Why we’ll never stop struggling over comment sections

Digiday | CNN | Digital Test Kitchen | Winnipeg Free Press
If ever there were a slam-dunk case against allowing Internet comments, it would be in the launch plan for The Daily Beast’s new Zion Square blog, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which went up without them. Can you imagine the Backpage-like effort it would take to keep those readable? Josh Sternberg surveys some of the current thinking on comments:

There have been two main ways to deal with this problem. The absolutists view Internet commenting as messy but essential. The registrars believe real identities will do away with the willingness to spill bile. Neither solution is perfect, of course, because both are blunt approaches.

Sternberg leaves out people who do not value comments at all and those who believe anonymous commenting can be valuable (though perhaps he would include them in the “messy but essential” camp).

One of those people is Gawker boss Nick Denton, who recently told an audience at SXSW that while he thought anonymity is “at the heart of the Internet,” he’s lost faith in, or maybe just patience with, comments sections: “The idea of capturing the intelligence of the readership — that’s a joke,” he said. Denton’s next move is comments sections with a guest list: “What I want is, I want the sources — I want the experts to be able to comment in these discussions.”

Comments sections might not attract experts, but they’re visited by a select group nonetheless. Digital News Test Kitchen is analyzing about three months’ worth of comments from the Greeley Tribune, which doinked its comments section last May. So far it’s found that 45 percent of the comments at the Tribune were written by 20 people, and it’s promising “a textual analysis of the most-commented stories” from the final week Greeley allowed comments.

In Winnipeg, Free Press reporter Greg Di Cresce interviewed some of the paper’s anonymous commenters. One, who goes by the handle Intangible, is so emboldened by the freedom of her new name that she’s become a reliable advocate for mental health issues. Di Cresce also quotes Red River College journalism professor Duncan McMonagle, who told him, “That kind of freedom means a lack of personal responsibility.”

“Sure you have freedom,” McMonagle continued, “because you’ll never have to account for your opinion. You’ll never have to respond honestly, face-to-face with somebody. That’s all that is.” Meanwhile, DiCresce writes that Free Press reporters are having some luck civilizing their comments sections: “the brave reporters who have waded in and showed themselves as people,” Free Press editor Margo Goodhand tells him, “with thoughts and feelings and a sense of humour, have gotten a better response.”

Of course, few sites are as lucky as Poynter, which has the best commenters in the world.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1140198321 Carolyn Jurecki

    So when you have honestly commented on a story/news article people give you a bunch of flack? So you have specific names so you can remain anonymous you use through your group so that it does not happen anymore, Yet the sites you comment on can tell it’s a “legit” comment?  Pardon the question, I’m just trying to understand.

  • Anonymous

    No question about it Stephanie…that’s a great way to go…but the drop in Pageviews would be precipitous since for many the content is almost secondary. They just want to vent their spleen on the web. What’s probably better is some means of qualifying the commenter to add value. Since someone in France can comment on your site, how does that add value for publishers, especially local ones? Amazon does this with “trusted reviews” to help avoid too many company partisans trashing their competition. There’s probably a decent business opportunity in this mess somewhere by providing general location data, and a “trusted commenter” status, it not only elevates the comment but assures advertisers that the discussion is less likely to devolve into a pointless flame war. Without a distinction how valuable is one page view over another?

  • http://profiles.google.com/stephanie.ogburn Stephanie Ogburn

    As an online editor and comment moderator, I’ve been pretty firmly in Denton’s current camp for a long while. There may be 1 percent of comments out there that improve upon a story, deepening it or enriching it in some way through the commentator’s knowledge or experience. But 99 percent of commenters are either trying to show themselves smarter than the writer or publication or using the site they are commenting on as a platform to promote their own views. Since moderating comments and implementing comment moderation systems is a significant time and cash suck, it seems to me that you could encourage those quality commenters to send in an e-mail letter to the editor through a link at the bottom of each article and then make it easy for editors to approve or disprove those letters and attach those to the articles, so readers could read the letters editors deemed interesting or worthwhile if they wanted. An e-mail based system (or some other system that does not have instant gratification, requires real names, and is curated), would, I think drastically cut down on the number of people using the hosting site as a free platform for the publication of their views, since there would be no guarantee of publication. I do not believe it is the responsibility of news sites to provide a free platform for people to voice their opinions or point out minor inaccuracies like misplaced commas; the web being what it is, those people can very easily do that themselves by creating a blog, Facebook page, Tumblr, etc. Raising the barrier to entry for comments would and essentially treating them like letters to the editor would, I believe, allow them to perform their beneficial function (enriching content) without a whole lot of the junk associated with them now.  - Stephanie P Ogburn.

  • Anonymous

    For some sites, comments ARE the primary draw and yes, it often is a core group that contributes most of them. In our own coverage of the Amanda Knox case (she’s from West Seattle) we drew comments from around the world and found some of them to be so obnoxious, so without merit that they had to be removed. But let’s be honest here. Comments like any other content, if you get them free and they attract readers will always skew in the direction that produces the most readership. So it boils down to money. If you get more readership with anonymous rants, you can expect to see more of them.

    Unless and until open, honest and accountable discussion is more profitable, the internet will remain rife with those who hide behind a screen name.

    This is with the full understanding that anonymity is a useful tool in some significant cases. You may recall the “old” practice of “Name withheld by request” but that implies there’s staff to read every comment, on every story and honor that request.

    It would certainly be refreshing to see some journalism source adopt a policy of “Honest Comments” in which the person posting has a check box to have their real name withheld but that they MUST enter it in order to have their comment appear, and validate that process by email.

  • John R. McClelland

    This sort of discussion takes on new meaning for those of us about to enter a new level of comment-related enterprise. The board of the National Conference of Editorial Writers got membership approval to rename the venerable (1946…) group Association of Opinion Journalists this year, and decided to make its membership-or-subscription journal, The Masthead, publicly visible online. The plan is to allow members to post publicly visible comments, after the website renovations make this feasible. Despite our members’ sterling record of responsibility and civility, we’re nervous about the risks of digital bile even as we share the benefits of online comment. Some of our members’ organizations have had, well, um, “interesting” experiences with anonymous commentary.
    –John McClelland, emeritus faculty, Roosevelt University,
    editing The Masthead for AOJ http://opinionjournalists.org/masthead
    Sept. 2011 panel 3 min video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8j1DXamzJo

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1140198321 Carolyn Jurecki

    I really don’t understand, why hide behind a name that does not belong to you? If your gonna say something, wear it proud. Think before you speak so your not regretting what you have said (we have all done that). Everyone now says I can say what I want “Freedom of Speech” but then hide who they are on comment sections. What’s the point? I really Do not understand….
    Carolyn Backensto/ Jurecki

  • http://twitter.com/markejohnson Mark E. Johnson


    Sorry, hard to resist that …