Because I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot recently, but it’s not resolved itself into a coherent narrative. So to hell with the narrative, let me just toss out some thoughts I’ve been having on the subject, in no particular order.
1. Comments and comment threads have been problematic roughly as long as the ability to comment online has existed; the phrase “Oh God don’t read the comments” didn’t just come out of nowhere. That said, from an anecdotal point of view things seem to be a bit worse these days; the trolls and assholes, who were previously free agents, appear to have organized themselves and picked targets.
Someone with more time on their hands than I have (or who has a need for a thesis project) can examine the root causes for this, but if I were going to guess, I would suspect that sites like Reddit (which not are not only link aggregators but allow development of very specialized communities) have made it easier for trolls and assholes to congregate and co-ordinate.
This isn’t meant to be a blind slap at Reddit and sites of its kind — the same format also makes it easy for people who aren’t assholes to congregate and co-ordinate, often to very good effect. There’s good with the bad. The fact of Reddit and other sites like it is value-neutral. But as a practical matter, I suspect the fact of Reddit-like sites makes it easier for aggregate troll action.
(We could have an entirely different discussion about how Reddit embodies the Walmart-ization of online communities — migrating communities which used to exist disconnectively online under a single roof — and what that’s meant for the dynamics of online discourse, but it’s a big topic and I don’t want to get distracted. Nevertheless, put a pin in that concept. It’s worth thinking about.)
2. Comments can be a way to build community and increase stickiness for a site, but I think that only works to a degree. If your comments are unmoderated and toxic (or moderated poorly and toxic because of it), people will avoid your site because it makes them feel unclean to drag their eyeballs over that sort of crap; people will avoid commenting there to avoid associating with creeps. It’s a variation of Gresham’s Law, as it applies to sites and commenting.
I also suspect at this point many sites need comments less than they did before, because there are so many other ways for people to air their opinions, Twitter, Facebook and Reddit being the best examples of this. If you want your comments seen by people you care about — and most people do — then you’re going to comment where you know your community already is. This migration of personal observation to social media doubly leaves the comment threads of many individual sites the realm of toxic commenters who either want to troll or want to attach their soapbox to a high-status site without regard to making actual conversation in the comments.
If a site has comments only as a means to an end — i.e., making the site “sticky” so that eyeballs pass over ads — then whose eyeballs they are may not matter to the site. Creeps are creeps, but their eyeballs count for CPM as well as anyone else’s. But inasmuch as I believe horrible comment sections have a high potential to drive out readers/viewers, I do wonder if in the long run these comment sections are penny wise and pound foolish.
3. With the above said, you know what I think would happen to the traffic of, say, the New York Times or CNN sites if comments were generally disabled? Not a damn thing. People don’t go to news sites for community, they go there to read the news. The people who do comment there, I suspect, don’t feel like they belong to a “CNN community,” they’re just the people that the British press call the “green ink brigade” — cranks who want a platform.
From a logistical point of view, to the extent that any news site is obliged to have moderators for the comment sections, it would probably be cheaper and easier to make this new era green pixel brigade submit their letters to the editor the way they did in the old days, and then have some poor bastard pick the ones worth airing on the site, rather than making several poor bastards crawl through the already-published comments of a bunch of cranks to make sure they’re not egregiously racist, sexist, homophobic or whatever. Basically, recreating a letters page for a new era, for news sites, wouldn’t make the news sites worse, and might even make them better.
4. Barring that, sites with commenters might considering doing what I see Boing Boing doing now, which I think is actually very smart, at least in terms of readability: putting the comments into their own special place (Boing Boing goes old school and calls theirs a BBS), a click away from the originating entries.
This is smart because, one, it means that if all you’re there for is the article, that’s all you have to see; two, conversely, it deprives the cranks and trolls their immediate goal of using Boing Boing’s high traffic for shock value. As a result, both Boing Boing’s main site and the comment threads have a much better chance of not being smeared with crap (and, Boing Boing has another place to put in advertising if they want, which it does not appear they do to date).
5. In a general sense, though, I think it’s well past time for sites (and personal blogs) to seriously think about whether they need to have comment threads at all. What is the benefit? What is the expense? Blogs have comments because other blogs have comments, and the blog software allows comments to happen, and I suspect everyone just defaults to having comments on.
Comments can be a good and useful thing, but if the end result of having them open is that the person running the blog is drained and enervated by them (and by having to deal with them), then that person maybe should not have comments on. If the end result of having comments on a blog is that the site is over run with trolls and assholes, some of whom are systematically attempting to silence the blog’s owner, then that site maybe should not have comments on. If having comments makes a desired audience avoid a site or blog because they don’t want to have to deal with trolls and assholes, that site maybe should not have comments on.
6. With regards to a personal blog, before anything else, it is a place for the blog’s proprietor(s) to speak their mind. It does not automatically follow, blogging software defaults aside, that anyone else should have that same privilege in that space. Everyone is free to speak their own mind online — in their own online space. When they are in your space, you have the right to say whether you want them to speak, or indeed to have anyone else speak.
Bear in mind there are a lot of people out there who like to claim censorship or whatever if they can’t comment exactly how they want on a personal or privately-owned site. But you can ignore them because they are either ignorant on how free speech works, or they are intentionally pretending not to know how it works in order to pressure you to allow them to bother you in your own space.
Either way, screw ‘em. You don’t have to give them a platform. Tobias Buckell stopped doing that. Ask him how it’s worked out for him.
7. Here on my own site I am giving some thought to how I manage comments, primarily for troll/asshole mitigation. I already actively monitor and moderate my site, of course, but there are only so many hours of the day and I have other things I need to do (like generate pay copy). So I’m thinking of ways to keep things manageable while still keeping comments and handling all my other responsibilities.
One thing I’ve begun doing is really rather simple: With contentious threads that will sprout trolls if left untended, I now turn off comments when I go to sleep. This means when I wake up in the morning I don’t have to deal with a bunch of troll spoor, or responses by non-troll commenters to said troll spoor. This has been a surprisingly useful tool, since in some cases it was clear to me some of these obnoxious commenters were timing their commenting so it would go up when I wasn’t around. The flip side is that it temporarily locks out non-trollish commenters, but I suspect some of them who really want to talk about the piece in the comment thread will check in later, i.e., they are reasonable people and reasonable people react reasonably.
Another thing I think I’m going to start doing more of is put a timer on threads with contentious subjects. For example, with my “Feminist” post of the other day, I decided to turn off the comments after two days. The reasons for this: One, most comments for any entry here tend to come in the first couple of days; two, after the few 400 comments or so threads here tend to repeat itself and/or devolve into a few people arguing past each other; three, because these days I find my tolerance for monitoring a contentious thread at the expense of other work I have running out at the two-day mark, and, brothers and sisters, that is a sign.
I don’t see that I will ever pull general commenting from Whatever. There is an actual community here, which I cherish, and I like the fact this is one of the places online where actual conversation happens in the comment threads. But again I am mindful of the cost, in time and opportunity, that it requires from me to keep commenting open and functioning. It’s something I keep checking back on.