We’re seeing a glut of news sites, of all genres and sizes, beginning to shut down their below the line (BTL) commenting sections. The movement arguably began with the scrapping of Popular Science’s comments in September of 2013, and recent weeks have seen a swell of media brands following suit. Over the last few days alone digital newspapers TheWeek.com and Mic have closed their comments systems. 

But as with so many media trends, there has already been a backlash, with publications and commentators mounting spirited defences of the idea that media businesses should welcome and value their reader input.

So why are some publishers deciding they don’t want to host reader responses? And what will publishers lose or gain from their decision?

The bad


The negative aspects of comments systems are readily apparent to anyone who spends time in them. First of all, there’s the idea that below the line comments just aren’t where that type of interaction lives any more. As stated in the closure announcement on TheWeek:

“In the age of social media, the smartest and most vibrant reader conversations have moved off of news sites and onto Facebook and Twitter.

“It is no longer a core service of news sites to provide forums for these conversations. Instead, we provide the ideas, the fodder, the jumping off point, and readers take it to Facebook or Twitter or Reddit or any number of other places to continue the conversation.”

That social media is the new forum for discussion is probably the most common reason given for closing comment sections, echoed in Reuters’ reasons for closing comments and the Mic article about their own cessation of the service:

“Our audience is having robust conversations on social media platforms around our stories. The passionate discussions we see on our Facebook page — as well as the conversations our audience is having with our writers on Twitter — are more productive and organized than what tends to happen in our comments section.”

That discussions which happen through social platforms tend to be more organised says less about the nature of the people who use social social media and more about the relative limitations of the BTL commenting systems. On the majority of those systems, for example, a user’s post is just as visible as the content of the article on which they’re commenting.

That means that if a user is determined to post toxic content, it will either cause annoyance for a moderator who has to spend time protecting the rest of the commenters manually, or depending on how the comments chain is organised will either be visible permanently or until it’s voted into nonexistence by other commenters. Neither way is perfect, and as this 2011 post by Martin Belam makes clear, “dickish” behaviour in comments sections is nothing new.

On social media (and especially Twitter, which might be why journalists prefer it to Facebook), that’s much more rarely the case, since toxic content isn’t so visibly attached to the content. 


Moreover, there’s a body of evidence that suggests toxic commenters can actually polarize the audience of an article. A study by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Brossard and his co-author Dietram A. Scheufele found that:

“In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.”

So it’s unfortunate that a huge number of comments in those sections are so toxic. In this Poynter breakdown of the Los Angeles Times’ burial of its own comments section as an optional extra, there’s a quote from the University of Houston’s communications professor Arthur Santana, whose research found that half of comments on the LA Times’, Houston Chronicle’s and The Arizona Republic’s articles on immigration were toxic:

“These commenting forums are very much a cesspool of incivility, racism, and sexism. It’s just the worst of humankind.”

Even attempts to get around the issues of that antisocial, toxic behaviour have been routinely subverted, as when the Gawker network’s Kinja system, which can be linked to a user’s social media account, was abused by users posting graphic images in the comments sections of unrelated articles.

There’s clearly problems with the way comment sections operate. They haven’t kept pace with social media, they are time-consuming and can potentially be harmful to an audience’s understanding of the journalist’s intent. So why are so many people still arguing in their favour?

The good

Obviously there are some sites where commenting is performing its function – provoking and extending debate and engagement with a community:

Elena Cresci, community coordinator for the Guardian, believes comments foster debate among participants who otherwise might not have been aware of it. Some comments also go on to become content in their own right, whether that’s by appearing in the print edition of a newspaper as The Times implemented or being promoted to a post in its own right on the Kinja system. It just takes time to make the most of them.

And many media commentators also feel that rather than simply washing their hands of the comments system entirely, publishers’ time would be better spent on trying to improve them. GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram, for instance, believes that having comments on the site itself can be an essential part of building a strong community which can then be monetised:

“There are a number of sites that have shown the potential value of comments — and not just individual blogs, like that of Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson, but sites like Techdirt. Founder Mike Masnick has turned his often-turbulent comment section into the foundation of a true community, and one that not only provides feedback but is a crucial part of his membership-based business model.”

There’s also a more fundamental issue with ceding commenting activity to the social media giants like Twitter and Facebook. Publishers aren’t absolving themselves of having to deal with what their readers think, but they are limiting the time spent on their own sites and the potential to gain valuable data from their readers.

It’s easy for publishers to wash their hands of the responsibility for moderating comments sections. So easy that we’re seeing increasing numbers of them doing so.

But the pushback against that practice isn’t just about lofty ideals of generating debate, it’s also about the implications of handing over one of your most valuable resources – interaction with your audience – that have already taken so much away.


Image via Flickr courtesy of Jon Collier used under a Creative Commons licence.