinkered with killing comments, purportedly because it just really valued relationships. As we all know, nothing quite “builds relationships” and gets the conversation going like a muzzle, a wave, and a swift digital kick in the ass.
Other websites couch their decision to mute their users under the pretense that it’s just an “experiment,” and the website will return with something more interactive and wonderful down the line. More often than not, this never happens. Case in point is NPR, which announced last summer that it too would be banning all public community feedback out of a deep rooted love for building community and audience engagement:
“After much experimentation and discussion, we’ve concluded that the comment sections on NPR.org stories are not providing a useful experience for the vast majority of our users. In order to prioritize and strengthen other ways of building community and engagement with our audience, we will discontinue story-page comments on NPR.org on August 23.”
Ironically, public comments on NPR’s post at the time were hugely negative, with numerous loyal readers saying the act of pushing them over to Facebook was, in effect, a giant middle finger to the readership. But because interesting discourse and community can’t always be directly monetized by bean counters, this blowback was largely ignored. While NPR hinted that it might bring back comments eventually after some experimentation, a new blog post points out that won’t be happening. Why? NPR traffic went up anyway despite the decision:
“At the time commenting was ended, there was speculation that the number of users coming to NPR.org would drop. In fact, the number of users for the May-to-July period grew 18 percent in 2017 compared with the year-earlier period, according to Google Analytics numbers Goo provided. (Year-over-year monthly growth has been as high as 37 percent.)”
Except the spike in NPR traffic many have had nothing to do with comments one way or the other, and could be easily attributable to the fact that the current U.S. political environment has obtained historical levels of batshit. It’s also myopic to weigh the benefits of news comments by just traffic. Comments, when managed to minimize idiocy, provide an easy, public way to hold writers and publishers accountable for misleading claims or story errors in a highly visible location. Though few publishers can admit it, eliminating this public forum and returning to era of non-transparent letters to the editor is a major incentive for this shift.
At the end of the day, this fashionable assault on ye olde comment section has little to do with valuing community and conversation, and everything to do with illusory control and trying to save money. NPR admitted as much to the latter last year when asked about the decision on Twitter:
honestly, it was a tough call. We just have to prioritize our resources and the scale of user interactions had shifted.
— Scott Montgomery (@scottmdc) August 17, 2016
Except this narrative that giving a damn about your online community has to be time consuming and expensive is also not really supported by the facts. Studies have shown it’s not really that hard to cultivate a healthier on-site comment section by simply having site employees and writers show up and treat the readership like human beings. Again, though, because the act of actually caring about quality discourse can’t be directly monitored and displayed on a pie chart, it’s being ignored. And that’s a mistake in an era where news as a community conversation is more important than ever.
Will the world end with the loss of online news comments? No. But they do provide users with an easy and transparent way to debate, discuss and treat news as exactly what it is in the modern era: a conversation. Removing this public forum is a disservice to the news industry at large, and pretending it’s being done out of some noble regard for higher human interaction only adds insult to injury.