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Are Comments Necessary?

March 30, 2010

Comments: to moderate, disable, or let roam free

I only read comments on blogs for a few reasons. I’ll do so if the comments on a particular site tend to be high quality (i.e. they are not all simply “I agree” or “I think you’re stupid and should not be on the internet”), I want to comment and so am reading to see what has already been said, or the post in question was very intriguing/specifically asked commenters/readers a question.

Reader Interactivity Carton

Is reader interaction essential to online publishers/writers?

When comments hurt more than they help

I was inspired to write this post because of an article on how news sites won’t survive simply through “digital razzle-dazzle.” In it, John Yemma, the editor of The Christian Science Monitor, wrote about how he feels about reader comments:

As for interactivity, we typically don’t invite readers to comment at the bottom of our stories. Don’t get me wrong, we want thoughtful comments. But comment-happy sites that don’t moderate often allow a brilliant piece to be followed by a string of rotten tomatoes thrown by—how can I put this delicately?—comment jerks.

[Note: The Christian Science Monitor does in fact allow comments on its blogs.] My first reaction was “how dare you, in this day and age, refuse to allow readers to interact with your content and your writers?” I have some experience dealing with getting deluges of comments, and when I think about it a bit more (The Christian Science Monitor is owned by a religious body, and so probably doesn’t want their readers to have to deal with the possible rude comments that naturally appear) there’s method to Yemma’s madness.

Negative comments (trolling) is worse than no comments

Think about this example. You’re reading a news story on a website. You enjoyed the story and you’re happy with the site you read it on. Then you look to the comment section. Here’s what you see:

“you’re stopid”

“fck this website this is the dumbest article”

“I don’t think anything posted on this website is worth reading.”

This might not turn me off of a website I admired (I am cynical when it comes to the average value of comments on the internet) but for the audience of a publication such as, say, The Christian Science Monitor? I can see why they shy away from comments.

Comments can help, too

On the other side of the comment spectrum, great, helpful, intelligent comments can be a draw on their own. As I’ve said before, a discussion is worth a thousand words, and nobody gets better comments than my favourite TV blogger, Alan Sepinwall. The problem lies in how to get the good comments and weed out the bad.

For one, it takes a lot of effort. You can’t just enable a comment free-for-all and hope for the best. (If you do so, you might end up with comments as useless as the conversations on popular YouTube videos.) Sepinwall enforces his 6 simple rules for commenting. And by enforcing, I mean he reads the comments and deletes anything that breaks the rules.

Other websites go a different direction. YouTube, for example, has a system that allows logged-in visitors to vote comments up or down, with those receiving a large amount of down votes being hidden. But this depends on a lot of good sameritanism, which is often lacking on the internet.

Three options: enable, disable, moderate

On sites that get very few comments (and few visitors), it’s okay to just enable comments. If you get a troll or two, it’s not a big hassle to simply delete the bad comments and keep the good. If you get 10+ comments on everything you post, and of those, 7 are trolls, you’re pretty much stuck with moderation or disabling unless you’ve got a lot of time or devotion on your hands.

Giving readers the ability to comment, without considering what kind of comments you might get, is a good thing. Discussion on an article makes the site it’s posted on look good and gives newcomers more to read. If all you’re getting is bad commenting (not to be confused with oppositional comments, such as thoughtful, polite arguments from opposing points of view), then it might be time to try a new strategy.


Today (March 31st, 2010), YouTube rolled out a site redesign that I made a humorous comment about over on my Twitter. They’ve made it so that comments by a video’s uploader appear first, followed by the highest rated comment, followed by the most recent comments. In addition to simply being able to vote a comment up or down, they’ve added a “flag for spam” button. It automatically hides a comment from your view, and probably does some behind-the-scenes stuff I’m not aware of. Kudos, YouTube. Here’s a good article from Mashable about the YouTube site makeover, if you’re interested.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2010 2:44 pm

    I’m going to comment on your post about commenting.

    I hate reading the comments on most mainstream newspaper web sites, as the grammar and opinions expressed make me scared for the future of humanity. But I guess it would be pretty anti-freedom of speech for newspapers to “weed out the bad”

    I’ve heard of blogs where people have to apply and be approved to be able to comment on posts…but you’d have to have a pretty loyal and engaged readership before you could convince people it’s worth their time to apply….

    • March 30, 2010 2:51 pm

      Yes, I too hate reading comments on most newspaper websites. I remember when the college teachers’ union was about to strike and I was reading all the articles I could find about it and being really disappointed by the level of the comments.

      Most of them were either “Teachers have too much already” or “Teachers need more!” with not much actual discussion happening.

      One thing I think might help make comments better is if writers more readily responded to commenters. While this might not have an immediate effect, it could gradually raise comment levels. Especially if writers tended to respond to well-worded, polite comments (whether negative or positive).

      Also, thanks for commenting! My secret scheme of posting about comments to draw comments is working.

      • March 30, 2010 7:48 pm

        Hey, this post on commenting is really thoughful. I think commenting is fun- but in my opinion comments only really “work” when the topic of the article is really controversial, or if it addresses a specific question to the reader.

        What I hate it when you go news sites and then people start rampaging about how the article made them so angry and start making inappropriate racist and rude comments. I don’t believe in censorship, but people who feel the need to air their dirty laundry online should really not be allowed to comment.

        The second kind of comment that is the worst is when ppl start talking about unrelated topics. I mean did they even read the post?

      • March 30, 2010 11:14 pm

        Thanks Amanpreet!

        I’m not sure that I agree with you, however, that comments only work when the topic is controversial or asks readers a question. Consider this: you commented on this blog post, which I don’t feel is particularly controversial and I also didn’t address a specific question to readers. Despite this, I still feel like your comment and those of others are both interesting and useful (if only to me).

  2. March 30, 2010 9:36 pm

    Your illustration of the damage done by a “you’re stopid” comment is spot on, Andrew. Comments like that not only spoil conversation, they hurt the reader experience and damage your brand. In the PaidContent piece, I referred to “comment-happy sites that don’t moderate.” I just want to point out that we do allow moderated comments on (currently only on blog posts, but eventually on more articles). I agree that smart comments are wonderful added value. They are, in fact, the essence of the let’s-make-everyone-smarter ideal of the Internet. But it takes a thinking person to vet the comments. There’s a cost to that, so you have to weigh the best use of limited resources.

    Keep up the thoughtful commentary. The world needs it.


    • March 30, 2010 11:10 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, John, and for letting me know about the commenting on blogs. I didn’t see the blogs at first and so assumed there were no comments anywhere. I updated the post with a little note to hopefully clear up any misunderstandings.

      It’s unfortunate that so much effort has to be devoted to simply keeping comments clean and on-topic. But it’s hopeful that a number of websites I’ve encountered have begun to develop new ways for readers to self-moderate, and although (like the YouTube example) they don’t always work perfectly, I think with time a system of comment-moderation will come about that doesn’t take away time from busy staff.

      Thanks again for commenting, and for the praise — it’s very much appreciated.

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