Reader Comments Are a Good Thing

No Comments!Over at The Monkey Cage, Elizabeth Suhay wrote some much needed perspective, Comment Threads Are Messy, but so Is Democracy. There has been a push in a lot of quarters to get rid of user comments. It is understandable. A lot of commenters are repellent. But I think it’s a major mistake. What’s more, I think it reflects a kind of desire on the part of content providers to go back to the old days when they could sift through the letters and publish the ones that they wanted. It’s about control, and it doesn’t speak well of those who push it.

Some time back, the excellent blog The Incidental Economist stopped allowing comments. Now they treat their users the same way that magazines used to. If you have a comment, email them and if they think you are worthy, they will add the comment. In addition to the “Moses coming down Mount Sinai” arrogance of such a policy, it just isn’t practical. A few years back, I emailed one of their writers about the statistics in one of his articles. He took over a month to get back to me. But even if the response was timely, it would take at least a day before such comments would be posted — long after most people had read the article.

This approach also eliminates the possibility of what I consider the best part of comments: conversations. Comments to articles often end up being even more interesting than the articles themselves. They also make the readers more engaged with the material. There is no doubt that The Incidental Economist is no longer as exciting as it was when it had comments. Look at Eschaton: it is little but comments and is one of the most vibrant websites around.

Getting rid of comments strikes me as an overreaction to a problem. Sure, there are jerks who post comments. But the numbers are small. Suhay reported on some of her own research that found that “clearly disrespectful” comments only made up 10% of those found on sites like Daily Kos and only 4% of comments on sites like The New York Times. And for that, people want to get rid of all the good that comes from comments? That strikes me as, “Letting the terrorists win!”

What I think is going on is that content providers are thinking of what they do from their own perspective and not from that of their users (ie, customers). In fact, another article in The Monkey Cage found that comments make people trust articles less. The article concluded “news outlets that care about their reputations (including The Monkey Cage) should shut down their comments sections.” That shocks me. That’s such an authoritarian thought. Obviously, when a bunch of people openly debate an article, it is going to make that article seem less authoritative. And by and large that’s a good thing!

Under most circumstances, I don’t read comment threads. I have my own blog; if I want to comment, I will write an article. But I do find comments useful. If an article strikes me as using questionable logic or facts, reading the comments can be really helpful in corroborating or diffusing the article. And that’s especially true in reading about specialized subjects like economics. The comments are often of shockingly high value.

But I get it. Before moving to WordPress, despite my automatic filtering, I still had to manually remove a great deal of spam. Also, I had to explicitly approve all comments — even people who had commented before. But given all that is done by using free software, I don’t have any sympathy for far more successful blogs on this issue. And it is annoying to get certain kinds of comments. Personally, I don’t mind people yelling at me. The one thing that does bug me is when someone yells at me without having read (or understood, at least) the article I wrote. (Here’s my favorite example: Two Thoughts on Lars and the Real Girl.)

Ultimately, the push to destroy comments is just about the desire to control. I do understand why the folks at The Incidental Economist and Hullabaloo just wouldn’t want to deal with it. They can be forgiven. I think it is wrong to even discuss it at The Washington Post. But above all, it is dismissive of your readership.

2 thoughts on “Reader Comments Are a Good Thing

  1. Well, I just started poking around and they’re pretty testy about eliminating spam, for very good reasons. (They have a fun dropbox for spam, that you can visit and read, a great way of handling it, I think.) Spam and hate mail don’t contribute to the conversation. I’m consistently annoyed that “The Nation,” which has some very good writers and takes on some good subjects (it’s not a perfect magazine, but it ain’t bad, either) either eliminates comments for articles or opens them up to hate spam with almost no moderating going on. That would seem to me to be a good forum for discussion of issues. Our problem on the left isn’t “what to do,” it’s “how do we go about doing it,” and we need to bandy around a lot of ideas. Instead “The Nation”‘s comment threads, when they have open comments, are usually people feeding rightwing trolls.

    There should really be an online place for good writing, good comment threads, and discussions about various activist options, for everyone on our side who wants to help, the chain-yourself-to-a-tree bravehearts and the “I want advice how to talk to my church group about why we should oppose the anti-gay amendment” more cowardly souls like myself. I’m not aware of one. Most liberal sites are either “fight with trolls” or self-congratulatory or people arguing over who’s more liberal than whom (“keep believing the official 9/11 story you fascist.”) The right has a simple solution for this; top-down marching orders. We could have a more organized, better alternative.

    • What I’ve seen is that sites (or more often, writers) with committed followers tend not to feed trolls. Occasionally, a troll will show up on Dean Baker’s blog, and they just get ignored. Of course, there is a difference between a blog that gets upwards of 20 comments per article and one that gets a thousand. But if you want to see a kind of comment utopia, you should go over to Mark Thoma’s Economist’s View. But I think the totally unmoderated comments on Jonathan Chait’s blog are surprisingly good. Again: there are trolls, but it isn’t bad. Of course, sometimes it is. A single troll can do a lot of damage, just by spewing garbage at every comment that comes along. It creates a hostile commenting environment. But there are solutions to these problem people. I do think one thing is right in the original article: blogs that get more than a couple thousand visitors per day cannot have anonymous commenting. There are many problems, but one I particularly hate is when a single troll will pretend to be different people. You can usually tell because of consistent grammar or spelling mistakes.

      I’ve never really looked at comments on The Nation. And I agree about the magazine. I think it really is one of the best. I realize it is a bit inbred, but it is nice to have a magazine that is unapologetically liberal. And it contains differences of agreement that liberals have. There are no Charles Krauthammers in there for a false sense of balance. Instead, there is Eric Alterman and Max Blumenthal representing the two extremes of liberal opinion. Too many liberal publications seem embarrassed by it. And we all know what happened to New Republic when it insisted on being “serious.”

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