The Comments are Broken

September 18, 2012

Internet, we need to talk about comments. The lowly comments section, intending to provide a democratic arena for informally expressing one’s opinions, has become a petri dish for racism, sexism, homophobia, partisan hatred, and general consequence-free mudslinging.

I’m not talking about comments on a small personal or instructional blog. Those, although they occasionally get nasty, are usually civil and sometimes even constructive. It’s the high-traffic (usually news) sites that are problematic.

Debate

Why do we read comments, anyway? A comments section serves as a kind of barometer for the world’s thoughts. When you read a comments section, you are getting a cross-section of other readers’ opinions, which otherwise would have remained unknown to you. Reading comments is thus kind of like perusing poll results – exploring the opinions of a small, representative segment of the population.

Except that it doesn’t work quite this well. Commentors aside, the people who read a particular article don’t fairly represent the general population. Furthermore, people are more likely to say something if they have a strong opinion, and of this small percentage, those with negative opinions are more likely to come forward.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a good debate. The problem is that comments are a horrible format for presenting opposing viewpoints. The brevity, informality, and anonymity of comments encourage short, condensed responses. Commentors exaggerate, their opponents exaggerate, and before you know it, insults are flying left and right like sloppy joes in an elementary school food fight. Comments make people behave like children.

Our tl;dr culture discourages careful thought in favor of immediate spotlight. Attention, even negative, is more valuable than the opportunity for lucid self-expression. “Think before you speak” is becoming a thing of the past.

Trolling

And then we have trolling. Comment trolling started off innocently enough, as kind of a prank. You say something intentionally stupid or ridiculous to get a rise out of people, so you can then point and laugh and say “lololol i troll u” when they react.

But then it got out of hand. Nowadays you have people saying awful, awful things, personally attacking people, calling them names, threatening them. This doesn’t cause the type of mild exasperation that makes trolling funny. It severely hurts people – not just the people it’s directed at, but also anyone else who happens to see it. Whether or not a troll is being serious doesn’t matter.

Why do people do this? What do they gain from it? When did it become acceptable – encouraged, even – to be so shitty to people you don’t even know?

Solution?

It’s obvious that comments are a flawed system, and yet, like social buttons, we continue to blindly drop them in. Why? Well, because every other site has them. Because of bullshit metrics that claim it increases engagement. Because we can put ads further down the page. Because we can paginate the comments and put new ads on each page. Because if the comment wars get really vitriolic, the same commentors will come back again and again to argue with each other, creating new ad impressions. By attempting to scrape a few extra bucks with a lousy commenting system, news outlets cheapen the integrity of decent content.

Comments hosted through a third-party service, especially on large, high-budget sites, signify that the site owner could not give less of a damn about their content. Rather than build out a custom system with decent moderation, they just drop in a cheap (or free) easy solution. Policies that try to absolve the site of all responsibility for comment content are lazy and irresponsible. Even if the comments are hosted through a third-party service, the site itself is still choosing to display them. It doesn’t matter if reader comments don’t reflect the views of the publication. A nasty comments section will still reflect poorly upon it.

There is no comment solution that is both easy and high-quality. The only way to guarantee decent comments is to tailor the comment system to the site’s audience, and to actually work at it. Moderate with a heavy hand; cherrypick only the best comments; encourage and reward user moderation. If you can’t handle this, eliminate the comments section altogether.