There was a time, not so long ago, when a blog or news site’s comments section was considered a boon to Internet dialogue – a way for the “people formerly known as the audience” to break past the media gatekeepers and create meaningful discussion on an issue or topic. Comments were a new evolution of the traditional letters to the editor appearing in newspapers for more than a century. No single arbiter of taste would decide which letters appeared in the paper and which were thrown to the waste bin.
But if you’ve been following the goings-on in the media and content industry recently, you know that more publishers are giving up on this user-generated utopia and closing down the comment sections. Just search for the phrase “closing its comment sections,” and you’ll find a litany of outlets announcing an end to their comment sections – a list that includes The Daily Dot, Recode, CNN, Popular Science, and Copy Blogger.
Why abandon features previously considered essential for dialogue? Well, the editors of these outlets offer reasonable rationales worth considering for anyone who hosts a blog, whether it’s on a company website or your own personal domain.
Better conversation occurs on social media
The Internet looks a lot different than it did when comment sections made their debut. Many content sites now see almost half their traffic coming from mobile, and many of those mobile users are coming to the sites through social platforms like Twitter or Facebook.
“In our experience, our community hasn’t evolved in our comments,” said The Daily Dot editor Nicholas White. “It’s evolved in our social media accounts.”
While some bloggers and journalists wade into discussions in their comment sections, most steer clear of them. (There’s such a groundswell of support that people frequently use the hashtag “dontreadthecomments”.) However, just because they stay away from comment sections doesn’t mean they’re not engaging with their audience. Many journalists respond to tweets, for example, making Twitter a more likely platform for conversations between content creators and their audience.
Trolls derail every conversation
It turns out that when you give Internet users a blank page on which to write, too many like to fill it with ad hominem attacks and trolling. This type of demagoguery often alienates and sometimes even traumatizes the writers of the articles under which these comments appear (and some of the commenters who receive similar treatment by their fellow commenters). As a thought experiment, imagine a work environment in which you were constantly and easily exposed to vicious negativity every time you produced new work product.
Not only do trolls have a psychological impact on a site’s writers, but they affect readers’ perceptions of truth and facts. In its announcement that it was shutting down its comment section, Popular Science cited a study conducted by University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Dominique Brossard that found “uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.”
Of course, millions of blogs don’t experience those problems because they don’t receive any comments at all. It’s not necessarily their fault, it’s just that most sites don’t attract enough traffic or write the kind of provocative content that spurs comments. If every single one of your blog posts is devoid of user-generated discussion, why offer a commenting tool at all? You’re simply sending a signal to everyone that your company blog is a ghost town, even if it has a high readership. By uninstalling the commenting software, you also could significantly increase your site’s loading time.
No problems here, we’re keeping comments
So let’s say you decide, after reading all the reasons for ditching your comment sections, that you still want to keep them (which, by the way, is a perfectly reasonable decision). How can you generate more vibrant, reasoned discussion?
“We all like to joke that comment sections are all hell holes,” wrote Aaron Miles. “But when you tap into a specific niche, you can get an audience that is less prone to idiocy and trolling.” That’s because when you’re writing about some industry-specific topic, your commenters will find fewer segues to launching political flame wars that quickly trigger Godwin’s Law (as an online argument heats up so does the probability that somebody will bring up Adolf Hitler or the Nazis).
Niche blogs also tend to have smaller, more specialized audiences, who are prone to more thoughtful discussion.
On the positive side, anonymity allows one to discuss delicate topics with which you might not want to be associated. More often than not, though, anonymity provides a shield to trolls and spammers who can spew hatred with impunity. Many media companies have installed the Facebook comments widget for precisely this reason; it forces commenters to be logged into their Facebook accounts, thereby ensuring any rhetoric is associated with their real-life identity.
Of course, it turns out that the Facebook widget isn’t a foolproof shield against trolling. “If you’ve been in the comment section of basically any article on The Huffington Post or BuzzFeed, the continuous stream of inanity, attached to people’s real names and photos even, seems to prove that basically nothing will get people to stop being dumb and/or terrible people on the web,” wrote Miles.
Nonetheless, when there’s a strong tie to a user’s actual identity, especially when there are potential professional implications for abuse, comments can work well. LinkedIn already has a built-in way to authenticate commenters on Pulse posts. Similarly, commentary sites like the rapidly growing Quibb make an effort to authenticate users and have them interact as people with professional identities – not strangers in the night.
Foster and moderate discussion
If you enable comments, you have the responsibility to engage with them. Too often we see an “anything-goes” mentality in which the commenters are essentially left on their own. This sends two signals: (1) You don’t care about your readers, and (2) There are no rules of engagement in the comment sections.
Take a look at a blog where the writer takes the time to respond to commenters (Neil Patel’s Quick Sprout is a good example of this), and you’ll find a readership willing to engage in thoughtful discussion.
If you’re not willing to foster thoughtful discussion, then I must return to my original question: Why bother with a comment section at all?
CMI actively engages with its readers in the comments section to answer our audience’s questions or participate in thought-provoking discussions that advance the content marketing industry. Want to advance your own blog? Get CMI’s free Ultimate Guide to Blogging.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute