The Trouble with CommentsBy Dani Fankhauser September 26th, 2012
Comments suck. When online comments sections first emerged, they must have seemed like a powerful tool for democracy — everyone has a voice. But on most mainstream media sites, it looks like society’s lowest common denominator, in the same vein as Lord of the Flies, has come true.
Of course, an article that discusses issues such as race or feminism will attract comments on either extreme, but sometimes a story about baking pie manages to build a heated discussion, too.
Sites with most comment success are often personal blogs where the author reads and responds to nearly every comment. Self-serving spam is deleted and incentivized against, and critical remarks are often constructive since the commenter knows the original author is listening.
Not every website has the manpower to invest time and effort in comment threads, leading to the abandoned garden effect, where, once published, and article is left to become adulterated by mindless and sometimes heartless commentary.
It’s left some publishers wondering if the Internet is better off without comments. Perhaps it is true that less than one percent of an audience scrolls down to read the them, and including a comment section is dead weight on a site, or worse, brings an unnecessary cost of moderation. (For example, The Huffington Post reports a grand total of 7 million comments per month, and in the past has advertised job postings for around-the-clock comment moderators.)
Another way to comment: Directed questions
This site, The Content Strategist, opts to end each post with a survey, called Urtak, rather than open-ended comments. The yes or no questions allow for reader feedback that is quantifiable and are generally less attractive to comment trolls. For readers, it offers a way to engage without much friction — it gives users something to click on — which is, after all, a key feature that separates the web from print.
Some blogging sites have launched without the option of comments. Svbtle is an invite-only blogging site that offers a “kudos” button in the top right corner of the post to bring in reader feedback. Medium (example page) could be called a blogging platform, but is ordered by topic rather than author, so it’s almost a group journal. Readers are given one option on which to click, similar to Svbtle’s, this time just called “Good Story.”
The community that content develops around itself might be driven by design decisions as much as editorial — note that YouTube, renown for particularly strongly worded comments, allows a thumbs up and a thumbs down, while Facebook only allows positive feedback — the Like.
A more established, but still interesting design standard is on Reddit, where a vote up or down is just an arrow and is therefore less driven by sentiment and more by perceived quality.
Brad Gerick, social media editor at Patch, recommends this voting strategy as a way to get the smarter comments up higher, calling it “a combination of Reddit and the good side of Gawker.”
Gawker’s comment aggressive approach
On Gawker, an algorithm surfaces the better comments to the top, while each user is responsible for moderating comments on the thread they’ve started. This solves the abandoned garden problem and treats comments as a true web product rather than a plugin that’s sort of tacked on to the end of a post.
But, it gets better — could comments sell? Traditional wisdom says that the uninformed riffraff will devalue content overall, and make advertisers less likely to want their brand next to it. But Gawker’s Nick Denton suggests comments offer a business opportunity.
In a staff memo: “We all know the conventional wisdom: the days of the banner advertisement are numbered. In two years, our primary offering to marketers will be our discussion platform.”
The idea is that a brand could post a comment for free just as easily as a brand can tweet — and pay for guaranteed exposure similar to how promoted tweets work.
But, the value is not the impressions — it’s the real time conversation that’s expected in comment threads. If discussions are heated, a brand could step in and address concerns. Then, publishers gain yet another party, who has an incentive for positive and enlightening conversation, to tend the comment garden.