This week, our local newspaper announced it was removing the comment section in future posts. This comes in the wake of a fairly well-established trend of prominent media outlets, including Popular Science, deciding to do the same in order to bring the emphasis back to the content, and curb widespread abuse of writers and their audiences by unpleasant drive-by commenters.
And truly, nothing of value was lost.
First, what many major outlets have realized by now, many of them through rather hard lessons, is that journalism isn’t just a business, it’s a delicate balance, a deep search for the truth. By its very nature, this demands well-developed communications skills and keen social competence on the part of its researchers and presenters, and a carefully crafted environment in which to convey the information to the audience.
The focus must remain on getting the overall message across as it was intended, and to this end, the audience is in their best shape to be receptive to that information when it’s in a place where they can absorb it at their own time, consider the facts and narratives, and not have the message damaged by snide remarks, conspiracy theories, thinly-disguised shock site links, and other types of trolling.
Unfortunately, most news media comment sections and message boards end up abused, and abused most brutally.
Why is this problem so widespread?
From what I’ve noticed, the dynamic usually goes south because the premise on which public comment forums are created is entirely wrong to begin with. News outlets encouraging commentary are, by their actions, attempting to bring together an extremely heterogeneous audience under unnatural conditions in which there exists no unifying sense of identity, little to pull users close and be interested in each other, few mechanisms to drive focus, poor collective memory, and rarely any feeling of long-term consequences.
Together, these factors result in a lack of impetus for the group to draw together as a self-conscious, productive, self-policing community.
Any novice Web designer can believe they’ll get more hits from adding a forum for users to interact; it takes true experts and cautious engineering, however, to actually get something good from the deal. This can be difficult even in places where one has a group of like-minded people to start with who wish to learn from each other. Managing a group is a complicated task that’s equal parts art and science, and it frequently requires years of careful planning in order to lay the groundwork properly to create quality connections and a sufficiently large readership.
Turn-key comment forums, from the way they’re implemented on most news sites, have been handled in a way that creates a cheap, ephemeral sense of being. They’re overused in places they should not even exist. There’s too little thought put into engineering for positive interaction. Most alarmingly, their ubiquity has led to the widespread public perception that the medium itself is disposable. Consequently, most commentary takes on the character of the venue itself — drive-by, forgettable, out-of-place, melodramatic.
It’s an echo chamber full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Even before the rise of comment apps and social media, I always felt that the overwhelming bulk of the emphasis must remain on the content. There’s a good reason for that: if a person publishes an article, the main selling feature of that article’s presentation format should not be the ability to sign up to a service that allows readers to fling their poo at one another.
If poo-flinging ends up being the consequence, it’s because someone added an opportunity at some point to change the emphasis.
This goes double for anyone publishing content that isn’t particularly intellectual in nature, content that doesn’t logically call for followup, or content that basically amounts to a public service announcement — there’s no good reason to make these into debates in most cases. If a reader does need to contact the author or editor, for example in the case of a correction to an article, the company’s telephone line or newsroom e-mail will be more than sufficient to get the job done.
We’re best served leaving the commentary on the specialized systems and tools we’ve adopted that have already proven wildly successful at engaging us — tools like Twitter, Facebook, and personal websites are much better geared to these kinds of discussions, and far better attuned to each of our unique interests and social circles. These systems carry commentary in a more meaningful way since they’re better organized and connected. Best of all, by having commenters surrounded by the people they care about in a familiar setting, it greatly reduces any temptation to fling poo.