Why you should have comments, even when they are bad

If you spend long enough reading blogs — or even newspapers, for that matter — you will eventually come across an essay about how a site is struggling with the question of whether to allow comments, or has decided to shut them down. The latest example of this genre comes from former Gawker Media and Wired staffer Joel Johnson, now managing editor of an arts and culture site called Animal New York, who says comments are worthless because they are filled with garbage and hardly anyone reads them anyway. As tempting as this conclusion may be, I still believe it is wrong for a number of reasons, as I have tried to point out in the past.
In his post, Johnson says he is revamping the Animal New York website and thinking hard about whether to have comments. He argues that comments used to be a worthwhile thing because they built a sense of community and created a “sort of virtual street team to share your stories with friends,” but Twitter and Facebook have made the sharing of content easier than ever. The other rationale for having comments, he says, is that they help drive engagement, which causes readers to return more frequently — and all of that is good for pageview metrics and other things of interest to advertisers:

People want to read good comments, goes the theory, which increases their involvement on the site, which leads to more traffic, which leads to more ad impressions, which leads to a one-billion dollar sale to Facebook.

But this math doesn’t work, Johnson argues — since most comments are trolling or spam, and therefore few people read them anyway. He says that friends who run mid-sized internet properties have told him only “a small fraction of one percent” of their visitors even read the comments, let alone contribute. As a result, Johnson says it’s impossible to defend comments as being valuable even in an overall business sense, because they don’t drive enough readership to make it worthwhile.

Reader comments are a crucial element of any online community

It seems like only a few months ago we were having a similar debate — probably because it was just a few months ago. A spate of bloggers, including former TechCrunch writer-turned-venture-capitalist MG Siegler, wrote about their decision to either close comments on their blogs or to never have comments in the first place, and justified these moves by pointing to the low quality of comments. Siegler said they were “99.9-percent bile,” and that he didn’t buy the argument that comments should be supported because they are a democratic expression of the right to free speech. As he put it:

I welcome feedback. Just do it on your own site or on Twitter, Facebook, etc. That small barrier alone removes most of the idiots. Let’s be totally honest here: anyone worthwhile leaving a comment should do so on their own blog. Very few read blog comments anyway. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Commenting is a facade.

As I tried to argue then, no one is going to claim that reader comments are always a rich and rewarding glimpse into the best of human nature. Having spent part of my previous newspaper career trying to moderate comments that ran to the tens of thousands every day — from readers who wanted to make points on stories about everything from the Middle East to homosexuality — I am intimately familiar with how bad comments can get. But I also believe that having them is important. And I think Johnson and others are missing the point when they dismiss them as worthless.
In fact, my argument is the exact same one that MG Siegler dismisses so quickly: I think comments are the equivalent of free speech, and that they serve a similar purpose — to keep those in power honest, and to enhance our online lives in much the same way that democracy does offline. Are many voters ignorant or uneducated or fickle in their choices? Of course they are. But that doesn’t mean we silence them, or implement an autocracy, it just means we have to try harder. And when comments are closed on a contentious post, it is rightly held up as a sign of how the blog in question wants to smother debate or silence dissent in some way (although of course it just moves to Twitter).

Closing comments sends a message: “Go away”

People like Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures illustrate every day just how good a comment section on a blog can be — and the reason it is so good is that Wilson himself appears regularly in those comments, and he responds to and engages with his readers (and even finances their startups). As Anil Dash of Expert Labs and Activate Media pointed out not long ago, if you have horrible comments on your blog — or your newspaper, for that matter — you have no one to blame but yourself. And there are ways to help encourage good behavior, which outlets like the New York Times are experimenting with.
Let’s face it: bloggers who say “everyone can just start their own blog, or go on Twitter or Facebook if they want to comment” are being disingenuous. Not everyone has a blog or chooses to comment on Twitter, where comments often get lost. What I suspect these writers really want is to get no feedback whatsoever — to simply hold forth, oracle-style, just like columnists and newspaper writers used to do in the bad old Web 1.0 days. Is that really an improvement? No, it is a step backwards (not surprisingly perhaps, comments are closed on Johnson’s post).
It’s not just that having comments often reveals things of value, such as a mistake that needs correcting, or an alternative viewpoint that is worth considering — although all of that is true. It’s that building the kind of community that Johnson is talking about is even more important now than it has ever been, when the profusion of content has become a maelstrom. And what better way to build it than by talking to your readers? By contrast, closing comments is a statement that says: “We don’t care what you think. Just read and click our ads and then go away.” And that is a recipe for disaster.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Tony Margiocchi and Jeremy King