For a while now the trend du jour in online media is to not only block your readers from making news story comments, but to insult their intelligence by claiming this muzzling is driven by a deep-rooted love of community and conversation. NPR, for example, muted its entire readership because, it claimed, it “adored reader relationships.” Reuters and Recode, in contrast, prevented their own users from speaking on site thanks to a never-ending dedication to “conversation.” Motherboard similarly banned all on-site reader feedback because it greatly “values discussion.”
There’s a number of reasons to ban comments, but few if any have anything to do with giving a damn about your community. Most websites, writers and editors simply don’t want to spend the time or money to moderate trolls or cultivate local community because it takes a little effort, and quality human discourse can’t be monetized on a pie chart. Instead, it’s easier and cheaper to simply outsource all public human interactivity to Facebook. In addition to being simpler, it avoids the added pitfalls of a public comment section where corrections to your story errors are posted a little too visibly.
Few outlets can actually admit any of this, so instead we get bizarre platitudes about how moving bi-directional website interactivity backward is some kind of ingenious media evolution. Case in point: IDG last week joined the fun and announced that all of its media outlets (Macworld, NetworkWorld, PCWorld, etc.) would be removing news comments moving forward. According to the company, this change is a reflection of IDG’s ongoing commitment to feedback:
“At IDG, we’ve always valued and welcomed feedback from our readers, and that’s something that will never change. What is changing, however, is one facet of how we get your feedback.
Again, nothing quite says we “welcome feedback” like preventing all public, on-site feedback. Just like other news outlets, IDG insists that shoving interested community members over to social media is the same thing as retaining an on-site community:
“This change was made for a couple of important reasons. First, more and more of you are already communicating with us, and with one another, via social media, where our editors and reporters are posting content and interacting with readers throughout the day.
Second, while we’ve always valued comments, we’ve also had to deal with the reality of managing spam and policing inappropriate comments—comments that don’t reflect the professional nature of our audiences and diminish the value of community interaction. Moving the discussion to social media obviates those issues.”
Well for one, this idea that managing spam and trolls is some kind of sisyphean impossibility is nonsense. You’ll find countless websites (this one included) where spam and trolling is minimized and public interactivity is still protected (often by the community itself). In fact, some studies have suggested that just having website employees show up and give a damn can have a dramatic, positive impact on your local community. If you see consistent trolling and spamming in news comments it means somebody, somewhere doesn’t give a shit. Pretending otherwise is a cop out your readership can see through.
This pretense that social media interactivity is the same as more niche on site conversation is also problematic. As feedback is offloaded to social media, we’re seeing an overall reduction in transparency when it comes to news reader interaction. Many social media users exist in cordoned off areas where they only have a limited view of the conversation (protected Tweets, etc), which harms transparency. But that’s the whole point for many editors: a return to the “letters to the editor” era where you get to control the conversation, even if it comes at the cost of users spending less time on your website.
All of that said, stand still so I can kick you repeatedly in the shin out of my deep-rooted love of your ability to walk.