As someone who has spent almost the entirety of the last decade writing online, I’ve dedicated vast amounts of time trying to find a way to make the comments section of The Fix the sort of edifying conversation I always imagined it could be. And I am here to report that, at least when it comes to politics, comments section are not now (and likely won’t be any time soon) anywhere close to that ideal. In fact, eliminating comments entirely — a prospect I have always blanched at — may well be the best thing that could happen for the average reader of political news.
Multiple experiments have shown that perceptions of an article, its writer or its subject can be profoundly shaped by anonymous online commentary, especially if it is harsh. One group of researchers found that rude comments “not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.” A digital analyst at Atlantic Media also discovered that people who read negative comments were more likely to judge that an article was of low quality and, regardless of the content, to doubt the truth of what it stated.
To combat that trend, Reuters recently got rid of comments on articles. “Much of the well-informed and articulate discussion around news, as well as criticism or praise for stories, has moved to social media and online forums,” the editors wrote in explaining their decision. “Those communities offer vibrant conversation and, importantly, are self-policed by participants to keep on the fringes those who would abuse the privilege of commenting.” Vox, the site run by former WaPo-er Ezra Klein, doesn’t have comments at all. The New York Times heavily curates its comments sections.
It’s easy to rebut the “get rid of comments” argument, of course. You are stifling free speech! You just don’t like hearing people who disagree with you! And so on and so forth.
Here’s the thing: That’s not why I think it’s time comments sections on politics content should go away. People tell me all the time why something I wrote, said or tweeted is wrong: On Twitter, on Facebook and even in person. And, I’ve never believed — publicly or privately — that I had a monopoly on good ideas or right answers. I LIKE people disagreeing with me and regularly ask for them to expand on their counter-arguments so that I can run them as a full Fix posts. (Here’s one example.)
My problem with the comment section is this: I think of the Fix as a community or a small city. In any community, there are a variety of views on just about everything. The ability to voice those differing perspectives in a (mostly) civil manner is what makes a community — whether it’s online or offline — great.
What the current configuration of comments sections does is allow the loudest person — whether or not they are representative of the broader community — to appoint himself (or herself) as mayor of the city. It’s like if the most obnoxious guy on your block all of a sudden asserted his right to make all decisions related to the neighborhood for you. Not so good, right?
The problem with this model is that while self-policing — think of it as a sort of neighborhood watch for the online community — can work, it becomes harder and harder to do the larger the community grows. In the early days of the Fix, a group of regular commenters — some who liked my work, some who didn’t — banded together to keep the guy typing IN ALL CAPS ABOUT SOMETHING THAT HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ACTUAL POST from overrunning the site. It worked — for a while. But, as we added more writers and the traffic numbers grew, the ability of a small-ish number of commenters to police an increasingly large number of “loudest guys on the block” was reduced significantly. (To understand why self-policing fails: Try arguing with a five year old. You will NEVER win. Trust me. I do it all the time.)
Now, that’s not to say that comments section across the Internet are pointless. I have long admired — and been jealous of — the comments section of Joel Achenbach’s “Achenblog” — a loyal, self policing community with Joel at its center. (A non-online analog for a successful community is Tony Kornheiser and his radio show — of which I am lucky to be a part of.) I have seen comments — on the WaPo site and off of it — work really nicely when politics is not the subject. And, occasionally even on The Fix, the comments section functions as it should: An informed set of eyes and ears sharing wisdom on a particular subject. (My favorite of these is the user-generated list of best political reporters in every state.)
But, these moments are the exception not the rule in my experience. And it’s not even close.
The best solution? Not to get rid of comments entirely. Instead, deploy an army of comment curators who harvest the best of the best for each article so that scrolling to the bottom of the page is rewarded. Unfortunately, given the amount of content that any news site produces in a given day, you would need hundreds of people to curate the comments. And that’s not even getting into the sticky territory of what constitutes a “good” comment and who any news organization employs to curate comments.
Rather than use resources on people who try to make comments sections smarter, I’d rather do what the Post IS doing: Hire more content creators who can widen our community in ways that make more and more people want to be a part of it. That seems to me to be the way to be the best steward of our growing online city. And the bigger the city grows, the harder it is to hear the loud guy screaming nonsensically down the block. Win-win.
Originally published in the Fix Column in the Washington Post.