digital lifestyle / great companies doing silly things / journalism and bias

The Problem with Comments

Recently Popular Science turned off user comments entirely on new articles. In true PopSci style, they justified the move with a study, unlinked, but linked to the study’s author’s OpEd on the study, justifying their move by saying that the existence of polarizing comments unduly influence readers, and outweigh the ability of civil discourse to inform.

PopSci may do OK with this course of action, or they may not. It is a risky move but it remains to be seen if their web readership (which is all that matters now) will fall off, and advertising revenue with it, or if reassured, non-stressed readers will flock to the newly pure, unquestioned dictum.

Despite the title Why We’re Shutting Off Our Comments, the article does not answer all the questions of why comments were shut off.  PopSci says they clearly have a problem with “vexing” commentary, and link to a NY Times article despairing tiring of arguing about things like Climate Change and Evolution, things they call the Popular Consensus. But let’s get serious, the problem is deeper than tenacious climate change deniers and inflammatory rhetoric. The problem is a matter of commitment to their reader community. PopSci editors didn’t just read a study (or an OpEd about a study) and a NY Times article and said “that’s it, science is behind us, we’re pulling the plug on comments”. What they did is take the easy way out.

You see, building a valid, viable commenting community takes work, and by work I don’t mean just writing some PHP or bolting in Disqus. It requires tough, expensive words and phrases like author involvement and moderation and comment ranking and spam control. A quick look around shows that PopSci is not responding quickly to reported spam.

Take a look at ARS Technica . First of all, good comment areas are self-policed, because the tools are available for self-policing. Spam can be reported. Great comments can be ranked or promoted. Lousy comments or commentators can be hidden. The comment area is not even displayed until requested, and a login is required to do anything. Yes, PopSci has some of the technology, but there’s much more here than better technology! Secondly, in addition to user self-policing, good comment areas are also moderated and policed by the staff. At ARS, the article writers participate. The editors participate. The moderators moderate. In other words, they expend time, effort, staff and money. They engage their audience.

The sad conclusion I draw on PopSci is that they’ve retreated to a web copy of their print edition. In essence, the Editors are saying, Send us a letter and we’ll decide whether to print it in next month’s edition. We control the content. We control the presentation. We control the message. We don’t need your participation, just sit back and read and pretend it’s television, circa 1970. Expressing your opinion is not necessary, needed or even possible. Just turn on the evening news and soak it in… and please patronize our advertisers.

I wish them luck, but I don’t see this course of action as being in-step with the future of the Web. They may still do well if they have fabulous writing, content and editing. But after all, we are still talking about Popular Science here.

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One thought on “The Problem with Comments

  1. I spend too much of every day debating global warming on line.
    The scientific method part of my brain is haunted by Feynman, Steinhardt, and Penrose.

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