We Need To Talk About Comments

Should digital publications include a comments section below their articles, or is it best to push debate (and the trolls) off platform and into the world of social media?

Justin Ellis of Nieman Lab has been looking at seven news sites which have turned off their readers comments.

Out of the seven platforms interviewed, six said they would never go back to publishing comments. The seventh, The Verge continues to occasionally switch the comment stream on for selected articles, but prefers to use a moderated forum based system where it can more easily manage debates amongst its readership. The other six now only engage with their audience on social media platforms away from their main site and give compelling reasons to stick with their current arrangements.

For smaller publications the time and investment needed to manage and monitor comments streams on their sites can be prohibitive. Not managing debate however, can expose platforms to the legal risks of ‘publishing’ the unfettered opinions of their readers alongside their article. Publications sometimes feel that readers comments don’t reflect the opinion of their own opinion or that of their readership, and want to distance themselves from the views of the minority who choose to comment. By pushing debate away from the main site, news sites can choose whether to engage in an offsite debate or not.

Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode says there is more value in a retweet, than in a good comment buried at the bottom of an article; >We get a lot of response, opinion, and commentary there [Twitter], and also great retweets and likes, especially from well-known people who wouldn’t necessarily comment on one of our sites. Melinda Gates went crazy for our women in tech series. When she [tweeted it], that was so much more helpful than if she had just said ‘great job’ on the site or something.

Jamie Mottram of USA Today’s FTW just doesn’t feel that a comments page fits their mobile audience; >Seventy-one percent of FTW’s audience is mobile, and commenting seems like more of a desktop experience. Plus, our site is oriented toward social, which is where our users are commenting, with their friends in those environments.

It’s interesting to look at the Nieman Lab article up against Mathew Ingram’s piece in Gigaom in which he champions the comments page along with Guardian digital editor Aron Pilhofer;

In a talk at the News:Rewired conference in London, Pilhofer — who used to run the digital team at the New York Times, before joining the Guardian last year — said that many traditional newsrooms are failing to take full advantage of the web’s ability to create a two-way relationship with readers, and that this is a crucial element of what journalism has become in a digital age.

Ingram has no truck with the school of thought that readers who comment aren’t representative of a publications true audience.

But what about the people who don’t want to have their comments tied to their identity on Facebook — or the readers who choose not to belong to those social networks at all? They in effect become second-class citizens, whose opinions or input aren’t wanted or valued.

He sees a disconnect between a reader and an article if the reader has to search for a forum or hashtag under which to comment when there is no section included at the end of an article. He believes this disconnect discourages the reader from joining a debate and makes a divide which reduces the audience to the status of ‘a giant click factory’.

…if you can’t figure out how to engage with your readers and build a community of some kind on your own website — around your own content — how can you expect any of your readers to take your commitment to that relationship seriously?

Ingram acknowledges that comments come with problems but believes that instead of killing off comments, publishers should be fixing them and points to this Digiday article on ‘How Salon tamed the trolls and saved its online comments’.