Last week I learned that yet another news website would be closing their native commenting platform and switching to Facebook comments.
This isn’t breaking news. Last year, Popular Science decided to closed comments, citing studies that blamed them for the spread of misinformation. TechCrunch has changed platforms several times, to Livefyre, and back to Facebook comments. Indeed, there seems to be nothing notable in me pointing out this latest shuttering, except that this particular community is one that I built myself, as part of an amazing team, spending hours wading through audience development metrics, creating UGC programs and speaking with readers on the phone… and I agree with their decision to remove the comments.
The comments box is a cultural war. Writers are terrified of the criticism the bottom of the page holds, and so, they mentally close out any valid exchanges that might be taking place there. Readers understand that their thoughts are delegated to a small section beneath piles of ads, videos, banners, and slideshows. They feel that no one is listening, and so, they come in angry, flailing wildly, begging to be heard with outrageous statements in caps lock. It’s a Petri dish that grows trolls and frightens away those who actually want to contribute. At worst, an unmoderated comments section can contain threats and personal attacks, invalid criticisms and spam. At best, it’s a thread of off-topic arguments that add nothing to the conversation.
Moderation goes to great lengths to fix these problems. A moderator can ban dangerous trolls, protecting equitable commenters and increasing reply rates and time-on-site between those readers. They can pass along helpful corrections to authors, and respond to technical problems. Community managers encourage a registered base of active, civil users, the best focus group there is, I’d note from my own experience. However, these positions can also be very expensive and difficult to fill, and a tertiary requirement for organizations who need to put every precious resource toward reporting. Moderation is a slippery slope: your needs become greater as your community grows. Soon, you have to invest in overnight moderation, in weekend hours. You work on comment quality and need to keep track of banned users who try to come back with new IP addresses and handles, or you develop a smart program to keep track of users for you. All time consuming and pricey.
Are there any baseline benefits? If you maintain growth, there are many. Mathew Ingram, who often speaks about digital communities on GigaOm, says, “It boils down to giving your readers and your community an easy way to interact with you, both positively and negatively. Sure, they can post their thoughts to Twitter and Facebook and so on, but those are third-party networks and not everyone is going to see those comments.”
Readers who comment natively on your site may bookmark your homepage or author pages, visiting several times a day, and tend to be more eager to contribute when you request photos or stories. But, even though these users can spend longer hours on-site than casual readers, it’s difficult to justify that expense and time, and so, more often than not, we end up with the comments box.