The comments section of news articles and blogs have been around for a while now. The intention behind providing an option to comment on an article or blog post, was a lofty one – get people to share their thoughts & opinions as a value-addition to the discussion. The practice has gone through several phases over the years. Many years ago, bloggers used to die for comments on their blog posts, even if the blog post was about a mundane or niche topic, irrespective of the quality of the post. Such expectations usually led to disappointment as comments were hardly forthcoming. The harsh reality that blog posts are unlikely to get comments in droves dawned upon us soon. And then the big boys got into the online space – big names in traditional print journalism, blog sites run as a business (tech being a common topic). Such sites often had a panel of bloggers and could churn out truck loads of articles in a day – unlike the plight of the individual bloggers who could barely write two posts a week.
Competition for eye-balls, page views and advertising followed resulting in a war about who gets out news the fastest and then who exploits the whole system best. That includes writing on topic guaranteed to get page views, sensationalism, news based on speculation and so on. The commenting system was part of this strategy to drive engagement, stickiness, page views and repeat audience. From a user’s perspective the commenting system can be an empowering element – as it provided a platform to express their views on a news item or opinion piece.
What has happened over the years is however, a different story. The comments section be it through Disqus, Facebook or any other platform has merely become a promotional tool – either for the media property or for the user. Some media properties, like Times of India have added ‘gamification’ (I hate that phrase) as an incentive for commenting. I was shocked to see tweets hailing the TOI model as a success and worthy of emulation. For such properties the commenting system is a promotional tool – merely to promote stickiness to the site. For the user it is a means to voice his views – a commendable objective. But what usually happens is extreme trolling and unrelated, provocative comments only meant to cause outrage.
The comments sections are a pleasure to read, however on sites like Techpinions, Stratechery, asymco and a Benedict Evans. At such portals comments are related to the article, often add value to the opinion piece (even when disagreeing with the author’s POV). Such sites (and content) are a rarity. But head over to news sites or even well-thought through, balanced, articulate opinion pieces in general news sites and you find the comment section infested with moronic comments. Even in ‘cerebral’ sites like The Economist, it is not uncommon to find trolls simply out to incite (though the percentage will be relatively lower).
It is apparent then that sites or content catering to niche categories, narrow audience tastes and audience profiles stand a better chance in attracting good comments, which add value to the article. General news sites catering to a wider audience will have a tough time attracting quality comments. ‘Gamifying’ the comment system is dumbing down the process even more, in my opinion. And if the article is about a showbiz celebrity, the comments get just plain vile.
So should comment platforms be closed, as ReCode and others have done of late? While it is their prerogative, I think it is best to live with the system, warts and all. Yes, social platforms like Twitter and Facebook are an option to comment on articles (links of which anyway get posted automatically by most news sites) but that is a sub-optimal option, in my view. Not all readers of an article can be expected to be comfortable on such social platforms and news sites are better off giving an option to comment at the article’s location itself – even if is a Facebook comment platform.