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Comment Sections Are Evil

| April 17, 2012

Check the comments.


Helen Lewis is unhappy about comment sections on websites. She writes in Britain’s New Statesman (in a piece entitled “Don’t Leave a Comment“): “When I give someone a book as a present, I don’t hand them a marker pen so they can scrawl “DID YOU GET PAID FOR THIS?” on the final page. So when did we get the idea that allowing comments on articles was a Good Thing? [...] The usual reason is that they promote audience engagement, and allow readers to “have their say”. [...] The idea that disabling comments is returning to a model where journalists told the audience things, and the audience mutely accepted what was slopped out, is nonsense. Even the most generous estimates reckon only 1 per cent of readers leave a comment. So banning them doesn’t stop people having their say: it stops one in a hundred people creating an aura of authentic grassroots reaction. What does abound in comment sections, of course, is abuse: racism, sexism, homophobia. [...] One of the most active cheerleaders of commenting is the Guardian, which employs a dozen or so moderators, plus another dozen “community co-ordinators” who monitor Facebook, Twitter, Tumblrs and so on (the paper doesn’t give out an exact number). Assuming these people are on a modest £20,000 each, that’s nearly half a million pounds a year spent on making sure that the “community” – 1 per cent of readers – is well-served.”

the live wire flaglerliveBy way of irony, Lewis concludes, she invited readers to address her points in the comments below her article. She got 96 of them. Some examples: “Of course you know the real reason for a comment space is the moneymakers: when readers can leave comments, it keeps them coming back, circling the site, out of vanity and loneliness, hoping and wondering whether they’ve provoked a response, even from a fellow commenter – any response will do; any sign of humanity. I presume it’s good for the site, to keep the same people coming back, if you can’t find a greater number. But it doesn’t work: the longer the reader stays, the more he realizes that, like any and all websites, he’s in a room of mannequins. Then he can laugh or cry, but certainly he quickly departs.”

Or: I think what bothers you most is that the comments are felt to be literally, actually and literally, on your article, or article space. Unlike a newspaper, say, where the commentary letters appear the following day and in a different part of the paper. A writer, being proud of his or her article, naturally will be territorial over it, and it must be admitted that the comments come provokingly close to the space your article inhabits. If the comments are good, they’ll be stealing your thunder a little; if the comments are ill-natured or sloppy writing, it’ll be like being approached by a drunk in a museum. Either way, it’s affecting your writerly individuality. I do sympathize with that.”

Or: “In my experience there is a direct correlation between the abrasiveness of the commentary and the hypocrisy of the author, ergo more truthful pieces command more respect. Authors ought to see it as a form of public peer review, they can choose to ignore it, fume over it or learn from it.”

Just as thoughtful: “There’s a tremendous difference between a blog approach and an article approach, though, isn’t there? The best blogs promote discussion and involvement and a sense of community, however small or transient. You often get regulars on the comment threads (and I, for one, don’t believe there’s anything wrong with pseudonyms, as long as you keep the same one. There are many reasons why you might not want to post under your real name, but as long as you take responsibility for what you say it’s probably fine) who develop a debate-based relationship both with the author and each other. You also learn whom to ignore. Opinion columns are different. There is still a right of reply – hence the bulging postbags of newspapers throughout the ages. But it takes more effort. Ideally, I think it should also take more effort to write, but that’s a personal qualm.”

Two years ago the Times wrote about the trend against freewheeling comments in newspapers: “When news sites, after years of hanging back, embraced the idea of allowing readers to post comments, the near-universal assumption was that anyone could weigh in and remain anonymous. But now, that idea is under attack from several directions, and journalists, more than ever, are questioning whether anonymity should be a given on news sites. The Washington Post plans to revise its comments policy over the next several months, and one of the ideas under consideration is to give greater prominence to commenters using real names. The New York Times, The Post and many other papers have moved in stages toward requiring that people register before posting comments, providing some information about themselves that is not shown onscreen.”

The Post of course just changed course, adopting a novel approach with comments. Starting in January, the Post was to “Award more badges to users who regularly post quality comments, using the value a commenter adds to the community and the number of “Recommends” his or her comments receive as key criteria. [...] Delete all comments that direct name-calling and insults at other commenters [a long-standing FlaglerLive policy] [...] Be more aggressive in our efforts to eliminate “trolling” — generally defined as posting comments that serve more to incite emotional responses and disrupt conversations. Increase the number of Post staffers who post and reply to questions in the comments.”

That last is an interesting one for a national newspaper, but not a foreign one here.

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17 Responses for “Comment Sections Are Evil”

  1. Jojo says:

    I believe in free speech, as a matter of principle. I believe the answer to bad speech is more speech, not less.

    As a blogger, I think I have a duty to use the power of the platform to advance the cause of free speech in whatever small ways I can.

    If we are to use the public arena for our viewpoint, then we are obligated to let all viewpoints access it, because the public field for speech and expression must be maintained absolutely level at all costs. Conversely, I learn from others viewpoint and ideas.

  2. Dorothea says:

    I have been around computer comment sections more years than I care to think about. At the beginning, even if someone disagreed with me, which was often, they knew what they were talking about and often as not, backed up their argument with supporting quotes and websites. As years went by, I noticed a dumbing down of the comments. Commenters often spouted things they heard in a commercial or were brainwashed by TV’s Fox news. Rarely these days does anyway even bother to provide evidence of their supposed facts, don’t bother to read the supporting documentation when a commenter provides it, or obviously have only read the headline of the article they are posting about.

    Is it because more commenters have computers or because the general public just doesn’t keep up with a variety of news sources and hasn’t a modicum of intellectual curiousty about daily events? Whatever the reason, I still look forward to reading the comments hoping I’ll find a few well reasoned arguments or facts that I wasn’t aware of. Usuallly, however, it is a waste of time.

    • RWagner says:

      As the percentage of homes with internet goes up, average sophistication goes down. In 1990, the 10% who had a computer and internet access were techies who were skilled in rational problem solving. At 80% now, we are drawing from the bottom of the barrel.

      In a variant of Gresham’s Law, bad commentary drives out the good. The race to the bottom is most evident (to me) in USENET, which went from good in the early ’90s to very bad today.

      The internet did not make people less rational; it exposed the irrationality of the bottom 50-70%, which has always been there but was not so evident. It’s enough to make one question the wisdom of the First Amendment. People who have nothing worthwhile to say do not need free speech.

  3. Nancy N. says:

    Comment sections in general aren’t evil. Unmoderated comment sections – which tend to foster the nastiest anonymous slurs because there is no check on people who use the internet to express their vile side they can’t express openly in the “real” world – are.

  4. Geezer says:

    I remember when The News-Journal ditched the “Back Talk” feature.
    We had some real characters that used to comment there. I recall “Wild Bill” and laugh to myself.
    I notice that a few of them now comment on Flaglerlive. Good!

    Because the News-Journal is like paper Ambien, I only viewed the online version, and then only
    because of Talk Back. When it was canned (user comments), I ceased to read the NJ.

    The readers were embarrassing the NJ, pointing out typos and inaccuracies.
    They were posting addresses and phone numbers, rude innuendo, and all sorts
    of off-topic stuff. But it was entertaining… There didn’t seem to be a moderator.

    Wild Bill was recalling his youth, and mentioned a late night incident where he had the munchies
    and drove through a McDonalds (yes, the drive-thru), and ordered Egg McNuggets.

    Anybody here ever order Egg McNuggets? Ordered a Whopper at McDonalds?
    Reader comments are fun to read, and some people post very insightful commentary.

    Glad to have Flaglerlive. I’d buy a paper version too!

  5. Sherry Epley says:

    Unlike Dorothea, my political commentary has been either face to face via meetings in Washington and “town hall” gatherings in the various cities where I’ve resided, or through letters to newspaper editors. That is, until moving back to my home state and stumbling onto a rare “progressive” voice in the form of Flaglerlive.

    I agree, that in years past, clearly the more educated citizens took the time to research the subject, check the facts and present their ideas and thoughts in a cohesive, well written manner. In my experience, those writings were more informative, and in some cases greatly shaped my own perspective.

    Saying that, when ever I read an “off the cuff” passionate comment to a story here or another reader’s remarks, I try to remember that the passionate commentor is showing that they are actively, emotionally moved in some way. I try not to feel disgusted at the level of education represented in many comments. I try (often unsuccessfully) not to be outraged by the ultra right winged fear and hate mongering, hyprocracy and negativity in the culture in which I was raised. I am learning that being exposed to some opinions is personally painful to me. . . from my childhood. I try to remember that societies often change at a glacial pace. I still want to be a part of that change in Florida.

  6. GoodFella says:

    So much for free speech =(. Soon all of our rights will be taken away in this new socialist country!

    • Last time I checked private persons all across the USA still had the right to own private property, control the means of production, and had the rights to free speech, and ultimately vote.

      Who is spreading this Socialism message? Perhaps they are confusing regulation of out of control corporations with ownership of those multi-national corporations?

  7. some guy says:

    Comment sections are great it gives you or I a way giving our OPINIONS. They do not need to be backed up by supporting web sites or quote as they are OPINIONS. Although I do get that many on the left do not like the idea of deiffering opinions and thoughts on things. they really liked the times when they had total control over the media.

    • Pierre Tristam says:

      Actually some guy, you’re confusing opinion with reaction. An opinion stands or falls on the strength of its reasoning and the strength of its backed up arguments–backed up with verifiable evidence, not more opinion. That goes for columns, editorials, even comments here: the more respectable ones are always those that stand on more than the first thing that blurts out of a keyboardist’s fingers.

  8. some guy says:

    Pierre Tristam says:
    April 19, 2012 at 12:50 pm
    Actually some guy, you’re confusing opinion with reaction.

    I think not. As your reaction to my opinion shows. :)

  9. palmcoaster says:

    @ Phil Chanfrau. You are so right Sir, regarding the Socialism paint brush applied to all that stands for common sense and against these corporations abuses. As time goes bye I see more and more that our elected ones are not the ones running our country, but corporations and their big campaign contributions are.
    Today I was shopping for some walking shoes and all there was on those shelves were Made in China….only. Prices same as if were made here…50 and up. Labor paid; a slaves wage and who pockets the huge difference…yes you guess right, the mighty Corporation, outsourcing our jobs over greed.
    The sick fish we will have to consume from the Gulf is who’s fault …? another Corporation..Then the one’s that take a stand against these abuses are brush painted Socialist..?
    http://finance.yahoo.com/news/two-years-later-fish-sick-140236899.html

    • Layla says:

      Oddly enough, it is many of my eastern European neighbors and immigrants who are the most concerned about what they see happening within our government. My next door neighbor, a Russian, says, “Don’t they realize what is happening here?”

      Maybe we should listen to them more carefully?

  10. Sherry Epley says:

    Regarding the definitions of “opinion” versus “reaction”, let’s see what Webster’s has to say:

    REACTION:
    1a : the act or process or an instance of reacting b : resistance or opposition to a force, influence, or movement; especially : tendency toward a former and usually outmoded political or social order or policy
    2: a response to some treatment, situation, or stimulus ; also : such a response expressed verbally
    3: bodily response to or activity aroused by a stimulus: a : an action induced by vital resistance to another action; especially : the response of tissues to a foreign substance (as an antigen or infective agent) b : depression or exhaustion due to excessive exertion or stimulation c : heightened activity and overaction succeeding depression or shock d : a mental or emotional disorder forming an individual’s response to his or her life situation
    4: the force that a body subjected to the action of a force from another body exerts in the opposite direction

    OPINION
    1a : a view, judgment, or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter b : approval, esteem
    2a : belief stronger than impression and less strong than positive knowledge b : a generally held view
    3a : a formal expression of judgment or advice by an expert b : the formal expression (as by a judge, court, or referee) of the legal reasons and principles upon which a legal decision is based

    It appears that, by these definitions, that one could put forth an expert “opinion” via an intellectual thought process or reasoning. No so, an “expert reaction”. The definition of the word “reaction” appears to convey a response that has at its root a much more emotional beginning. Therefore, one could reasonably conclude that an “opinion” has more intellectual credibility than a “reaction.”

    It appears to me that Pierre was spot on with his reactive and accurate “opinion”. I personally believe that educated opinions are much more valuable than emotional reactions. I am flattered that some think that kind of social commentary comes primarily from the “left”.

  11. Agnese says:

    I find the comment section just as interesting as the articles, it’s a good way to get a pulse on the communities thoughts. Great job FlaglerLive !!

  12. Will Allen says:

    Maybe the best opinions are the ones you don’t have to endure.

  13. Starfyre says:

    I believe in the power of the written word, and that anyone who takes “pen to paper” even in the virtual sense, should be prepared to stand by what they wrote – right, wrong or indifferent. Much of what is exchanged between people are a mixture of fact, experience, speculation, and opinion, even when having a dicussion face to face.

    I do not want to live in a world where I am restricted from expressing myself in any medium. Whether a person is right, wrong, or can back up what they say with “proof” should never curtail their right to say what they choose to say. The restrictions should come from the person themselves, who should measure thier words carefully. I am solely responsible for what I say or write, and I do not need anyone ever taking responsibility for it, nor do I need anyone censoring it, or monitoring it. In a society of educated people, we should be able to do that for ourselves. The ones who fail at it, who cannot express themselves adequately, they will reap what they sow. If we do not allow them to make mistakes, to express themselves poorly, and then have others give them feedback, how will they ever learn how to be better at it?

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