Close your comments; Build a community

Unmanaged comments sections are harmful to readers and publications. 


Last week I learned that yet another news website would be closing their native commenting platform and switching to Facebook comments.

This isn’t breaking news. Last year, Popular Science decided to closed comments, citing studies that blamed them for the spread of misinformation. TechCrunch has changed platforms several times, to Livefyre, and back to Facebook comments. Indeed, there seems to be nothing notable in me pointing out this latest shuttering, except that this particular community is one that I built myself, as part of an amazing team, spending hours wading through audience development metrics, creating UGC programs and speaking with readers on the phone… and I agree with their decision to remove the comments.

The comments box is a cultural war. Writers are terrified of the criticism the bottom of the page holds, and so, they mentally close out any valid exchanges that might be taking place there. Readers understand that their thoughts are delegated to a small section beneath piles of ads, videos, banners, and slideshows. They feel that no one is listening, and so, they come in angry, flailing wildly, begging to be heard with outrageous statements in caps lock. It’s a Petri dish that grows trolls and frightens away those who actually want to contribute. At worst, an unmoderated comments section can contain threats and personal attacks, invalid criticisms and spam. At best, it’s a thread of off-topic arguments that add nothing to the conversation.

Moderation goes to great lengths to fix these problems. A moderator can ban dangerous trolls, protecting equitable commenters and increasing reply rates and time-on-site between those readers. They can pass along helpful corrections to authors, and respond to technical problems. Community managers encourage a registered base of active, civil users, the best focus group there is, I’d note from my own experience. However, these positions can also be very expensive and difficult to fill, and a tertiary requirement for organizations who need to put every precious resource toward reporting. Moderation is a slippery slope: your needs become greater as your community grows. Soon, you have to invest in overnight moderation, in weekend hours. You work on comment quality and need to keep track of banned users who try to come back with new IP addresses and handles, or you develop a smart program to keep track of users for you. All time consuming and pricey.

Are there any baseline benefits? If you maintain growth, there are many. Mathew Ingram, who often speaks about digital communities on GigaOm, says, “It boils down to giving your readers and your community an easy way to interact with you, both positively and negatively. Sure, they can post their thoughts to Twitter and Facebook and so on, but those are third-party networks and not everyone is going to see those comments.”

Readers who comment natively on your site may bookmark your homepage or author pages, visiting several times a day, and tend to be more eager to contribute when you request photos or stories. But, even though these users can spend longer hours on-site than casual readers, it’s difficult to justify that expense and time, and so, more often than not, we end up with the comments box.

If you’re not prepared to make the investment in that kind of upkeep, why have comments at all? If you’ve purchased the sexiest, newest platform, but you’re not doing anything to involve readers in your work, you might as well close your comments anyway, because you don’t have a community. Comments are not the easy road to community any more than an unmanaged Facebook page is the fast track to social media referrals.

So, why did you want comments in the first place? Many organizations cite “engagement,” but what they actually mean is “action.” They want to motivate their readers to do something, whether that action is clicking a share button, emailing a tip, or contributing some form of user generated content. You want them to spend more time reading, and to have some connection to the work you’re doing, maybe by being a fan of a writer, or signing up for a newsletter. You want reader-to-reader discussion around the topics your organization cares about, and may not want another platform to own those conversations. And there are plenty of ways to do that which do not involve a comments box.

Let’s pretend the word “engagement” doesn’t exist and ask a few questions:

- What kind of reader involvement is beneficial to my publication and how does that translate into something they can actually do?

- What are the discussion points we want to own and where are people already discussing those topics?

- How involved does the readership feel in our reporting? What would they do if they felt more involved?

Out of these answers, you might find that what you really want is a weekly open discussion with a favored columnist, a database of readers who are real-life experts and willing to contribute, or, to become better acquainted with the users of a topical subreddit, to utilize them as sources. Maybe you need a tips line, weekly poll, or a sentiment tool. Or, maybe you do prefer comments and are ready to take safety and standards seriously.

There is still no magic formula for engagement. Is a reader engaged when they click ‘like’ without reading a story? When they share via email, or spend ten minutes flipping through a slideshow? For all of our charts and graphs, we still cannot be 100% certain. So, while I am disappointed for the active readers who are continually pushed out of underdeveloped communities, the “homeless” commenters who are aching to have civil discussions, I am rarely sad when a commenting platform collapses, because it usually means the community dissolved long before. If you are prepared to spend the money on comment analysis tools and platforms, you’d better also be taking the time to understand who your readers are and creating a space that is beneficial to both you and them.