Are comment sections really all they’re made out to be? While most news organizations welcome user feedback in some form or another, the debate is far from settled as to whether comments help or hurt online newspapers. Intended to encourage intelligent online discussion—but often dominated by vicious trolls, or users who post inflammatory statements for no reason other than to provoke others—comment sections clearly have both their pros and cons.
In an article from the Animal New York website, which is currently redesigning its format, Joel Johnson asserts that most comments are not intellectually stimulating or educational, but rather just spam and “drive-by internet hate.”
“Comments are a dinner party,” Johnson writes. “If I’ve invited you to have a seat at my table, at least have the courtesy to not call me an idiot for serving you food slightly different than you preferred…”
Johnson also suggests that the cost of monitoring comments outweighs the editorial benefit that insightful comments might bring.
He writes, “comments are likely a cost-of-doing-business for most content sites, not a revenue generator. This has been somewhat known for years for any high-volume site that is forced to require human content moderation—humans cost money, whether they are hand-moderating content, shepherding conversation, or building automated tools to allow user-moderated content.”
In response to Animal New York’s take, however, Gigaom counters that though comments can be offensive, they are “the equivalent of free speech” and “serve a similar purpose—to keep those in power honest, and to enhance our online lives in much the same way that democracy does offline.”
The article suggests that it is the responsibility of the author or site monitor to control the direction of comment threads, rather than of users. Eliminating comments would in turn eliminate the online community users find on the site, driving them to comment on personal blogs or other sites with minimal traffic and essentially suppressing debate, the article said.
Perhaps the most intriguing question, though, is how many online users actually read or contribute to comment sections. Is the online commenting community really that influential in terms of overall website traffic? Or is the percentage of overall readers so small that it wouldn’t make much of a difference to get rid of the feature completely?
A digital media survey conducted by Kantar Media in ten countries found that the percentage of online users reading comment sections ranged from 26-47% of total users, according to a press release. Latin American countries had the highest percentages of comment readership (47% in Brazil, 44% in Argentina, 41% in Mexico) while the UK had 35%.
The survey also examined the amount of users who contribute to comment threads, finding that a much lower percentage of users actually comment (5-17%). In the UK, only 12% of online users contribute comments, the press release said.
Kantar Media Head of TGI International Geoff Wicken said in the release, “Today's digital world has enabled consumers to move from being passive recipients of news coverage to playing an interactive role in how news is distributed. While the doomsayers take this to signal the end of the traditional newspaper, savvy publishers understand that they need to encourage and engage with people providing content.”
US newspaper sites were not included in the Kantar Media survey, according to the press release.
Though the reasoning behind comment sections is admirable, the practical application is clearly replete with a host of problems. If a news website does not have the manpower and editorial savvy to direct threads by closely monitoring comments, is it financially wise to continue to allow comments? Maybe not, but at this juncture in the restructuring of the journalism industry, news organizations seem to feel the greater risk is in alienating online users.