For some time now the trend du jour among many media outlets has been to ban news comments — then insult reader intelligence by proclaiming this is being done out of a deep-rooted love of “conversation” and “relationships.” You see, these websites aren’t banning comments because they’re too lazy or cheap to weed out spam and trolls, but because they love you. These sites aren’t outsourcing all human interactivity to Facebook because bean counters can’t monetize quality on-site discourse in a pie chart, they’re doing it because they care so very deeply about their community.
Why, oh, why can’t you people understand that giving the middle finger and a shiny new muzzle to your entire readership is an act of love?
With this being the intellectually-stunted direction of the entire online media sector, it’s kind of refreshing to see websites that actually try to solve problems and give a flying damn about quality on-site community. Case in point: albeit overshadowed by some notable downsizing at the outlet, Canada’s The Globe and Mail this week announced that the website will be trying something new: acknowledging that ye olde, maligned news comment section is worth saving, while building a new system that leans on the community itself to keep discourse spam-free and relatively civil:
“Our new platform asks users to review other comments made on the site before posting their own. Each comment is reviewed by the community for quality and civility. This peer-to-peer moderation process incentivizes users to be more respectful to each other regardless of how different their opinions may be.
The decision to adopt Civil Comments was made after an eight-week trial that ran on the Politics section of our website. We noticed that the number of comments for that section remained stable during the test period while the percentage of comments that were either rejected or flagged dropped significantly, pointing to an overall uplift in the quality of conversations.”
Shockingly, during the Globe and Mail’s trial, they found that the very same communities most of these sites claim are utterly irredeemable and untameable, actually participated in working to make the comment section better:
“We understand how passionate our users are and we welcome different views and opinions. But we also recognize that sometimes things can get out of hand.
We also believe that the vast majority of our community knows how to play fair. In fact, our trial showed that, with a few exceptions, our readers were willing to adopt this new approach in order to elevate the tone of the debate within comments. We were thrilled to see that.”
That shouldn’t really be surprising. We’ve noted time and time again that it doesn’t really take much effort to improve comment discourse, and that the real problem was that websites weren’t even god-damned trying. In fact, one study showed that just having someone from the website occasionally show up and treat commenters like human beings had a profound impact on the quality of the comment section. Imagine what you could actually accomplish if you threw even a modest amount of time and money at the issue?
But then again, many websites aren’t giving up on comments because it’s really all that hard to save them, they’re giving up because it’s just easier and cheaper to ignore these users completely, even if on-site conversation increases impressions and time spent on-site. The reality is that many editors and websites just really like the idea of returning to the bygone era of letters to the editor where they get to control the direction of public discourse, even if that ignores the very bidirectional nature of the internet itself. They also can’t admit they like having corrections to story errors in not quite such a conspicuous location.
In reality, the push to kill news comments is largely thanks to laziness and a desire for less public transparency. Editors can’t admit this, so instead we get obnoxious missives claiming that entire user bases are being gagged out of a deep-rooted love of engagement. Hopefully more sites will follow The Globe and Mail’s lead and try a little something called actually giving a damn.