COMMENTING ON COMMENTS: Why are comments on stories so awful & how can we improve them?

By Matt Carroll <@MattatMIT>

Everyone loves comments… except when we hate them.

Comments on news stories can provide fascinating insights, on-point rebuttals, and even laugh-out-loud drollery. Or they can be the spear points of merciless trolls who, at their worst, can reduce people to shivering wrecks through doxing and threats of violence.

It’s not uncommon to hear people say: “Don’t read the comments.” And they have a point, especially when it seems that all comments that go on long enough end with Godwin’s Law. How many times can you read comments comparing someone to a Nazi and not think, The heck with this.

Professor Joseph M. Reagle of Northeastern University has written a book on the topic, “Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web,” which will be published in April by the MIT Press.

Reagle’s book focuses on everything from product reviews to story comments. He discusses the history of comments, how they can inform or manipulate, and how trolls can make life miserable for people and even wreck a once-productive commenting ecosystem.

It’s an important topic. Whether positive or negative, comments are a remarkably simple and effective way for readers to respond to what they’ve read. It’s also important for reporters and editors to have healthy conversations with their audiences. It’s discouraging that a handful of idiots can disrupt this process.

Reagle notes in his conclusion: “Comment is a characteristic of contemporary life: it can inform, improve, and shape people for the better, and it can alienate, manipulate, and shape people for the worse. The negatives can seem more potent than the positives, but there are many benefits to today’s comment….”

“Comment is with us, and we must find a way to use it effectively,” he says.

Good comment systems, Reagle said in an interview, provide ways of “filtering out the bozos”, encourage commitment, have a sense of community, provide easy curation, and perhaps charge a small fee, which helps block trolls. “If you do those things, you might have a system that works reasonably well,” he said.

News organizations can’t quite figure out what to do with comments. Many have dropped comments because of trolls.

Reagle has not studied the comment systems of news organizations in particular, but he understands their problem. They want comments, because it can be good content. But they don’t want to be overrun with bozos.

Part of the problem for news organizations is of their own making, he said. They have “chosen the wrong metaphor” for comments, he said. They think of comments as letters to the editor when actually they are social. Given the problems of news organizations, he understands why they might drop comments.

“But if they ignore social media, the world will pass them by,” he said. “It is a dilemma.”

What’s clear to me from Reagle’s book (and reading way too many stories on the topic) is that running an interesting comment section is hard work. Pay no attention to what’s happening in comments and the trolls take over. Reagle quotes Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates as saying that comments should be limited: “Once you take out the rubbish and clear away the weeds, flowers can grow.”

Scaling comments is difficult, Reagle says, because of spammers and trolls. That means publishers need to fortify themselves against abuse.

It also means new commenting platforms will appear as people “will move in search of intimate serendipity, a place where they can express an authentic sense of self without fear of attack, manipulation, or unusual exposure while remaining open to things that will surprise and delight them.”

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Matt Carroll runs the Future of News initiative at the MIT Media Lab. He can be followed at @MattatMIT. Blog posts on everything he writes can be found here.