In praise of never reading the comments

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Photo: Getty

If you spend any time around journalists, especially those that write about anything even vaguely political, there's a regular piece of advice you'll hear: don't read the comments.

It's not true of all sites, but for most of the internet the mix on any given thread is one part illuminating criticism to approximately a billion parts angry abuse.

Writers find this impossibly depressing partially because writers, like most humans, don't particularly enjoy personal insults, but mainly because one's faith in humankind becomes eroded by every misspelled rant or furious I-only-read-the-headline-but-not-the-actual-article screed.

However, it's generally accepted that the internet is a cultural and intellectual democracy where everyone's voice is welcome, whether they want to agree, disagree, make thinly-veiled threats or provide QAULITY V1AGRA CANADIAN PHARMACY SECRETS to the broader world.

Whenever the possibility is raised that comment threads are, for the most part, pointless bile-factories, one is immediately accused of censorship. After all, free speech – or, at least, the precious freedom to call someone a “dum fat frigid slut” or a “comunist faggit” – is protected only and entirely by unencumbered access to comment threads.

And, of course, the argument continues, websites benefit because traffic increases when a story about rates of domestic violence is accompanied by a spirited debate on, say, whether all women are bitches. Right?

Well … turns out the answer may be no. And not simply for the boring, making-the-world-a-saner-and-kinder-place-in-which-to-live reasons that you'd assume.

Adam Felder is an American journalist, as well as being the person who studies the web analytics for US news and comment site, The Atlantic. Hence he watched with keen interest when competing site National Journal decided to do away with comments on just about all their stories as a direct result of abusive threads.

Interesting, he thought. Without people laying into one another in the comments, they'd inevitably see a decrease in their traffic. Yet once National Journal killed the comments, page views per visit rose by 10%, page views per visitor rose by 14% and return visits shot up by 20%.

Felder was intrigued. Counterintuitive though it might seem, could it be that people preferred to read articles without hundreds of angry morons yelling at them in the comments? Why were more people more interested and more engaged when the comments were removed?

To get an idea of the reasons behind this result, Felder ran an experiment. He took an article from the National Journal and hired 100 US-based readers via Amazon's Mechanical Turk service (where you get humans to do the sorts of jobs that robots do badly). He gave them the article and asked them to read it. Half of them got the article alone, the other half got the article and a selection of comments.

He then got them to fill out a short questionnaire about the article, starting with some basic questions asking what the article was about, and then how they perceived the quality of the piece. Both groups answered the reading comprehension questions identically, but there was an 8% difference in how the groups rated the quality of the piece. Those that got the comments concluded that the article was worse than those who only got the article itself.

Or, to put it another way: stupid comments don't just scare readers off – they make the article itself look worse.

Now, it's worth point out that this is but a single example – and perhaps it's an argument in favour of moderating comments rather than banning them outright. In fact, moderation is the solution proposed by Justin Ellis at Nieman Lab when he looked at the same issue earlier this year, while Jesse Singal at New York Magazine argues that the Reddit approach of voting comments up or down does a pretty solid job of pushing trolls to the bottom of the pile.

However, I for one am all for preventing people screaming out their idiot opinions and unsolicited insults in comment threads.

After all, that's what Twitter is for.

24 comments

  • I am torn by the issue...I love being able to leave a thought or share an anecdote that is relevant to the article and I like reading about other people's views and experiences. On the other hand I do get quite dispirited by the snarky, off topic, or drum beating comments that seem to dominate most threads. Unfortunately I don't think moderation is a very reliable or practical approach either. It's obvious that moderators aren't familiar with the discussion they are moderating and they tend to be very uneven. I don't know about reader voting but it seems like it would be susceptible to gaming.

    Daily life is a classic example - the domineering angry male voice seems to overwhelm any thoughtful or relevant comment and derail most discussions; obviously male sock puppets with female sounding tags are all over the place; moderation is patchy and sporadic at best; and yet when articles don't have a comment section I miss being able to do a quick scan and find those few hidden gems.

    Moving to a real name community wouldn't work because many people want to share experiences that they would rather keep private in their real lives, but maybe allowing comments by subscribed readers only would go a long way towards cleaning up the whole mess.

    Commenter
    Nick
    Date and time
    June 19, 2014, 10:02AM
    • Perhaps rather than worrying about "obviously male sock puppets with female sounding tags" you should evaluate the argument on its merits rather than what you think is the gender of the person making comment?

      As for only allowing comments by subscribers you are then taking a voice away from those who cannot afford a subscription. Are their views any less worthy of being expressed simply because they can't pay? Sounds to me like the sort of thing many columnists here would describe as being the patriarchy silencing the poor.

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      June 19, 2014, 11:53AM
    • You seem to think that any comment made by the domineering angry male voice is off topic and irrelevant. You ever considered that that voice is angry because the topic and the logic behind the article is patently flawed?

      Commenter
      Kev
      Date and time
      June 19, 2014, 12:00PM
    • Nick, I wasn't sure of your comment at first. Then I read the two below it and what do you know, Kev and Hurrow proved your case.

      Commenter
      KC
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 19, 2014, 1:38PM
    • I'd say you just like being an angry man, Kev.

      Commenter
      Sigh
      Date and time
      June 19, 2014, 1:40PM
    • I can only talk about myself, but I come here to learn about the female experience and perspective. Male sock puppets pretending to be women add little to my experience and in fact actively detract from it. Keep in mind that the majority of comments are presenting an opinion and not an argument. But I accept others come here for other reasons.

      I don't discount the angry male voice, like most adults I have had my fair share of sorrows, but I find most of the angry males who comment here appear to be emotionally stuck, are appallingly sexist, use extremely selective quotes, manipulate statistics, and display a flocking bullying behaviour that shuts down other voices.

      I agree limiting comments to paid subscribers isn't ideal but nor is having a patently abused free system.

      Commenter
      Nick
      Date and time
      June 19, 2014, 2:08PM
    • Nick if you're implying that I'm pretending to be a woman then I would say that 1) I have never pretended to be a woman, and at least some regular commenters here like Red Pony etc are obviously aware that I am a man and 2) as per my original reply shouldn't my argument/opinion speak be judged on its merits rather than what you perceive my gender to be?

      Having an alternative opinion to the columnist or other commenters doesn't automatically detract from the argument and often adds to it, and given that comments here are subject to moderation hopefully we can assume that at least someone else thinks that the comment is on topic as per Daily Life's guidelines.

      As to the claim that "angry males who comment here appear to be emotionally stuck, are appallingly sexist, use extremely selective quotes, manipulate statistics, and display a flocking bullying behaviour that shuts down other voices." I again refer you to the fact that comments here are moderated so someone else out there who actually works for Daily Life obviously disagrees with you about those claims. As of last year I believe it was an all female moderating team by the way, I'm assuming you are not accusing them of being sexist towards women?

      I also come here to learn more about the female experience. Sometimes I agree with the columnist, sometimes I don't and a lot of the time I agree with some of their points and not with others. On occasion I change my mind because of something that is written, other times I disagree and try to change the mind of others. Unless you are blindly agreeing with everything that is written I guess we're here for much the same reason.

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      June 19, 2014, 3:18PM
  • Or,
    Comments point out fatal flaws in articles that make people see other sides to a story, hence lowering the overall rating of those articles.

    Nah, journalists know everything, who needs comments. AMIRITE?

    Commenter
    Freddie Frog
    Date and time
    June 19, 2014, 10:37AM
    • Of course Freddie, because everyone knows using caps lock is the 'check mate' of any argument.
      But seriously, journalists/feature writers, etc publish articles but they don't have to be subjected to the screeching nonsense that comes with the lunacy of open comments. For example, read the comments on any Clementine Ford article. Rather than construct opposing arguments, the nutters barely have time to log in before they're carrying on about feminzais, left wing, all women are molls, blah blah blah. It's hardly a contribution.

      Commenter
      KC
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 19, 2014, 1:43PM
  • In order of preference I would go with moderated comments, unmoderated comments and no comments. The trouble with moderated comments though is that it relies on an unbiased moderator(s) who doesn't remove comments for the crime of disagreeing with the columnist and instead considers the comment on its merits, sadly not all websites live up to this.

    A better alternative to my mind is to have unmoderated comments but with the ability for readers to report comments which are offensive or irrelevant spam, these can then be reviewed by a moderator and removed if inappropriate.

    Commenter
    Hurrow
    Date and time
    June 19, 2014, 11:20AM

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