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Policing ‘All The Unhappiness In The World’

The oft-repeated Internet advice “don’t read the comments” may seem absurd at first.

After all, if you took the time to write or publish an article or an essay - especially one with a strong point of view - surely you are interested in the opinions of the people who read and reacted to it. Engaging with varied points of view and thoughtful disagreement should be a boon to writers who post their work online.

Yet a quick dip into the pool of reader opinion often shows that some readers feel justified in getting angrier, more aggressive and more hateful than they ever would in a face-to-face interaction. Such bad behavior is not restricted to any one sort of site. Major news organizations and independent bloggers alike have to field such responses.

This creates a dilemma for news sites and other commercial online communities. Comments sections increase the time readers spend on a site - a crucial measurement when generating ad revenue - and tend to develop loyalty that can lead to subscriptions or donations. But let the comments run too wild, and some readers will learn to skip the comments by default, or worse, go somewhere else altogether.

The Washington Post recently examined some of the tactics sites are using to tame their comments sections. The Post itself allows readers to flag posts that are inappropriate or offensive so that Post staff can examine and potentially remove them. It also allows users to “ignore” a particular poster, though presumably a reader needs a login in order for this choice to remain permanent. This combination of after-the-fact moderation and self-policing is a fairly moderate position on comment control.

On the far end of the spectrum, Popular Science made a stir last autumn when the site permanently removed comments from its articles entirely. Popular Science’s online content director, Suzanne LaBarre, explained the decision in a post, saying, “…because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.” Essentially, the magazine decided that the benefit of its thoughtful and engaged commenters did not outweigh the damage done by personal attacks and baseless claims.

The magazine’s decision led to a vigorous debate about the merits of comments sections. While some websites may make the same decision - for example, the Washington Post article mentioned that Vox.com has had no commenting feature from its inception - it seems unlikely that most news sites will give their comment sections the heave-ho.

Outright spam is not gone but is less of a problem than it once was, as filters that automate the task of weeding it out are now available and relatively sophisticated. The question that remains for sites that allow readers to comment is how to handle comments from real people that, while about the topic at hand on the surface, boil down to personal attacks or off-topic rambling? How to keep the comments section from becoming (or remaining) the place “where all the unhappiness in the world dwells?

The key seems to be thorough and thoughtful moderation. This certainly isn’t a cheap solution, as it requires time and manpower that not every site can afford. But it does seem to work. Consider The New York Times. The Post reports that 14 people, including seven full-time staff members, work on moderating the Times’ comments, approving or rejecting every comment that readers submit. The Times also limits the comments features to certain articles, rather than offering them by default, and extends “verified commenter” status to commenters with “a track record of high-quality comments.”

The extra care and time shows. Consider the comments sections on two recent articles about climate change, one from The Times and one from The Post. The comments on the Post article aren’t terrible on the whole, but there were over 5,000 of them as of this writing. Though you can sort them by those most popular with other readers, it is so much to wade through that it seems unlikely all the best-quality comments will be read often enough to rise to the top. In contrast, the Times article had around 700 comments, and it was easy to see both those few that the editorial staff found especially worthy and those that other readers found useful. I think it is fair to say that the Times comments on climate change are, on balance, significantly better than the Post’s audience contributions on the same subject. To me, this suggests the Times’ system is working, and as a regular reader, I appreciate it.

We run our own site with an eye to standards that keep comments civilized, coherent, on point and not personal. We moderate all our comments for this reason. It’s more expensive for The New York Times than for us, of course - not just because they have vastly more comments and need more staff to filter them, but because The Times still makes a living by attracting an audience, which is not the core mission of our business. If a reader doesn’t like what we post, he doesn’t have to come back, and we don’t especially mind. We are not selling subscriptions and we are not selling eyeballs to advertisers. We want our online community to be productively and civilly engaged, but we don’t measure our performance by the degree of reader engagement.

For sites that do, The Times’ solution may seem burdensome at first, but it is clear that the problem won’t just go away if sites ignore it. Last month, the Sun-Times Media group, which includes the Chicago Sun-Times, temporarily suspended commenting on articles while “working on development of a new commenting system” with an eye to “better polic[ing] the worst elements of these threads.” The newspapers owned by the McClatchy Co., which include the Miami Herald and Charlotte Observer, switched last year to requiring commenters to register with a Facebook account in an effort to restore accountability. Google has attempted to clean up YouTube, long known as one of the worst places on the Internet for hateful comments, by linking users’ accounts to their Google+ profiles. Debates about Facebook and Google+ aside, these moves are based on the same logic we use when requiring a full name from commenters on our own site: Anonymity is one of the elements on which Internet trolls thrive.

“Don’t read the comments” might be the right advice for a particular reader who wishes not to raise her own blood pressure. But choosing not to read - or allow - comments robs writers and news organizations of the opportunity to build community and engage with their readers, which are two of the best advantages offered by online news. Kudos to The New York Times for trying to impose some requirements for civil discourse while also encouraging readers to thoughtfully respond to what they read. Even if I don’t think they always hit the target, I give the paper’s editors credit for trying and for dedicating significant staff resources to the effort.

If more news organizations follow the Times’ lead, one day the comments section may match the quality of the news or opinions that its members comment upon.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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