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.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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