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Why We Should Get Rid of Comments on Major News Sites

by Nate St. Pierre on September 27, 2013

I just read a bunch of article comments on major news sites in order to write a piece on the topic, and then I got too depressed to actually write it. I wish I were kidding.

But then my friend Melissa told me to write it anyway, so here I am.

A couple days ago, Popular Science announced that they are shutting off comments on their online articles. They’re doing it to try to retain the integrity of these pieces, because their studies show that argumentative or negative comments impact the credibility of the original post.

But this points to an underlying factor that’s true for virtually all major news sites: 90% of the comments are negative and/or argumentative. I’ll let Alexandra Petri explain it, as she’s done the best job I’ve seen so far:

“…the less commenters are guaranteed to have in common, the worse the climate tends to be.

The few places where the comments sections are the home of a vibrant, riveting, polite discussion are the ones where the host site has made a vigorous effort to create community.

On most major news sites, all you have in common is the fact that you just read [Whatever That Article Was], and you have [Some Feeling] about it — and, more damning yet, that you are one of the people hardy enough to venture off the safe map of the article and into the deep and chartless waters of the comments section, where most of the occupants are weird darkling creatures with the opinion equivalent of strange dangly glowing protrusions on their snouts to lure in unsuspecting fish (“So, you think Obamacare ISN’T a sinister plot? Come closer and explain!”).

As she mentions, this generalization doesn’t really apply to the smaller, more personality-driven sites. Small-time bloggers like me generally have our own little community of regular readers who engage in discussion, along with a few random passerby (is that plural? i have no idea – i hope so). Our commenters tend to be much more civil because we actually know one another, at least in a loose sense of the word, and we’re gonna have to see each other again on the next article.

I will say that on the few occasions where one of my blog posts has gone national, the comments got much, much uglier. That’s just how it works once you get past the zone of civility that naturally forms around smaller publications. Commenters on the major news sites have no accountability to anyone, and therefore no civility. All they want to do is push their agenda, whatever it happens to be, to anyone who will listen.

Look at any article on CNN.com and tell me how many comments it takes to see cries of “Socialist!” “Teabagger!” bouncing around. Over/under on that nonsense is about 7 comments. And that’s just the Sports section!

I’ve always said that if I ever wrote a book about the Internet, it would be called “Don’t Read the Comments.” And I’m not the only one – this is advice I’ve heard over and over again from anyone who writes heavily trafficked articles on the web. It begs the question, what’s the point? Why do we even enable comments on news articles when everyone knows that they’re worthless? Personally, I know that every time I read them I lose a little bit of faith in the human race.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: it’s not even the fact that people argue. People always argue, and that’s okay. The point is that in blog comments, no one is arguing fairly. They’re just venting, with mouths open and ears shut. I can tell you 100% truthfully that I have never, not once, seen an argument in the comments of a major news site end with, “You’re right – I see your point there. Thanks for clearing that up for me.” I literally laughed while reading that line back, that’s how far-fetched it seems.

You see, nothing is ever accomplished down there. Nothing positive ever comes of it. Believe me; I’ve been looking for years. If everyone knows that all you get in the comments is angry verbal abuse, maybe it’s time that we all just face up to the fact that they’re simply not worth having around anymore.

If 90% of the comments are ignorant and obnoxious anyway, we won’t be missing much.

And yes, I know that 25% of the original articles are ignorant and obnoxious in the first place, but still, those are better odds, right?

  • Julie O

    I actually stopped reading the news all together about six month ago because of how negative 90% of it was. There’s a lot of good in the world too but people don’t talk about it.

  • EmilyHornburg

    I’m like Julie… I’ve stopped reading the news. (Unless it’s from Broadway.com or something… obviously.) I’m just tired of it. I’ll read an article if something major in the world is happening so I can be informed, but that’s about it. Honestly, I have no problems with getting rid of those comments. If people want to discuss the issues, they can share it with people or make their own blog or something to discuss it. Or ::gasp:: actually talk with someone face to face and not on the internet.

  • lnhaynes

    I grew up not watching the news. It was “too violent”. So I don’t read too much news now, and I definitely try not to read the comments (I’d rather spend my time on things I CAN CHANGE).

    My dad wrote an article that was in Scientific American. And there are some serious trolls. I read the comments there. I wish I hadn’t. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=sleeping-with-the-enemy And frankly, I read a magazine for the content, not for the dialog. I read other things, like twitter, for the dialog.

    But then there’s also this, about echo chambers : http://social.cs.uiuc.edu/people/gilbert/pub/hicss09-echo-gilbert.pdf

    How do we find good opinions that are different than our own, without succumbing to the “You’re dumb” or “You’re wrong” trolls?

    • See, that’s the thing, right? When I read an article online, I very often DO head to the bottom and scan the comments, because I really do want to see a good discussion with differing viewpoints and make sure I can see a good 360 on the issue. Unfortunately, I just never find that on the news sites.

      I do sometimes find it on the smaller ones, but your echo chamber article is right – instances of simply agreeing with the author usually far outweigh anything else, and make the comments just as useless as the news ones (though much more pleasant, at least).

      This is why we can’t have nice things. 😉

      • lnhaynes

        Ah yes, you want the dinner party of conversations to happen on the internet. But the internet is actually more like the WWE of comments… it’s entertaining, but its not real, and people just get slammed around.

  • Nat_Readerland

    I am going to agree with the article and this is probably one of the lats times I ever post a comment. I am tired of reading them, tired of seeing the attacks and tired that no matter what the article is on, the comments degrade into a political flame match. Such hate I have never seen like I have on CNN and other comment sites. I often think if CNN turned them off it would not really affect marketing because i do not think most people in the comments section see them. Maybe that is why I have gone back to reading the newspaper….great article

  • Pingback: The Outrage Economy: Go Ahead, Get Angry()

  • Howda Yadoo

    Negative comments seem to be most prevalent in articles with shoddy journalism. If you want to clean up the comments section it will have to start with cleaning up sensational journalism. Topics aren’t being researched and opinions are being posted as facts on “major news sites”. This is more troubling than any poster calling another poster a “doody-head”.

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