Off With Their Comments

The Toronto Star newspaper has decided to nix comments on its Web site. The reason:

We have passionate, opinionated readers who are eager to get involved in conversations about politics, education, municipal issues, sports and more. You’re talking about the news on thestar.com, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, LinkedIn and more — and we want to be able to capture all of these conversations.

With that goal, we have turned off commenting on thestar.com effective Wednesday and instead we’ll be promoting and showcasing the comments our readers share across social media and in their letters and emails to our editors.

This is a polite and deflect-y way of saying “Our comments are a raging cesspool filled with the worst that humanity has to offer and you all make us look bad by smearing your feculent mindpoops on our property, so do it somewhere else and we’ll pick the ones we like to highlight.”

And you know what? Good for the Star. At this late stage in the evolution of the Internet, it’s become widely apparent that, barring committed moderation, comment threads trend quickly toward awful and vile, and that their ostensible reasons for existing (“free exchange of ideas,” “building community,” “keeping eyeballs on the site” etc) are not just negated but very often undermined by their content. Very few online sites, news, social or otherwise, benefit commercially or reputationally from their comment threads. There’s a very real and obvious reason why “NEVER READ THE COMMENTS” is a phrase that has gained such currency in the online world.

So why not just ax them? This is apparently the question that the Toronto Star folks asked themselves, and equally apparently could not find a sufficient reason to keep them. Again: Good for them. The site will become marginally more readable, and the newspaper won’t have to task some poor sad staffer to moderate the flood of bigots and/or numbskulls and/or spammers who traditionally populate the comment threads of major news sites (and minor ones, and indeed, any site where they are given a chance to thrive). There’s no downside.

But what about the bigots and/or numbskulls and/or spammers? What of them? Where will they go? Won’t their special snowflake voices be silenced? Well, yes, on the Toronto Star site. But there is the whole rest of the Internet, and creating one’s own outpost to fill with one’s own thoughts — and one’s own thoughts on the news media — is trivially easy. Look! I’m filling my own site with my own thoughts right now! Now, the drawback to the bigots/numbskulls/spammers is that their thoughts won’t get the benefit of being a free rider on the traffic the sites they’ve attached themselves to; they will have to attract readers on their own in the marketplace of ideas.

But that’s not fair! Oh, well. That’s life. Also, it is in fact entirely fair. As I noted to someone elsewhere on this topic, no one is owed an audience. The audience I have, as an example, comes from a quarter century of writing, including seventeen years(!) on this very site. You want my audience? The answer is clear: get cracking, folks.

I mentioned on Twitter last night that the world would largely be a better place if all commenting ability were to be vaporized on the Internet, and someone asked me if I would include my own site in that. I said yes, for the general good of humanity, I would be willing to sacrifice my own site’s commenting ability (and also, that for the first five years of the site, it did not allow comments, and yet it did just fine). It would be hard, but I’m pretty sure most of the people who I like would keep in touch. Email would still exist.

This does not mean, I should note, that I plan to get rid of comments here. I do actually moderate my comments, and because I do — and because there is in fact a community of people here who care for the quality of the site, often as much as I do — this site is in my mind one of the exceptions to the general rule that comment threads suck. It also helps that this is a very idiosyncratic sort of site; if it was all politics (or all tech or all anything) all the time I suspect it would attract more people committed to trolling and being douchecanoes on particular subjects, and also garner more fly-by commenters. But the site is about whatever is going on in my brain, and my brain skips around a bit. Variety of topics is useful.

But I’ll also note that especially over the last few years my patience with comments runs thinner and how I approach them is different. There was a period of time not long ago where I began to dread writing about contentious topics here because I knew it would require me to babysit comment threads, and it would take a whole lot of my time and brain cycles — both of which I could better spend on writing — to plink out obnoxious comments and otherwise act as referee. It genuinely began to affect my overall happiness. I had to change the way I thought about commenting here because of it.

Now I do things like turn off comment threads when I go to sleep, which means I don’t wake up dreading coming to my own site to see what some shitty human has posted on it. If I write on a contentious topic but don’t feel like referring comments, I just plain leave the comments off (which, incidentally, has no measurable effect on how widely a piece is read, as far as I can see). And I’m quicker to mallet comments and punt people out of threads if I decide they’re out of line.

Basically, I changed seeing comments as something “of course” and more as “at my pleasure.” If I’m not going to be happy they’re there, then they won’t be.

Which is a point of view I think more people — and more sites — are beginning to take on: What does allowing comments get me? Does it make me happy or not? Will my site be better for them, or not? In the Toronto Star’s case, the answer apparently was that the site wasn’t better for them, so out they went.

Once more: Good call. I hope more people and sites ask themselves the same questions, and ditch the comments if they don’t measure up.

99 thoughts on “Off With Their Comments

  1. For a VERY good example of bad comments, might I direct your attention to http://al.com The comments on that site will make you want to nuke the entire deep south of this country. But, if you do, please give me 2-3 days warning so I can get my Wife and Son out of the state. We are in the tiny enlightened island of Birmingham in the sea of ignorance and xenophobia that is the deep south.

  2. Yes, yes, and yes. At this point, comments sections are like backyard swimming pools: if you don’t fence them in and keep them clean, you’re creating an attractive nuisance that will allow vermin to thrive. I have a talk I present about how to deal with online harassment and support folks who are dealing with it, and “moderate your comments or turn them the hell off” is like, slide two.

  3. I comment on some sites, and find comments on some sites to be helpful. But comments on other sites (NPR, SFGATE, etc), actually drive me away from the sites. They devolve into “Libtard-Republithug” binary bs, personal attacks, and people making a random commenter on the internet who isn’t holding the status quo into the embodiment of all evil in the world. so yeah, doing away with them wouldn’t end the world.

  4. The thing about political comments are they take up a lot of bandwidth, often are inaccurate, and change the mind of almost no one. Having said that, I would like to wish everyone “Happy Holidays”.

  5. You know what really isn’t fair? That some entry-level peon in Toronto is going to have to wade (figuratively) through the sludge to find publishable comments. Whoever it is deserves a raise.

    A lot of the comments on the New York Daily News (I don’t read the Post, ever) are both illiterate and , well, crazy is the word that comes to mind. As a general rule I don’t read comments other than on the blogs I follow.

  6. I like to read comments, even dissenting ones. There is however a difference between a dissenting post and being a trolling Asshat. If comments aren’t going to be properly moderated on a site then I would agree that having none at all is recommended. Just check in on the comment pages of local newspapers, the comments on some of those articles are just… ick. It hurts to see some well meaning soul post a comment only to have the monkeys start flinging poo at them.

  7. I think more high-profile sites would do well to emulate the Star.

    Also, ‘Brain Skips’ is the name of my next band….

  8. Although the tone and quality of content has suffered the last couple of years, I still read the WaPo daily. I occasionally comment there too, and one feature they offer that you don’t often see in a comment section is the “ignore” button through which you can turn off the comments of an unpleasant troll. It does make for some rather disjointed comment threads however, when there’s a string of replies to a commenter you’re ignoring. But I tend to breeze on by those as my policy has always been DNFTFT! It appears the Star has found a permanent solution to the troll problem, if not at the expense of more thoughtful and cogent commenters.

  9. FWIW, my US$0.02 is “me, too”.

    The payoff on researching issues and writing blog posts/responses used to be far greater in the days when “libtard/rethuglican/libertoonian” were not considered witty rejoinders.

  10. Yeah the comment section *could* have been a way to interact and engage with an author and audience in real time in a positive, insightful way. Instead it has become a petri dish for racism, spam and conspiracy theories.

  11. I’ve been driven away from several sites due to the terrible nature of the comments. Heck, I was driven away from Blogcritics (as a writer) because of this. And some of the worst behavior came from the editorial staff!!

  12. I dunno, if you block the machinations by the secret funders of the comment-bot industry in their campaign to hyper-inflate the illusion that there are more than a few ordinary people who fall for their stories, won’t they just buy the newspapers, radio and TV stations, and politi …. oh, wait ….

  13. I harbor a secret and unlikely hope that a significant number of comments are bought and paid for. At least, the ridiculously partisan ones on news or gaming sites.

  14. Pedro: I know you warned me but I did visit the site and yeah, you are correct. Wow! The people commenting there have nothing of substance to say. Its basically, word-spew. Now I need some brain bleach.

  15. Thanks, John! Once again you are a voice of sanity and proponent of civilized behavior. I know that I can find intelligent conversation here on your site, and look forward to reading comments from this community…. but that’s a sadly rare situation. Bravo to the Toronto Star, and any other organization that does what it considers best to improve the quality of its own particular piece of Internet real estate.

  16. I think that the only time I’ve seen appreciable benefit to comments is on outright discussion sites (like online forums, which tend to be moderated) or in entertainment. For the latter you still have to sift through a lot of unpleasantness, but you also get by-the-minute feedback on what your audience thinks about your content, which the industry has spent a lot of time and money trying to get their hands on.

    But overall I think the “at my pleasure” approach is probably the best one. Your corner of the internet is yours, and if you don’t want to deal with it there’s no reason to have to.

  17. When I worked for county government, whenever there was an article about us I would watch the comments in our local daily spiral down into the natterings of four or five anti-gov whackos and one conspiracy theorist who always thought it had to do with chemtrails or something. I just forwarded the Star article to my old agency — maybe they’ll suggest it to our newspaper.

  18. So what are the true upsides of commenting? The analogy above of backyard swimming pools is fairly apt but in the case of swimming pools I can easily identify the pros: exercise, cooling off on hot summer days, fun for the children, etc. But what are the tangible benefits of commenting? What value do they really add? It seems to me that the cost is very high for negligible upside. Through smart leveraging our host is one of the few in the Internet Universe ( InterVerse? ) who has taken comments and made them (somewhat) profitable as drivers for a couple of his books. Even here on Whatever where Policy and Moderation are truly in play, do the costs outweigh the benefits?

  19. This is one reason that I have always liked fark.com. They actively use a couple of things to deal with comments.
    1) ignore user – once you find a troll or a nut, you can just ignore them. Poof they are gone. You can always turn them back on, but rarely does that add to the discourse.
    2) ignore replies to users that you have ignored – this feature is amazing. No need to read the replies to trolls. Other people take the troll bait, but there is no need for me to waste my time on it.
    3) active moderation

    Fark and Whatever are pretty much the only two sites where it is worth reading the comments.

  20. If I worked for the Star I’d have expressed the reason a little differently. Something like:

    “We have passionate, opinionated readers who are eager to get involved in conversations… but the wretched slime that inevitably taints the walls of any open forum makes it impossible for them to do so. Henceforth please direct all comments to the Globe and Mail.”

  21. There tends to be a traffic threshold beyond which the number of trolls and vermin showing up in comment threads starts shooting upwards. There’s a couple of blogs I follow where there’s about 10-15 regular commentators in the comment section, and that seems to work – it generates a lot of lively, good discussion on a politics blog.

  22. Holly Walsh, A UK comedian, told the following joke:

    “I saw an article on the Daily Mail website, about how the average woman in the UK now has 1.9 children. I wondered where all those 0.9 people were. And then I read the comments…”

  23. Digital property is still property. When I visit a site and find its social network brimming with all sorts of ‘vulgarism’, it leaves me wondering about the caliber of the site and its admin. I just don’t tolerate as much as I used to. No time for it.

  24. The whole thing gets back to the fact that the internet is not actually the same thing as the town square – it’s more like a collection of courtyards. No person or organization needs to allow the trolls to stand in their courtyard and shout, occupying their space and using their bandwidth. So the Star deciding that they’d really rather not have the random crowds standing in their courtyard passing comment is perfectly rational. As is your deciding when and where you want to invite conversation on this site.

  25. I’ve been a longtime commenter on npr.org, which used to have very reasonable discussions. These days, it’s looking more like the comments over on Yahoo. Very sad.

  26. Comments sections needn’t be unsalvageable. Here’s a blueprint for a more temperate comment section from someone who used to help run MetaFilter, a site that’s nothing but comments. Done right, comments can build a community of like-minded people around any publication.

    It’s certainly understandable that a single person running a blog, especially someone controversial in certain quarters running a popular and sometimes contentious blog, would need to approach moderation differently than a paper. But a paper’s supposed to be able to afford a good-sized staff, and that can surely include a few people whose only job is to moderate comments.

    Otherwise, it seems to be giving up one of the big advantages of the Internet revolution. It used to be that members of the community who wanted to make their opinions known about a newspaper’s coverage and hope it saw fit to select their piece out of all the hundreds of others it got. The Internet means it’s possible at last to accommodate everyone, and quickly, too.

  27. I’m all for this. More news sites should nix comments. If people want to spew hate, they can go do it on their Facebook page, website, or on a poster board outside of their house.

  28. @Peter Cibulskis:

    “Ignore replies” is far, far too rare of a feature. Just about every forum seems to have the ability to ignore a specific user, but until now I didn’t know of any that would ignore replies to an ignored user.

  29. Three more thoughts re the Star’s specific policy. In addition to letting themselves scan for the comments they like…

    1. They’re are forcing commenters to be a little more committed and take a moment to think about what they’re saying. Commenters will have to switch from one tab/app to another. It’s not a lot, but it does give a person that moment to ask, do I really want to say this out loud.

    2. They’re preventing people from carrying on private conversations under the guise of responding to the article. You’re either (e.g.) tweeting about the article, or about someone else’s tweet about the article, and it’s clear which.

    3. They’re making it harder to comment anonymously. You can set up an egg account on Twitter just to crap on one article, but it takes a little effort. On Facebook it’s supposed to be impossible. So whatever you say about the Star’s article will become part of your general online persona. You can’t just shoot your mouth off and run.

    None of those differences is absolute. But they will have the effect of making obnoxious behavior less probable.

  30. ‘Basically, I changed seeing comments as something “of course” and more as “at my pleasure.” If I’m not going to be happy they’re there, then they won’t be.’

    The ‘comments at my pleasure’ sentiment should spread far and wide for anyone who blogs – especially when the blog is just a labor of love. Most of the bloggers I met got into it because “__________ is so cool and I want to write about it!!!!” It’s fun, and anything that takes away from that fun is just not worth the energy.

  31. I use a scriptblocker that has to be selectively disabled for the comment threads on most sites even to become visible. This makes it much easier for me to avoid ever seeing comment theads unless I go to considerable effort, which I usually don’t — this site and Doctor Nerdlove being two of the rare exceptions. (DNL has a great commenting community.)

    I once had the opportunity, at a reading, to ask Leonard Pitts if he actually ever looked at the comment threads on his columns. (IIRC, my question included the word ‘septic’.) He said that he often looked to see how many comments down it took to reach the first really appalling one, shook his head sadly and said “Three at the most.”

  32. I made the mistake once (once was enough) to use a term that is otherwise used in, um, porn. (I do politics, mostly and am about to link to Chauncey DeVega.)

    1. Cue Monty Python.
    2. It is possible to suspect that large numbers of people don’t believe in evolution because they never evolved.
    3. I have ceased to think well of the human race.

  33. No one has mentioned poor Butters yet. “So much darkness.”

    There’s a fine line between “this is garbage” and “this is something I don’t personally like,” but it has to be drawn and Scalzi does a pretty good job of it. Why he bothers to put in the time on this is another question, but if he likes doing this, then go Scalzi!! (As I am a completely different person I would draw the line differently, but then again, I would probably give up on active moderation pretty quickly too and just restrict or eliminate comments.)

    If I don’t like where the host has set the boundaries, I have a pretty good remedy: stop reading the site or at least stop reading the comments. If there were only a limited number of sites and/or if they were all controlled by the government or other shadowy organizations, this might be a problem. But that’s not the case; so let the moderation flow through the market place of inter tubes. We can all find our individual hellholes and folks will usually lend a hand to make you welcome in your hellholes.

  34. Interesting and indicative of the norms of behavior that you have established here: in a thread about comments, in a community of smartasses, very little in the way of smartassery. I fully expected the first comment to be “FIRST!!11!!1!” as an exercise in sarcasm.

    It is very rare for anyone to change their mind on a heated issue. Rarer still to do it because of something read on the internet, and yet one more degree of scarcity to change your mind not because of the article but because of a comment written by someone who FEELS VERY STRONGLY and says things like “sheeple” and “your an idiot”. Impassioned internet testimonials, are, literally, a complete waste of time.

    Discourse, dialogue and debate, on the other hand, can be entertaining, and a big “thanks John” for encouraging an environment where it can exist.

  35. On the flip side, I have met some wonderful people on my blog through blog comments. Be it my comments on their blogs or their comments on my blog, it has really helped me to engage with my readers and find new writers and bloggers. I do have a spam filter though and I do moderate my comments but have never had a problem (outside of spam).

  36. Moderation is so important in comments (and fora etc.)

    Without comments, I don’t think we would bother blogging anymore. But because it’s a hobby we feel perfectly free to take a page from Scalzi’s site and mallet judiciously. Being able to do that makes a huge difference. But if we were a large-time blog I could see that expanding to take up too much time.

  37. @Chris Meadows, I appreciate your thoughts on the other side of the issue. It’s good to be reminded of why we all got excited about commenting in the first place!

  38. Oh, an “ignore replies to ignored user” is a great feature. Might mention that to the guys at WaPo. The Capital Weather Gang has a lively and usually informative comment section which even has IRL meetups. Every once in a while a climate story gets posted to the front page and the regular commenters go elsewhere for a while…

    I was a member of what we called “The Horde” over at The Atlantic until it got overrun by the trolls. What kept it alive so long (at The Atlantic, we still exist elsewhere) was heavy moderation by TNC and by approved members of the Horde. Now the comments section there is a cesspool, and many of the Horde are not renewing their subscriptions to The Atlantic because we don’t want to support that comment section.

  39. There’s another little wrinkle to this: this week, the Ontario Court of Appeal made a ruling that the owner of a website can be held liable for libel if it does not act to remove libellous statements made in comments on its website in a timely manner.

    Link: http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/court-dismisses-appeal-of-judgement-in-richard-warman-libel-case

    Now, obviously I’m not saying that The Star removed its comment section because of this ruling, but I think it’s at least reasonably possible that someone over there said “Yeesh. This is not worth the time and money required to moderate, and it’s certainly not worth the potential libel liability. Nix it.”

    And, more broadly, I think it’s an interesting point in the discussion of internet comments generally – in Ontario, at least, there is now a serious legal incentive to clean up your comments. Refusing to moderate, most especially after being informed that libellous statements exist in your comments section, may result in legal liability.

    Maybe that incentive helps clean up the internet more generally.

  40. In order to maintain my hope for humanity, I cling to the belief (hope, fantasy) that all vile comments come from the same 100 or so people who do nothing else but spew hatred on the internet, frantically creating new online IDs and accounts just so they can seem far more numerous than they are. This explains the monotonous evil and banal character of all comment threads. Except for Whatever and a very few rigorously moderated others, for which we thank you, O Great Scalzi. Well, not for the others. You know what I mean. Having painted myself into a grammatical corner, I will quit now.

  41. I think the Star policy should be adopted by all news providers with an online presence. I have never glanced at a comment thread on any news site that did not degenerate within 3-6 comments. There are some very angry illiterates out there.

    As to personal blogs, I don’t read very many. :-) I stopped reading several blogs because of the comments. As someone mentioned above, it says something about the owner of a blog if the comments are allowed to become a cesspool.

  42. I think Chris Ogilvie has hit upon what’s actually going on here. Trolls or not, a site that derives revenue via traffic volume (i.e., one with advertising) gets a big bump from comments – both the folks who write them and the folks who argue with those other folks. In addition to page views, it also increases “time spent per page,” which is another metric that drives ad rates.

    But pit a (mostly) known revenue stream against a (mostly) unknown liability due to new legislation? The risk factor on the liability likely makes the comments a net loser, and so out they go.

    I’m not at all surprised that comments/no comments doesn’t impact viewership on individual posts here at Whatever, because John has already cultivated a community here. There are lots of opportunities to tell John what you think, so if a given post is closed to comments, little is lost. If they went away entirely, I think the sense of “The Whatever community” would ultimately fade. And even THAT wouldn’t be such a big deal, as the only thing impacted in such a scenario would be John’s ego (no ad revenue to drop off, no tangible loss due to a lack of community, etc.)

  43. There are upsides and downsides to the policy.

    Jerry Pournelle uses a model like the Star is adopting. He doesn’t have a comments section. If you wish to comment, you send him email, and if he thinks it relevant he posts it in the mail section. Aside from the elimination of frothy invective, the upside is that you don’t end up reading a dozen variants of the same good comment. The downside is that readers have to trust the editor that legitimate opposing views are considered for inclusion. Jerry does sometimes post opposing views, but I’m always a bit suspicious that they aren’t really as well represented as perhaps they ought to be.

  44. Brian thanks for pointing out that Commenting can help with the basis for clicks and time per page / visit. I got out of internet advertising in ’06 so I’m not fully appreciative of all the metrics these days.

  45. I’d seriously miss comments, if they were suddenly gone from all sites everywhere. Sure, there’s a lot of places where I won’t touch the comments — most general-interest news sites, and any political sites that don’t lean hard in my preferred direction, generally.

    But in more specialized sites, if there’s something questionable or just plain unclear in an article, someone in the comments will have corrected it or clarified it. In fact, if a specialized site doesn’t allow comments, I usually won’t bother reading it.

  46. It used to be America had a free press if you could afford a printing press. Now, the printing press is free for everyone, and I am beginning to doubt the wisdom of this model.

  47. I am partially responsible for getting the comments section on one of the local news sites closed down. Over the course of a month I flagged all the racist comments on their site as “racist”, which meant basically all of the comments from right-wingers got deleted. Then the right-wingers accused the station of bias, so they shut down the comments completely. There’s just no pleasing some people

  48. In one of those impossible coincidences which happens all the time on the interwebs, this is the second post on commenting I have read today.

    The other one is simply a comment value hierarchy by Diamond Geezer which manages to be true, sad and amusing.

    And in the cess pit of news sites and the more fragrant busy discussions at sites such as this, it is easy to miss the reality for many bloggers of the final entry in the hierarchy:

    7d) Not getting any comments

  49. Chris Meadows: “But a paper’s supposed to be able to afford a good-sized staff…”

    I’m not sure why you would think that of any paper, these days. The newspaper industry in the US has shrunk by at least 40% in the past 15 years, the capstone of decades of decline. In the 70s, there were 43,000 full-time journalists in 1978, there are only 33,000 now. Newspapers circulation numbers have been buffed by including online subscribers (like the WSJ does) or counting page hits in their circulation numbers.

    Look at the LA Times or Boston Globe, for example, losing 50% of their audience in the last 20 years. Or the Daily News, New York Times, Washington Post or…well, most papers. When I moved to Philly about 28 years ago, there were three daily newspapers with two editions (morning and evening). Now there are two, both owned by the same company with a combined website and ever-dwindling subscribers and many journalists working for both at the same time.

    Newspapers are evolving, but they are generally dying as an industry. So it’s not surprising they’d want to do this, it makes a lot of economic sense. Commment-policing is thankless, a waste of labor and generates very little in terms of client revenue or goodwill.
    http://www.theawl.com/2009/10/a-graphic-history-of-newspaper-circulation-over-the-last-two-decades

  50. I remember talking to an author who was setting up a personal website and they thought it would be a good idea to have a forum where readers could discuss books and things. All I could say was, “that way madness lies.”

  51. As a very wide reader of online newspapers I have learned to moderate myself as a reader. Never go below the line, for instance, when things like (international) politics or feminist* topics are discussed. Those truly bring out the ugly & crazy of speech & thought.
    I do enjoy the comments sections on book and cookery pages (though even there the lunatic fringe leaves some of its smelly graffito) but yes, though it’s sad that the foaming mouth brigade has spoilt these communal places for the rest of us, the world would indeed be a better place without comment sections on the Internet.

    *It doesn’t need to be feminism, of course. Any female journalist/commentator/expert writing about any subject matter will automatically attract the kind of contributors that make eels spilling out of a horse head look good.

  52. I will say that although I usually recoil from seeing any comment threads (it’s like the opposite of rubbernecking), I not only read the comments on your blog posts, but sometimes even look forward to perusing them. I didn’t think about how rare that was until now. Thank you for maintaining a sane space on the internets.

  53. Anil Dash wrote an article more than four years ago: “If your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault”, which essentially made the point that you either have to moderate comments, or switch them off. If you want to build community and moderate comments – as John does here, for example – then you can get a really good site with really good comments. But if that’s not a significant amount of the point of your web presence – then don’t do it! Bad comments are worse than no comment section at all.

    It’s nice to see that it only takes four years for newspaper websites to get there.

  54. I usually read through some of the comments on sites that have them, and although the tone has turned nasty and the intelligence level has plummeted, one occasionally finds a gem. For a good example read the first comment after article entitled “Spacetime is not pixelated – Holometer rules out first theory of space-time correlations” on the Richard Dawkins Foundation website: https://richarddawkins.net/2015/12/spacetime-is-not-pixelated-holometer-rules-out-first-theory-of-space-time-correlations/

  55. I remember when Popular Science closed its comment section – oh, wait, I remember when Usenet newsgroups were the big bastion of freedom of expression on the Internet (and Deja News was its archive), and only something grossly illegal would ever get any outside attention. But Usenet appears to have largely been replaced by Reddit.

    If you don’t want to see certain types of graffiti, don’t go to certain areas of town. If you don’t want to see ugly things on the Internet, don’t scroll down, or maybe don’t get online to begin with.

    It’s amazing how polar opposite a “comments section” is to what I hear of the current politically correct state of college classrooms with their “trigger warnings” and such. I wish I had some brilliant observation about this, but I don’t. Well, maybe this helps to explain why such comment sections are going away.

  56. The news business was a full-time job even before social media. And newspapers and TV stations are cutting back on people, not adding, so any moments spent moderating social media comments is time not spent adding new content. When I still worked in TV News, the station I worked for made commenters go through Facebook. The idea was that, supposedly you’re yourself on Facebook and not an alias, and, hey — that comment isn’t on our site, so it’s not our problem.

    There are too many news stories posted in a day to keep track of comments. Also people have been known to go to stories days or even weeks old to comment, so the task becomes unwieldy at best. Actually, let’s just go ahead and say it’s impossible.

    By the time I retired from the news business, I was forcing myself to believe there was a large mass of people who were sane and informed and who appreciated a well-sourced news story and didn’t wonder why we didn’t report rumor as fact or the latest conspiracy theory. Those sane and informed people were the ones I was working for, but they sure aren’t the ones who show up in the comments or on the phone.

  57. I’ve recently started a thing on my political facebook threads where I make some ground rules. I have the ONE COMMENT threads where I allow each person to make one comment and one comment only. I too get one comment in response to each person. (Because it’s my thread/my wall.) The benefits of this: Not being stuck in the thread and getting forever notifications with the person who CAN NOT STOP TALKING even though their point has been made aeons since. And it forces folks to actually read the comments first instead of responding to the headline or what they think the discussion is about. And folks are less likely to make flippant and sometimes hurtful comments (to the people for whom the political issue is not just theoretical–all my sexism threads EVER) when they know they only have one comment to burn. The other rule I made is No Tagging People. So you can’t use MY WALL or my threads to call out individuals because you think they are wrongity wrong wrong.

    I’m giving people a month or two to get used to things, and then I’m gonna start expecting that they will know to check a thread for rules instead of poppping off.

  58. “smearing your feculent mindpoops on our property”
    Hah, I love the image. I’ve got one stuck to my shoe.. shake, shake.

    Scalzi, I enjoy the comments here, so please keep them if you can.
    Re: Usenet. I still use usenet via google groups. Not an email thing, but still OK. (It does seem to be filled mostly with other gray hairs.)

  59. I don’t like unmoderated comment sections, anymore. For precisely the reasons Our Gracious Host discusses, and Big Media on the Web have discovered: They are the unresolved, unmediated, raging Id of the Intertoobz.

    On the other hand, I’m deeply appreciative of those sites and site hosts who commit to moderating and maintaining communities with lively, interesting, diverse discussions, via comment sections or discussion fora.

    Some of us are better at human interaction with two screens and a few billion feet of fiber optic cable and/or some transmission towers in-between. It doesn’t make us *bad* people (I hope!) it just makes us better at connecting with people via text than in person.

    Well-managed online communities allow that.

    I think we’re going to see Big Media on the Web increasingly giving up on the whole ‘trying to manage’ task, but that will create a vacuum for a number of things. My hope is that those of us who enjoy connecting online will keep on keeping on, finding each other in the places where passion, commitment, and maturity intersect to enable communities.

    The attempts by Big Media to “monetize” this phenomenon tend to falter, fail, and/or mutate into something else that can be accomplished where the passion and commitment are based only on profit rather than on genuine interest.

    There are already a few Living Hells that the trolls can retreat to and torment each other therein, so I don’t know that there’s much profit to be made off creating more communities for them.

    Evolution happens.

  60. I like a well-moderated Comments thread (even one that sometimes Mallets me when I’m too contentious!) – here and the AV Club are my personal favorites.

    But, yeah – “free speech” presupposes everybody in the room is an adult and behaves that way. Like I said when I ran Tamora Pierce’s Sheroes Central Discussion Web, this is our online home that we’re welcoming in you into. If you crap on our rug or pee on the walls, you’ll be invited to leave.

  61. Part of the problem that reputable newspapers have is that they enthusiastically hailed the dawn of the citizen reporter and the marketplace of ideas, only to find themselves on the wrong end of everyone who doesn’t give a toss about anyone’s ideas other than their own.

    In the UK, for an example, the Guardian’s comments are, indeed, a cesspit; they have a pitifully small number of people to moderate many thousands of comments, and about the most you can hope for is that they will pull the posts asserting that paedophilia is a wonderful thing and that all women should be raped to keep them in line, provided someone has emailed them to complain about the comment.

    This is not the Utopia the Guardian thought would arise once they had flung open the gates…

  62. Chris Meadows said:

    “It used to be that members of the community who wanted to make their opinions known about a newspaper’s coverage and hope it saw fit to select their piece out of all the hundreds of others it got. The Internet means it’s possible at last to accommodate everyone, and quickly, too.”

    I appreciate your advocacy for comments, but this last sentence – eek!

    It’s a fool’s errand to try to accommodate everyone. For some people, there wouldn’t be enough time. Ever. Even if you left comments on until the heat death of the universe and they had free reign to spout continuously.

    Ideas are not created equally. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise. The reality is that few people have good ideas and can express them clearly and concisely in a comments section. For the small percentage of people who can, speed should be a minor concern. Taking time to craft a nuanced response is what we should value. It should take work for an idea to percolate into visibility.

  63. I’ve never really understood the whole “if you don’t publish every single comment by every single person who ever sends anything to your site ever it’s CENSORSHIP WAAAAAAAAHHHH!” attitude. I’ve always tended to see a comment thread as the equivalent of the “letters to the editor” page in the newspaper – and we KNOW those are selected and edited (if we didn’t know this before, we certainly learned it once online commenting became a Thing).

    I know the ABC news site here in Australia only allows comment threads in certain places (occasional articles will have commenting enabled – usually the ones which are guaranteed to generate long and contentious comment threads; otherwise, head on over to The Drum, which appears to be the designated commenting manure heap) but their comments are usually monitored, and to a degree, publication is delayed by moderation. It doesn’t stop the snarking and sniping, but it slows it down a lot, and it means the only people who engage in it on a regular basis tend to be recognised and recognisable partisan trolls.

    For myself, I tend to write my comments in a Notepad window while reading an article (or the attached comment thread) and I’ll post it if I think it’s got something worthwhile in there… or if, by the time I’ve reached the end of a comment thread, the thread is still open. (I have a number of comments to OGH’s site which were never posted because by the time I’d made my way to the end of the thread, refreshed, and read the new comments that came in, OGH had gone to bed and shut down the comments. They’re still available on my data drive. I may get carried away and turn them into actual posts on my own blog at some future point).

  64. I like the courtyards vs. town square analogy Lily used above. I visit a lot of internet courtyards these days, but I find myself avoiding ones full of screaming people. Our host maintains quite a pleasant atmosphere in his courtyard.

  65. Comments only work if someone is willing to do the heavy lifting of constant moderation, and the hate that it generates. I fear sometimes that you enjoy dealing with the idiots who think you are trying to destroy their world (which may be the only thing they are right about,) and spend too much time on them, and not enough time writing for the rest of us.

    I enjoy your blog, it led me to your books. (Yeah! Sales! Don’t ever think that the blog doesn’t generate profits: it just doesn’t generate them directly.) One of the reasons I enjoy your blog is that you have comments, and control them. Keep up the good work.

  66. If they are really clever, they will tell people who want to get their comments flagged as possible candidates for attention to be featured on the paper, to include the hashtage #torontostar or somesuch. Then, they both eliminate their festering cesspool, and get a whole network of folks promoting their paper all over every sort of social media.

    It would be brilliant, but I don’t know if they’ll do it.

  67. It had to be said…

    It was late at night on the Internet
    Clicking like a man on the run:
    A lifetime spent preparing for the journey;
    He is closer now, and the search is on
    Reading from a map in his mind,
    Yes, there’s the ancient blog, and that’s the login and password;

    And when the server came down
    He heard the wild trolls howl;
    There were voices in the night: “Don’t do it!”
    Voices out of sight: “Don’t do it!”
    Too many men have failed before! Whatever you do:

    Don’t read the comments, man!
    Don’t even sneak a glimpse.
    Don’t read the comments, man!
    Unless you want to lose your sanity!

  68. Scalzi you’re never going to give up on comments because you are too much of a narcissist, you wouldn’t survive without a bunch idiots who are “floored by your awesomeness.” Anyone who has half a brain can see through the pretense of your supposed not caring.

  69. There are a couple sites–this, Slacktivist, The Toast–where comments are interesting and helpful, if also entirely prone to eating my free or even not-so-free time. (And the moderation policies tend to vary: this blog is heavily moderated and on-topic, The Toast is heavily moderated but fine with off-topic digressions, and Slacktivist only moderates in the case of extreme trolls/spammers.) When done right, they’re a way to continue the discussion and to connect with other people.

    A community, in other words. But, like all communities, they’re best when the members can choose who to let in and who not to: my life will never be improved by hanging out with MRA sorts, for example, either on or offline.

  70. My theory is, blog comments are like the Brownian motion of the Internet.They provide the substrate of stochastic, essentially non-deterministic energy that, once some threshold is reached, will allow the Internet as an entity to make the phase transition from deterministic technology to full sentience.

  71. *Hug* For what it’s worth, I appreciate the site (and the comments!) very much, so thank you for all the effort and care you put into it.

  72. Mike: “The downside is that readers have to trust the editor that legitimate opposing views are considered for inclusion. Jerry does sometimes post opposing views, but I’m always a bit suspicious that they aren’t really as well represented as perhaps they ought to be.”

    There’s no reason why an individual blogger should worry about opposing views being “really as well represented as perhaps they ought to be.” None. (And how well represented should they be? Even perhaps?) As Our Divine Host points out, if you want your views to be represented on the Internet, you can start your own venue. No other blogger is obligated to give you representation. Your remark got my attention because I’ve often seen this belief expressed, and it boggles my mind. (Along with the complaint I’ve often seen that op-ed pieces in newspapers aren’t “objective” enough. Of course they’re not, they’re opinion pieces.) If a blogger chooses to encourage the expression of divers opinions in his or her courtyard, that is hospitality, not obligation.

    This is also true of publications. In the old days when even smaller cities had more than one newspaper, each paper had its biases and political affilation, often openly and explicitly declared. Ideally — meaning not as often as it should have been — journalistic integrity ruled the reporting of news, but the Opinion / Editorial page was the domain of the editor’s opinions and biases. Were different opinions and biases given space in the letters column because of a commitment to their representation, or to give readers something sensational to read on the train? I suspect the former was less often involved than you’d think from High School Civics class.

    bradleyben: “It’s amazing how polar opposite a ‘comments section’ is to what I hear of the current politically correct state of college classrooms with their “trigger warnings” and such.” Perhaps you should be more skeptical about what you hear, but even if what you hear is true, imagine a classroom where the discussion was like the comments sections of most newspapers, Youtube, etc. I don’t avoid them because I’m a special snowflake, but because they’re useless for learning anything. There’s nothing “politically correct” about not wanting to wade naked in an open sewer.

    Classrooms have never been open spaces like an unmoderated comments section; discussion there has always been moderated by the instructors. And nobody’s as special a snowflake as the legions of reactionaries who are furious that white heterosexual males are no longer given the special status they think they deserve, and react by verbal and often physical violence. (This is not really new. In Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, she recounts that male students rioted when it was proposed that female students should be admitted to the elite English universities. And I don’t need, do I, to remind you how American whites reacted against to the politically-incorrect presence of free blacks in what they believed was “their” country, which triggered terrible anxieties that could only be assuaged by rioting and lynching?) Again, imagine a classroom where the student discussion consisted of yelling death, dismemberment, and rape threats at each other, which is the state of too much of the Internet today. Again, there’s nothing “politically correct” about not wanting to be subjected to that.

  73. Posting to agree with Duncan on both counts. I’ve seen the “but then blah blah echo chamber!” thing re: FB, for God’s sake, and…okay, here’s the thing. I’m an adult in the world. I’ve heard a good number of interations of But Jesus Hates Gay Sex/Abortion Stops a Beating Heart/Muslims Are Innately Scarier Than Christians Because Reasons/Guys Who Can’t Get Laid Are Totes Oppressed and “Friendzone” Is A Legit Term/But Evolution Doesn’t Account for The Human Eyeball/Poor People Should Just Get Better Jobs, Somehow/etc etc ad nauseum. I really, really, *really* doubt that a rando who a friend once knew in high school is going to deliver the fresh new argument that makes me change my mind on this, and there’s not enough alcohol in the world for me to play those odds.

    Also, yes. “Ohnoez, the PCness” is always a sign that I shouldn’t pay attention to anything else the person says–sort of the Internet equivalent of bright markings on poisonous animals–and I will quote from this essay (http://lithub.com/men-explain-lolita-to-me/), which I love: ” A group of black college students doesn’t like something and they ask for something different in a fairly civil way and they’re accused of needing coddling as though it’s needing nuclear arms. A group of white male gamers doesn’t like what a woman cultural critic says about misogyny in gaming and they spend a year or so persecuting her with an unending torrent of rape threats, death threats, bomb threats, doxxing, and eventually a threat of a massacre that cites Marc LePine, the Montreal misogynist who murdered 14 women in 1989, as a role model.” It’s not POC/women/LGBTA folks/college students who are oversensitive, y’all.

    Okay, maybe college students in general, but that has nothing to do with trigger warnings: it’s just that I remember college.

  74. Back in the late 2000’s, a few newspapers, mostly those own by Tribune Media, got rid of the moderating service Topix for their comment section. Topix was and remains, the absolute dreg of any chat room community. They didn’t even bother to enforce their T.O.S. on their own website, let alone doing it for the websites they ran.

    While some of the newspapers still get trollish comments, they only get maybe 2-3% of the nasty stuff of what they got previously, and even that is properly moderated (so it’s nasty without being offensive).

    Out here, we have seriously PC/anti-reality comments, mostly due to having Yale and Wesleyan University leading the way in stupid collegian behavior (Google “The Wesleyan Argus” for the monumental blowback when someone wrote an Op-Ed piece about the joke that is Black Lives Matter movement).

  75. Duncan/Isabella: my quibble would be that Mike seems to be saying that Pournelle is representing that he is giving opposing views a fair shake. However, if he is editing them or cherry picking the worst versions, then he is kind of crossing into creepy territory. Better to just leave them out entirely than to pretend to be sine ira sine studio, the arbiter of “fair” debate.

  76. Usenet newsreaders had elaborate killfile systems, so you could customize your feed to mute the stuff you hated.

    Usenet also NEEDED elaborate killfile systems. Even the moderated groups tended to be very lightly moderated by modern standards, in part because Usenet was not really designed to be moderated at all, and the system for moderated newsgroups that existed was a terrible kludge with no user interface to speak of and zero security. And the slime, spam and nonsensical ravings proliferated as a result, particularly once the system actually got sort of popular.

    I’ve come to believe that online discussion fora, unless they are extremely low-volume and obscure, don’t really work unless somebody owns them and is willing to prune. One of the reasons so much garbage gets endlessly replicated on Facebook is that the system is designed to share things in this very expansive, willy-nilly, unpredictable way, so that your feed ends up infested with the cesspit comment sections on meme posts you never really invited in, which nobody is maintaining. The most terrible thing is that it will share posts with your friends because you commented on them, which means that the most awful political screeds get lots of proliferation through hate-commenting. It’s actively encouraging the garbage.

  77. Chris de Burgh (not really) says: December 18, 2015 at 5:25 am

    [great filk snipped]

    Thanks for that. I’ve stolen it (with attribution).

  78. Great posting, I agree. On politically/culturally charged topics, I know I will seldom agree with OGH’s opinion, but I will read his posts. I won’t read the comments, even though OGH does a very good job of moderation. Life’s too short, I don’t go out looking for things to be offended by, so I avoid the places I’m likely to find things to be offended by.

    On the (Subjectively) noncontroversial topics, I really like reading both the post and the comments, I usually find many tips to things that are interesting, entertaining or informative.

  79. I have chosen lately, to skip reading comments on say, Facebook or on news items, because I saw a really cool picture of a well known political figure and started to read the comments, after I added my own, and I was thoroughly shocked by some of the comments from the females in our society. I felt a sense of sadness. When I comment on sites such as this, I comment before reading the other comments, so other people’s comments won’t affect what I intend to say. Did that make sense? Anywho, I agree with you and thanks for the post.

  80. For those of you who are thinking about setting up your own site, and want to attract people with the ability to post comments, but don’t want to waste the time required to clean up the associated mess, here’s a _very_ handy tool: https://github.com/tessalt/echo-chamber-js

    When you install echo-chamber.js on your site, then people can add comments, and the comments get stored in their web browser! So every time they visit your site, they see their own comments, but nobody else has to.

    It’s also 100% effective against spam-bots. :)

  81. I did enjoy many of the comments on this post. Only a few of them made me sad. On the other hand, that’s a half hour of my life I’ll never get back, and maybe I didn’t enjoy them *that* much. So, comments/no comments? Meh.

  82. I actually had a Chrome extension for a while that converted comment sections to pictures of kittens. Was a sanity saver when I was tempted to stare into that cesspool.

  83. if u have enuf commenters, then something like slashdot moderation works well
    the problem is, most sites seem to lack features available on slashdot about 10 years ago

    i learn a lot from comments, maybe you and i visit a non overlapping set of sites ?
    I have learned however, that if there are more then a few hundred comments, it is true that most of them will be bad

  84. I definitely see value in comment sections, but the best comment sections are the ones where not only does the admin moderate, the community self-moderates, and in a polite, gentle way that shows that the members of the community are in agreement with the mod as to what’s appropriate. Some of my favorites have already been mentioned (like the Toast), but Ask a Manager is another good one. The examples and perspectives that commenters give tend to be very helpful, since there’s so much variety in how things work at different jobs.

  85. I stand by what Neal Stephenson thinks of Social and Comments in his book, Seveneves.

    No spoilers here, but the idea is always the same: we reached a point where comments have become 90% crap, especially in news sites.
    Let people who deserve to speak the space they deserve (ie: knowledgeable, involved or accountable)

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