They may be filled with trolls, but comments still have value — and they could have even more

Every now and then, the war that traditional media entities seem to be continuously fighting over reader comments — where they should be placed, how they should be managed and even whether they should exist at all — erupts into the open. This time around, the spark was an announcement earlier this week that the Chicago Sun-Times has eliminated the ability for readers to comment, while it tries to think of a way to handle them that won’t result in “an embarrassing mishmash of fringe ranting and ill-informed, shrill bomb-throwing.”
The Sun-Times is just the latest to make this decision — some, confronted with the same choice, have ultimately decided not to have comments at all, or to allow Facebook to manage them. Popular Science was the most recent publication to do away with them entirely, a decision the magazine said was influenced by research that showed comments can negatively influence how readers perceive research. The Huffington Post, meanwhile, recently ruled out anonymity.
The consensus among many of those who vote against comments — including a number of bloggers like TechCrunch writer-turned-VC MG Siegler — is that they add virtually no value, and that anyone who wants to comment can turn to Twitter or Facebook, or publish a critical take on their own blog. In other words, comments are unnecessary. But I think this is fundamentally wrong.

Social media doesn’t fill the gap

I’ve argued here a number of times that comments have value, even if they are filled with trolls and flame-wars, and also that anonymity and pseudonymity also have value — even if outlets like the Huffington Post choose to attribute all of their problems to those features. There is a long tradition of pseudonymous commentary in the United States in particular, especially when it comes to politics, and even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to have loosened his views on whether “real identities” are required for some social activity.
As I tried to point out in a Twitter discussion about this topic with journalism professor Jay Rosen (who says he is agnostic when it comes to the subject of whether sites should have comments, but does have them on his own site), as well as Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab and a number of others — a conversation I have embedded below — I don’t think it’s enough to say that we can afford to do away with reader comments because Twitter and Facebook exist. In many ways, that’s just an abdication of responsibility.
It’s true that much of the commentary on blog posts and news stories occurs on Twitter and Facebook, and probably Instagram and Snapchat for all I know. And there’s no question that social tools have eaten into the market for old-fashioned blog comments — even at Gigaom, we’ve noticed a decline over the past few years, in all likelihood because people have moved to other platforms and comments are no longer the only method for providing feedback.
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That said, however, I think there are a number of risks involved in handing over the ability to comment to Twitter, Facebook and other platforms. As I argued in a separate debate with Scott Smith — who wrote a blog post arguing that we shouldn’t mourn the decline of comments — one of the dangers is that if your engagement with your readers occurs solely through these platforms, then they effectively control that relationship in some crucial ways. Smith argued that Facebook was “just the microphone,” but it is more than that: It’s the microphone, the hall, the electricity and even the town.

Doing a service for readers

Another risk is that journalists — who might be held to account for mistakes, or provided with additional useful information about a story or a point of view, which is one of the major benefits of two-way or multi-directional journalism — will cherry-pick the responses they wish to see on Twitter or Facebook, and miss others. It’s easy to say that you will follow up with everyone on every social platform, but it’s another thing to do so.
Not only that, but handing everything over to social networks also diminishes one of the other major benefits of having comments, which is that everyone can see at a glance which journalists are interacting and which aren’t — and what their responses are. Sure, you could find out all of that by searching Twitter and Facebook and every other platform, but it would take a long time. Why not provide readers with that ability in a single place, right next to the content itself?
Rosen and others argue that many bloggers and journalists respond via email, which is undoubtedly true. But there again, there is little to no transparency to those conversations (although some who use this method, including Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish, are good at publishing both the emails and their responses).

But for me, one of the biggest criticisms of doing away with comments is that too many sites are throwing the baby — and a potentially valuable baby — out with the bathwater, without trying to come up with a solution or spend any time fixing them. Anil Dash has argued that if a site has a comment section that is filled with trolls and bad behavior, the responsibility for that lies with the website owner, because he or she has failed to spend the time necessary to improve the environment there.
I should point out that I say all this as someone who is male and white, and therefore has likely never experienced the kind of flaming and outright abuse that women and people of color are often exposed to in comments. Writers like Quinn Norton and others have pointed this out, and they are right to do so. Moderation or even engagement in those kinds of threads can be a toxic experience, and I can understand why some might choose not to put up with it.

Why not try to improve them instead?

As I’ve pointed out before, there are a number of interesting experiments going on with comments, including the “annotations” that Quartz has — which appear next to the paragraph they refer to, and were inspired by the way that Medium handles comments, which can also be attached to an individual section. Comment-software maker Livefyre just announced a new version that adds much the same ability to websites, instead of lumping comments at the bottom of a page. Even the New York Times has experimented with something similar.
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There are a number of sites that have shown the potential value of comments — and not just individual blogs, like that of Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson, but sites like Techdirt. Founder Mike Masnick has turned his often-turbulent comment section into the foundation of a true community, and one that not only provides feedback but is a crucial part of his membership-based business model. It wasn’t even that hard, he says. Gawker’s Nick Denton has bet the farm on Kinja, the discussion platform that turns every commenter into a blogger — and is even prepared to take commenters and turn them into paid staff.
For me at least, too much of the complaining about comment sections and the decision to do away with them seems to be driven not by the bad behavior in them, but by a lack of interest on the part of some journalists and media outlets ing engaging with readers at all — and the hope that if there are no comments, maybe there won’t be any way to see the mistakes or call them to account.

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Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Flickr users Tony Margiocchi, as well as Jeremy King