The Slow Death of Online Comments

As  I write this, NPR announced it’s bringing an end to its online comments. It’s hardly alone, as many big-name publications have made similar pronouncements in the last year. Perhaps trolls and vitriol have killed the online comment once and for all.

NPR says it’s just pragmatism, not a value judgment on the comments it has been receiving. It’s not that NPR is moving away from comments, it says, its listeners/viewers/readers are moving from the comments section to having a discussion about NPR content on Facebook and Twitter.

This is part of a deeper trend, though—one that suggests the promise of having a conversation between reader and author simply hasn’t worked the way many of us had hoped or believed. I’ve always been of the mind that what made online so different from print was the ability to have a real conversation between writer and audience.

In the days when print ruled the world, you could write a letter to the editor, but the vast majority of these fell on deaf ears, perhaps read by an intern, with a precious few making it by the gatekeepers and into the publication. With the advent of the internet, that all changed. Anyone could leave an opinion, and perhaps that was the problem. Instead of enlightened debate, we ended up with spam, cruelty, and intolerance.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen again and again that when allowed to post with impunity, some people show the worst side of humanity. NPR isn’t framing it that way, of course, and probably neither are other publications that have axed the comments section, such as Recode and Mic or more traditional publications such as Reuters and the Chicago Sun-Times. They would probably chalk it up, as NPR has, to changing user preferences and new ways to interact. I can’t help but feel that we’ve brought this on ourselves by allowing abominable online behavior to go unchecked, to the point that it’s better to move the online interactions someplace else where they don’t poison your content.

NPR shared some interesting data around commenting, which suggests it isn’t quite as egalitarian as one would hope. In fact, NPR reported that of the 491,000 comments it received in July, only 19,400 people, or 0.06% of the site’s 33 million users, generated those comments—and 83% of them were male. So much for democratization.

Around 2.5 years ago, I published a more positive view of online comments in this space: “Journalists Can Drive More Civil Commenting.” At the time, I reported on a study at  the University of Texas–Austin that found journalists can help steer online conversations in a more civil direction. As I wrote at the time, the negativity has consequences: “Mean-spirited comments aren’t just unpleasant. They have concrete side effects, according to the report, which reports that incivility in the news depresses trust in government institutions and can even have an impact on readers’ beliefs.”

Still, I naively believed that with a little cajoling and some careful guidance from journalists, we could bring civility back to the discussion. I was wrong. The consequences of all of this, it seems, are eliminating the discussion altogether. It’s not a happy outcome for anyone.

In a comprehensive overview of seven publications that eliminated the comments section, Nieman Journalism Labs found that—similar to NPR—these sites weren’t seeing a large percentage of readers engaging with them. Unsaid was that the comments were of such low quality that it was better to take them off the site altogether.

Also unsaid is the use of comments sections as a new way to deliver spam—unwanted, often nonsensical comments with a link to some random shopping or porn site. These have no value and clog the channel, forcing the site owner to find ways to remove the messages as spammers find ever more clever ways to beat the filters.

All of this and more have led to a general feeling that maybe the idea of comments, while noble, simply hasn’t worked out. We lack the maturity and the filtering techniques to surface the best ones. Mostly, though, we seem to lack the ability to simply have a civil debate, and without that, perhaps it’s better to move the comments out of the way and onto social media where they are  someone else’s problem.   

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