If extraterrestrial life does exist, let us hope all mankind is not judged based on the content of online comment sections alone.
Comment sections on major news outlets, video platforms, niche sites, and even blogs, typically elicit responses of varying value: from quality, thought-provoking pieces that add to the discussion; to derogatory, vile text & images that do nothing but anger and offend others. While there is certainly something to be said about allowing your site’s readers to add to the conversation, as content curators, do we not have the obligation to ensure that this same community doesn’t cringe as they scroll down the page?
Of course, there’s things we can do to discourage the presence of comment trolls, and limit their on-site destruction when they do decide to wreck havoc. For WordPress users, there are several plug-ins available (including Disqus, used here), that require commenters to be logged-in through Facebook, Twitter, or by creating a native account. Numerous major news websites, including Huffington Post, utilize Facebook-based comment sections—forcing users to expose basic profile information next to their comments, to avoid some of the anonymity that causes trolls to flourish. YouTube, at one point, began making Google+ accounts a requirement to post comments on videos; a decision that came under heavy scrutiny, and was recently reversed.
Even these attempts at tying comments to a user’s social profile, however, have certain drawbacks. There are people who can create throwaway Facebook & Twitter accounts, simply as a means to comment anonymously on sites that require third-party log-ins. There’s also the folks who simply aren’t concerned that their profile info will reside next to comments on popular websites, which doesn’t curb their undesirable behavior.
Recent trends amongst publishers to curtail trolling in their comment sections include requiring most responses to be moderated (which can be an arduous process for larger websites), or doing away with commenting entirely—instead, pushing the conversation off-site, and onto Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. Back in 2014, Re/Code closed comments for good, saying they believed that “social media is the new arena for commenting, replacing the old onsite approach that dates back many years”. CNN did the same in August of that year, preferring instead that discussions took place with writers & editors off-site. The topic of closed comment sections came up again just last week, as a post by Jay Carney on the popular self-publishing platform Medium had its comments disabled, even though Medium doesn’t currently offer this feature by default.
And perhaps there is something to allowing for discussion to happen only in the realm of social media. After all, this is where a good deal of online conversation is happening organically—and, can provide a secondary benefit to publishers by drawing more attention to their content.
However, for sites that don’t get the traffic that CNN or Re/Code receive, one could argue that pushing the precious few users off-site to contribute their opinions could result in more negative consequences than positive; especially if these folks decide not to return.
FWIW, I do believe there is value in on-site conversation; which is why, for the foreseeable future, Chicago’D will maintain our comment section on most posts. Whether or not that changes as this site continues to build a regular audience is yet to be determined.