Like “under construction” GIFs, comments sections once represented the very promise of the, ahem, “Web.” This whole Internet-thing wasn’t just to be a platform made for us, it was a platform made from us, taking its shape from our desires and drawing its power from our voices (also: fossil fuels). It was, finally, the place where the people would be heard.
I think we all know how that worked out.
Over time (or was it pretty much immediately?), the lowlands of comments sections across the Internet developed and/or devolved into a fertile habitat for trolls, bots, spammers, misanthropes, and, some incredibly nice people with valuable perspectives to offer. (Hi, folks!)
Every publication I’ve ever worked for has suffered and had repeated long conversations at longer tables concerning what exactly was to be done about comments: When to allow them? Where to put them? How to control them? The only question routinely left behind was why to have them at all.
There’s plenty of evidence out there suggesting just a slight sliver of overlap in the Venn diagram charting readers and commenters. A self-study performed on 12,000 pieces published by Slate found that they “almost never engage more than 1 percent of their readers as commenters,” and that only 12 percent of a sampled 12,000 pieces attracted participation from over 100 commenters.
The rise of sharing by means of social media suggests we still have plenty to say about what we read, we just take greater care in where we do the saying. Dropping a paragraph in a comments section has become the Internet equivalent of delivering an impassioned speech on the bus. We’ve taken our topical chat to the virtual salons of our Facebook pages, where a modicum of control remains, and civility still struggles.
And why wouldn’t we? Comments sections tend toward the toxic. Relative anonymity and the safety of distance encourage the disposal of conversational norms; reasoned arguments quickly atrophy into zingers and ad hominem attacks; and each paragraph posted feels like a fresh shovel of turf, digging the commenter deeper into his own position.
If reading comments can damage your mood-chi-faith in humanity, comments can also have a negative impact on the stories that move us to comment in the first place. One recent study attempted to understand a phenomenon termed the “nasty effect.” In a follow-up for The New York Times, researchers Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele noted that “uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.”
Countering the “nasty effect” might be one motivation behind a wave of publications eliminating comment sections altogether. (See also: accommodating advertisers who don’t want to risk close proximity to unhinged racist rants.) Upvoted, a news (i.e., “Redditorial”) site launched last week by Reddit made its own news by abandoning the idea of comments on stories, instead redirecting readers back to Reddit — itself an overgrown comment section of sorts.
Popular Science ditched comments back in 2013, citing in its announcement both the aforementioned study and the threat posed by a simple, and simply avoidable, sequence: “[C]ommenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded — you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the ‘off’ switch.”
From there, news sources like Reuters, The Week, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Verge, Bloomberg, Mic, and, most recently, Vice’s Motherboard have all done away with comments. And it doesn’t sit easy with everyone (the digital editor of The Guardian called such moves “a monumental mistake”).
Elsewhere, the form and function of comments are being experimented with to determine which parts can be salvaged from the wreckage.
On sites like Medium, Quartz, and Genius, readers’ contributions take the form of annotations, quietly positioned at specific points in text (a strategy to allow actual readers to respond to actual points). And on Friday, Digg — once primarily an aggregator a la Reddit — partnered with a number of publications to launch Dialogs, a daily series of moderated Q&As between creators and readers.
It’s not just news sources that are tackling the question of comments. On the music hosting hub SoundCloud, comments appear pinned to points in time, encouraging reaction by existing in context. And on live-streaming services like Meerkat and Periscope, comments drift past briefly before dissolving into nothingness, like crowd noise you can tune in or out.
Some may smart at the news that these once-open avenues of participation are now being blocked off, arguing that comment sections afforded an uncomfortable but crucial view of the clash and clamor between opposing viewpoints in the wild. These people probably never read comments.
Far from an oppressive clampdown on expression, the elimination of comments sections feels like a long-delayed liberation. The Internet can give any idea wings, but to confine them to comments is to make them bound for the bottom.
More from @large:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.