Are comments valuable or a waste of time? Yes

A column by Judith Timson in the Globe and Mail this week got me thinking again (not like I ever really stop) about comments on blogs and news stories and other places, and the value that they bring. Judith’s column was in many ways a lament for the death of civilized discourse, and a criticism of the no-holds-barred comments that appear at many media sites — including the Globe’s. Not surprisingly, she mentioned the book Snark, by David Denby, which is concerned with the same decline-of-civilization-as-we-know-it kind of argument. As you’ve probably guessed already, I disagree with that view.

In many ways, comments are like version 1.0 of community — the lowest common denominator of community, at least for a mainstream media site like the Globe’s. You can post a comment, never really engage with anyone, say whatever you want and not have to reap the consequences (at least with an anonymous system like we have, which I have defended before for a variety of reasons), and so on.

I would be the first to admit that our comments don’t always achieve the level of discourse that I — and the Globe as a whole — would like them to. We get a lot of “drive-bys,” as I like to call them, in which people just spray-paint offensive comments or insults directed at the subjects of a particular story, or in many cases the writers. We are working on ways of dealing with that kind of thing (as I’ve described in previous posts on the subject), including comment voting and other “reputation management” tools that I hope will allow our community of readers to promote the positive and de-emphasize the negative. But I think there is an important principle attached to having comments, and not just having them but actively engaging with readers who make honest and well-intentioned comments.

For many people — including a number who work at the Globe — this has little or no value. In fact, they believe that comments substantially detract from the integrity and brand value of what we do, and effectively drag us down into the mudpit with the yahoos and nutjobs. When they aren’t busy ignoring them, they read them and focus on the worst, and become incensed about how we allow these kinds of comments to be published on our site. I talked about this a bit during a recent interview on Q, the CBC radio show hosted by Jian Ghomeshi (there are also plenty of legal issues surrounding libel, etc. and the liability thereof, which we didn’t really have time to get into, mostly because there is no law on that in Canada as yet).

For some of our writers — rightly or wrongly — interacting with readers in any kind of direct way is just not something they feel comfortable with. They are happy to respond to the occasional email, or to engage with someone they meet at a social event, but comments are just too chaotic and foreign in some sense. I think many would much rather that things were still one-way, rather than always a “conversation.” And my sense is that for many, the comments we get don’t really jibe with their vision of what our readers are like (or ought to be like), and so they kind of pretend that they aren’t there, in the same way that people try to ignore an elephant in the room.

Are there plenty of cruel remarks in our comments? Sure there are. And there are plenty of thoughtful and pointed and intelligent and interesting (although occasionally not grammatical) comments as well. Comments reveal the full spectrum of humanity in all of its glory, and all of its unpleasantness. As one commenter on Judith’s column put it: “The comments are great! I want zero ‘moderation’ on the only vehicle for true free speech to ever exist in human history. The anonymity enables people to say EXACTLY what they REALLY think, with no social censure. People are not always ‘nice’, sometimes they are angry, and bitter, and cruel, and stupid – these things are all important aspects of human nature.”

Obviously, we’re not going to allow abusive and offensive behaviour in the comments on our stories — but we don’t want to turn them into an antiseptic, unfeeling, excessively rule-bound, overly decorous parlour-room conversation either. Finding a place in between those two extremes is the challenge, but it is a challenge that I for one think is worth taking on.

31 thoughts on “Are comments valuable or a waste of time? Yes

  1. As someone who's always believed it's important to stand up and be counted, I too have been saddened to see how empowered many of my fellow humans are by the concept of anonymity. It's one of the things I really like about Twitter and the transparency that's evolved as one of the underlying tenets of social media.

    I still struggle to try to assess how a comment on an online article relates, in terms of numbers, to the traditional snail mail letter to the editor (which they used to say 1/1000 people wrote). My sense is that now that it's easier to engage with media, more people are doing so. And that can only be a good thing.

    You'll never be able to please all of the people any of the time. But the chances that you'll please any of them are pretty much nil if you don't even try. 🙂

  2. The comment structure at the G & M site definitely needs a makeover… at the very least, you should be able to comment on a comment and have it display directly under the person you're quoting. Voting mechanisms would also be useful, and allowing minimal HTML in the comment would be ideal to use blockquote or links.

    I agree 100% that it's something worth taking on. I think if you open comments on a story, the writer should be engaged with the discussion in some way – at least for the editorial pieces. And comments are a great tool for researching – how many times do you read comments and think of an idea for your own story?

    • I totally agree — and we are working on many of those enhancements, and will hopefully be able to roll them out soon.

  3. Try strike through.
    The deal is that you will always get snark, lunacy and crap. I mentioned this to you the other day.
    Leaving all comments in place, but using strike through on those comments that do not fit whatever policy you have in place will do a couple of important things.

    One, it will demonstrate your desire for transparency, by publishing all comments and still maintaining discourse.

    Two, It demonstrates comments that are objectionable, using them as indicators for what will not fly.(you can also take the time to note why the comment is outside the lines. preferably, below and in italics )

    Three. Strike through demonstrates your commitment to engagement and dialogue.

    The unintended benefit is that a lot of folks will scan over things that get stricken, and stay with the program. You will probably get a much better comment stream, and help your shy writer's over their issues.

  4. Comments can really be a good thing. It indicates that someone really reads your articles 🙂 . It also be a good way of measuring how effective and how it influence other people. the problem, specially if the moderation is off, are those who leave spam comments. that's why the site should have a certain anti-spam measures to protect it from these guys.

    • That's awesome — a spammy comment with a link to an SEO site, that talks
      about how spammy comments can be a problem. Irony alert.

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  8. I loved Judith's column, but I don't think the phenomenon of being a troll just because you can is all that new. Free speech finds its way somehow into interactions within all human communities. The anonymous (or even signed) troll post is not that much different in my view from that offline phenonmenon we call gossip.

    Like comments in social media, gossip takes place within the confines of a community of people with whom one identifies, creating an atmosphere where one feels one can speak freely about others without repercussions. In both environments, when the nature of the discourse happens to be negative and heard by the subject of the gossip, both the true and the untrue can be hard to hear. I've always felt that the impetus for gossip comes from an innate and universal human tendency to find and illuminate at least some small area of superiority over other members of the species. Those who like to gossip are perhaps more likely to be the type to leave anonymous comments, and those who “call 'em the way they see'em” may be more likely to stand behind their words with an actual identity. Either way, it's just an age-old human tendency played out through a new medium, and I don't think that any one of us is any more or less personally responsible online than we are offline.

  9. This is a conversation that we waded ankle deep into last year when it was circulating on some of the blogs on our blogroll:…. In an online forum, journalists can reap value from the discussion created in the comments, but those that have their roots in more traditional print based mediums will not want to open that discussion channel, as you've said.

    I believe that vicious, anonymous comments are partly what fueled the hacks vs. flacks online war of '08, a topic we also touched on as it was happening:

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  11. Without all your comments, this will be just one person opinion. The comments are important because the free expression make debates of ideas and apport important thoughts

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  13. I'm a big fan of the comments, really let you see how some people interpret the news, for better or worse. And they can be a news-tip gold mine for reporters…

  14. I think that one of the main reasons I read blogs is because of the comments and it is also one of the reasons I love blogging so much myself. Often the conversation that goes on in the comments is far more exciting than the post itself and the post only sets the tone for the comments!

  15. That column bothered me. I never quite understood the mentality of writers who believe they are above the people who comment on their sites. For me, one of the joys of writing is the ability to engage and, occasionally, scrap and argue online.

    I have to admit, I've been on both sides of the fence. As a writer, I've received comments and emails that have trashed my work. It hurts, but I like understanding where people are coming from, and I appreciate the opportunity to argue and change minds, if possible.

    I've also even been known to leave anonymous critiques of other writers' work when I feel it's not up to par. (*blush*) As I've never been abusive, I hate it when writers don't acknowledge criticism. As a reader, it makes me feel very disconnected from the author and, by extension, the brand.

    The comment forms that are currently used on websites do seem a bit outdated. I've always wondered why newspapers don't use more of a forum or message board system. They are far stickier because people genuinely feel as if they are entering into a community with discussion on topics, as well as articles. This type of system also prevents abuse as genuine privileges can easily be limited or restricted. You can also then find people from within the “community” to moderate discussions (for free!). does this very well, I feel. You could adapt this to a newspaper style quite easily.

    (PS – thx for the twitter follow)

  16. Interesting read, the way i seee it is if you can make something seem a bit of an effort when commenting then it discourages a lot of users / spammers, like making them register or pushing them into having a valid email address or captcha codes.

  17. I like comments if only for the reason that it confims that someone has visited my blog. Now, the quality of those comments are varied but at least I'm getting some visitors which has other benefits.

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  19. Comments are really valuable especially for your readers who want to interact from your post just what others do right now commenting on your posts . Comments can really be a good thing. It shows that someone really reads your posts. People who love other posts will come back for more just to read what's new. Some people called it is a waste of time because there are people who has no really intention reading your posts and what they do is spam it they don't what to spend a lot of time reading the article.

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