Are comment sections on news websites on the way out?

Trying to tame “the world of horrible Internet awfulness.”  (David Tarp, CEO, Tumblr)

Online CommentsOne of the most empowering aspects of the Internet is its ability to foster online interaction and feedback, wherein “regular people” have a megaphone in addition to journalists and writers on publisher websites.

But there’s an ugly side to the public dialogue, unfortunately: There’s an awful lot of verbal “dirty laundry” that gets put on display.

It’s sort of like taking younger children to the state fair or a sporting event — and then trying to shield them from the loud profanity (and worse) that they overhear.

The fact is, you can’t get away from the coarseness on online comment sections – particularly if the news content pertains to political or socio-cultural topics.

It’s often a “drive to the bottom” where social norms and common decency fall by the wayside in the name of airing grievances or settling scores.

It extends to less potentially inflammatary zones beyond polarizing politics, too.  Researchers have found that people who read the same news story about a new technology, but who are exposed to different sets of coments — one set fair and the other nasty — have completely different responses to the news story itself.  In the research, commenter anonymity and the ability to strongly attack a news story without the need to back it up with facts, caused ill effects that were neither accurate or fair.

The researchers dubbed it “The Nasty Effect.”

For some time now, Internet news and information sites have tried to strike a balance between access and interactivity on the one hand … and civility and decorum on the other.

In many cases, the quest has been frustratingly difficult. Here’s what some publishers have said about the issue:

“There’s got to be a better [way] to interact without comments taking away from the article or denigrating the people who are reported on.”  — Craig Newman, Chicago Sun-Times

“One of the worst things about writing in public is fielding random ad hominem attacks … in the space in which you’ve poured out your precious thoughts.”  — Ev Williams, Medium

“Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.”  — Suzanne LeBarre, Popular Science

As a result, now we’re seeing more instances of publishers and bloggers killing their comment sections completely.  Consider these examples:

… As of this month, the Chicago Sun-Times has axed its comment capability for the foreseeable future.

… The much anticipated March 2014 launch of Vox (Ezra Klein’s news venture), doesn’t provide for feedback comments.

… The same goes for The Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s website.

Popular Science shut down its comment sections this past September.

… Atlantic Media’s Quartz business site hasn’t ever allowed comments on its site since its launch in 2012.

… And neither has Tumblr.

But it seems rather unrealistic to think that comments sections can be banned from the Internet outright. That would be like trying to put the genie back in the bottle.

Instead, a via media approach may be what the Huffington Post has done. This past December, it implemented a policy wherein commenters must use their Facebook accounts and real names in order to post a comment on Huffington Post stories.

Those who wished to continue posting comments under pseudonyms have had to “appeal” for the right to do.

The goal? To make people think twice before publishing strongly worded comments — the kind that say as much about the poster as they do about the object of their commentary.

Despite the predictable howls from some readers who feel that the right to express an opinion without fear of reprisal is a big part of the appeal of the Internet, four months later the Huffington Post sees the move in positive terms.

The publisher’s community director Tim McDonald reports that the number of “faux” accounts in its system has gone way down – and the quality of discourse is up.

With this approach, perhaps “shameless” needn’t upstage  “shame” after all — and the benefits of interactivity and debate can be preserved at the same time.

2 thoughts on “Are comment sections on news websites on the way out?

  1. It seems to me any enterprise, be it journalistic or otherwise, has a legitimate need to try to control the narrative on its website. And so this development should come as no surprise.

    But what happened to civility? Why all the venom? It was probably always naïve to expect any manners from anonymous commentators.

    The French writer Christine Angot famously observed, “Anonymity means Collectivity. An unsigned message represents the collective mind…”

    Now THAT’s an interesting notion. And if it’s true—or even partially true—all the vicious, even obscene, attacks in comments sections speak volumes about the present state of our society, if not about human nature in general.

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