Fix Comment Sections Instead of Just Whining About Them

As we all know, there’s been a lot of talk and snark about the lack of respectful discourse in Internet culture the last while. It’s strange to me how so many people have only recently decided that a problem that’s existed as long as the Internet itself is something we should find a solution for but better late than never. Chief among these discussions has been comment sections. This method of user interaction has never really been regarded as pleasant or civilised, yet it exists everywhere and largely untouched from its original formula. Indeed, this is such a prominent problem that it has its own daily reminder to avoid it. Comments are pretty much the worst.

As this problem continues, we see a greater number of people from press sites bemoaning how terrible comments are, how evil so many commenters are, how they are the reason X group of people can’t feel safe and respected etc. I don’t necessarily disagree with those assessments but it occurred to me yesterday that these people whining about comments on the sites they contribute to have a surprising touch of hypocrisy in their statements.
I mentioned in my Internet Reality post that part of the reason hateful and abusive comments are so rampant on social networks is because despite making a mint off their user’s content, the social networks themselves have largely washed their hands and said they aren’t responsible for what propagates on their services. Somehow, I hadn’t considered web sites themselves in this argument and indeed, there are certainly points to be made there.

Yesterday, Polygon posted yet another story about women in games feeling unsafe and not respected. I have no comment on the article itself beyond that ones of that ilk are a regular staple of Polygon’s “opinion” section, in which every article is purposefully designed to provoke strong response from readers. As one would expect on an article about women in games, a bunch of morons, largely from other unregulated cesspools like Reddit, flooded the section with the same abusive garbage we all know about already. Shortly after, an online acquaintance I follow on Twitter retweeted the following 3 things in a row:

The first is from Polygon’s Opinion Editor, the person who ensures the often purposefully vitriolic tone of that section. His history of harshly toned articles and picking fights with other writers and readers are well documented. The second two which were in response to him are what got me on this line of thinking and demonstrate a baffling disconnect content creators have. As Alex said, Kuchera is actually telling people not to read the comments on his own site, for a controversial article he approved the publication of.

Polygon’s comments section is pretty standard fare. It has moderation of sorts (apparently, I rarely read that site, much less comment) but if you want to chime in, you just have to make an account and post away. They encourage the same interaction with their audience most other sites do and they have an entire section and staff devoted to writing frequently hostile and inflammatory articles which don’t kid yourself, are designed to draw strong reactions because as I’ve said forever, controversy drives clicks. I think that’s softball journalism, which Kuchera has frequently touted himself being superior to while still practising it. I single Kuchera and Polygon out here because they’re the most recent example but it’s just one of many involving many writers.

The hypocrisy comes in when the people who do these things whine and complain that comments sections are as comments sections always have been. You provide the vector for people to comment, you provide the carefully crafted bait that you know will provoke them, you profit from the clicks that controversial articles bring and the additional clicks from people refreshing that comments section but when things go exactly as expected, you want sympathy? Give me a break. You know what’s going to happen, the framework under which your site operates provides the means for it to happen, you let it happen by enabling comments, you don’t get a pat on the back and a “There there, it’s not your fault.” Polygon has since disabled comments on the article in question because they got out of control but not before it made the rounds on Twitter and undoubtedly got a lot more free hits as people stopped in to watch the train wreck.

I don’t think the solution to this is to stop writing about tough subjects. There’s little journalism left in gaming but talking about the hard stuff is how we get more of it. Arguments can be made about the best ways to tackle these subjects but they absolutely should be tackled and discussed. However, the current means of fan interaction through comments is clearly a broken model that’s not working and it’s time to stop whining about it and do something about it.

As I said in the past, the Internet Reality is never going to change. Many people are assholes when they’re anonymous (many don’t even care if they aren’t) and you’ll never eliminate that. However, there’s all kinds of ways you can mitigate the damage they cause to online discourse. You can change how comments sections work and you don’t even have to alter the core idea behind them. It’s mostly different moderation ideas. Here’s just a few:

  • Require that every post be manually approved by a moderator before appearing. Not revolutionary but effective. Many newspaper sites do this now. If your site posts a lot of content, disable comments on new articles after a pre-determined and documented amount of time.
  • Require that new accounts be active for a certain amount of time before getting comment privileges. This deals with people who sign up a fake account just to troll.
  • Leave comments on stories disabled until a certain amount of time after posting. This potentially allows a lot of knee-jerk posters to either forget about the story before commenting or at least, force them to think about what they want to say and calm down if it’s a story that upset them.
  • Have more active moderation and potentially have extra moderators you can bring in when you’re posting a story you know will be controversial. Have strict rules and enforce them vigorously. Change your comment culture with brute force until it normalises. Other sites have succeeded at this.

Or perhaps the most bold idea of all to deal with comments: Don’t have them at all. This is what the person I mentioned above suggested and I think there’s a lot of merit to her argument. Several popular YouTube channels disabled comments entirely after that site rebooted its comments infrastructure last year (which arguably made it worse than it already was) and at least TotalBiscuit has said he has seen no reduction in views whatsoever. From what I’ve heard elsewhere, the vast majority of people who read articles on web sites don’t comment so that’s not traffic that’s lost and chances are if you disabled comments, most of the people who use them wouldn’t go away either. If they want to spout their garbage about your article or even just discuss it, they have Reddit or their Twitter feed to do that.

The fact is, comments aren’t as important as people think they are, they just exist because it’s what you do on the web. That’s a lousy reason to have them. People will make excuses like “This comes from the top, I have no control over it.” but if you’re telling me that corporate executives wouldn’t at least question how comment sections negatively affect their brand when you show them a printout of the stuff contained in them, I simply don’t believe you. You’re either doing a lousy job of selling your superiors on the value of heavier comment moderation (or elimination) or your site’s business model is so intrinsically tied to the traffic that comes from comments that allowing them to run unregulated is more critical to your success than curating civilized discussion. If that’s the case, maybe your site isn’t contributing the value you think it is.

I know it’s very hard to make money in online media these days when reliance is on advertising that pays a fraction of a cent per view. Traffic is necessary and I’ve said before that as much as people like to bitch about that, no one’s figured out a better way yet. However, given the levels of toxicity in online discourse these days, one has to balance that with the need to not be a major contributing factor to the problem. Twitter, Facebook and Reddit may not care to do anything about the toxic communities they make possible but their executives aren’t out there whining about what a problem it is either, nor does being smaller than them get you off the hook. You don’t get to profit (however little) from providing a poorly regulated vector for Internet bile and then whine how it burns when you get it on you.

Victory begins at home. You’re not going to change people being assholes on the Internet but you give them the platforms to be that and there are things you can do but minimise the impact they have. That may not always be good for business but sometimes, principals should prevail. If you think you don’t need to change, that’s fine too. If you don’t have the power within your organisation to try to change comments for the better, that’s also OK. But then don’t whine about a problem you are a part of whether you like it or not and especially not when you collect a paycheck based on stoking controversies and driving that which you claim to despise. It’s hypocritical and not particularly journalistic.

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