The week of September 21, 2014

An ingenious way to save the comments section

By Jess Zimmerman

Comments on blogs and news sites are the worst thing about the Internet. If you didn’t know this, or if you tend to forget, you can find clothes and jewelry and Twitter feeds to remind you—but come on, you know you knew.

Terrible subreddits and 4chan at least keep to themselves most of the time, but terrible comments worm into sites you actually read and like, seething away at the bottom of posts you otherwise enjoyed. Scroll too far down a thoughtful piece by accident, and it’s like you’ve fallen into a pit of maggots.

No one likes this. Writers dread comments because they tend to miss the point of their work and derail the conversation. Community managers waste countless hours flagging hate speech and deleting racist or anti-Semitic garbage on Facebook. Most readers want to feel like they’re in a space where angry men aren’t screaming misogynist epithets.

So why do we still have comments? Why are we not only harboring these maggots, but actually putting time and money into redecorating their pits?

Scroll too far down a thoughtful piece by accident, and it’s like you’ve fallen into a pit of maggots.

It’s partly because of the idea that the Internet is supposed to be democratizing, giving a voice to people who have historically been shouldered out. On the whole, this is both accurate and admirable.

Pre-Internet, most publishing was tightly controlled. It was far from a meritocracy. The people whose voices reached the furthest were usually standing on a giant pile of privilege. The current state of publishing, which includes not only establishment-approved presses and news media but also blogs, self-published ebooks,  Twitter, the BuzzFeed community and Kinja, has significantly lower barriers to entry.

This is generally a net good. The democratic, bottom-up nature of the Internet means that we hear a more diverse group of voices, less restricted by elitism. It means that people who have been barred from public attention or equal treatment can start getting a platform at last.

Unfortunately, while many people have been passed over or shut out from publication because of institutional bias, many many many many more have been passed over or shut out simply because they don’t have anything of value to add. Comments are awful partly because everyone can access them, and most people are idiots and jerks. Worse, unmoderated comments sections create a self-perpetuating culture of idiots and jerks, in which idiocy and jerkitude are rewarded with attention and thoughtful engagement is implicitly or explicitly discouraged.

Most readers want to feel like they’re in a space where angry men aren’t screaming misogynist epithets.

And because of the vestiges of elitist publishing culture that still clings to news sites, making space for idiot and jerk behavior feels like tacit support. Even if you have nothing to say that’s not racist bile, Huffington Post, Yahoo News, Politico, or Salon will still furnish a space for you to say it, thus allowing your words to remain there under its aegis: You’re basically a published author!

Meanwhile, good commenters who want to have a thoughtful conversation often retire in disgust. Some writers won’t even work for sites with an uncontrolled comments situation. Why build your house above a maggot pit?

Sites have deployed Band-Aids for this problem, but no temporary fix is ideal. Comment moderation keeps the worst spit-frothers isolated from polite society, but it requires so much work that doing it right means paying an extra salary (not to mention running regular job searches, I’m guessing, because who would stay in that job for long?). Upvotes and downvotes introduce an appealing “clean up your own damn space” element, but they can lead to an established old guard ganging up on unpopular but valid comments, silencing dissent. And a lot of sites require that you log in or link your comments to your Facebook, increasing accountability by getting rid of anonymity—but this presumes that people don’t want to be jerks in public. A glance at any login-required comments section will make it clear that this presumption doesn’t have legs.

Here’s what we should do: Get rid of comments. The end. Article over.

Seriously. We have other venues for democratic cacophony; we don’t need to devote space on news and media sites to the opinions of J. Random Asscock. Get rid of comments, and terrible comments will never be your problem again.

Granted, this will never happen. We’re still clinging to the idea that comments give people a voice. Plus, the idea of “community” and “engagement” is still too powerful—money depends on traffic, and traffic depends on readers, and a lot of sites confuse “making readers feel involved” with “giving readers and drive-by randos a platform to say basically anything with our tacit approval.”

But failing that, there is a way to save comments and shore up the flagging news industry simultaneously. It is this: Make comments cost money.

Here’s what we should do: Get rid of comments. The end. Article over.

Hear me out before you decide I’m a capitalist swine. I’m not proposing just charging to comment, which would mean the richest people had the most voice. I also believe we should pay people when their comments reach a certain threshold of value.

How do you determine whether a comment has value? Probably editorial judgment—that’s how you determine whether an opinion piece should be published—but in the spirit of democracy and not overburdening the editors, we might fold in votes from users. The point is, the comment has to do something for someone else, not just act as a release valve for a particular person’s poison.

I’m obviously not talking about paying very much per comment; the state of Internet writing is such that most sites can barely pay staffers, let alone drive-by volunteers. Something on the order of a few cents per high-quality comment, enough that a diligent and thoughtful commenter could buy a couple extra lattes a year if she decided to cash out. (Most users, of course, would just put their profit towards more comments.)

The pay for a good comment should be slightly more than, but not double, the cost of commenting—meaning that a high-value comment will pay for itself, plus give you some profit, but not enough profit that you can post one “Obama is a tard” for every thoughtful point you make. Not for free, anyway.

The comment has to do something for someone else, not just act as a release valve for a particular person’s poison.

Result: Good commenters have a chance to make a little pocket change, which seems appropriate if we believe that comments actually enhance news sites. (They don’t, but anyway.) Good commenters, in that case, are shoring up the site with valuable content—something short of an op-ed but more worthwhile than the usual dirty graffiti—so it makes sense to pay them a tiny bit.

Meanwhile, bad commenters are free to get down with their shitty selves—but they have to financially support journalism while they do it. You want to weigh in on every article with a female-sounding byline, telling the author to get back in the kitchen? Be our guest—the money you spend will help subsidize more feminist writing.

Of course, implementing this would require a lot of new infrastructure. So it’s unlikely to happen, or at least to happen any time soon.

What should you do in the meantime? Well, I’ve had a lot of luck with a Chrome plug-in that turns off comments entirely, unless you choose to enable them on a per-site basis. It is called, appropriately, Shut Up.


Photo via Wikimedia Commons | Illustration by Max Fleishman