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Thursday, July 14, 2016

No comment

An increasing number of media sites are taking “the nuclear option” and closing down their commenting function, including two in New Zealand the past few days. The move is usually the result of the cost—both financial and social. This may not be the best possible response, but it may be the only practical one available, and far more effective than people declaring, “don’t read the comments.”

Of the costs of allowing comments, the financial cost is the easiest to quantify, not surprisingly. Staff time must be spent moderating comments, at least to some extent, even if that’s only responding to complaints. In some jurisdictions, failure to do so could get the media organisation into trouble, but, at the very least, abusive and toxic comments can become a story in themselves, making the media site look negligent for not dealing with them.

The other cost is social, with aggressive and mean-spirited people poisoning public discourse by looking to attack and belittle others. In extreme cases, such abuse can harm the victim/target. But even short of actual harm, it nevertheless cheapens the whole comment thread, and makes reasonable discussion impossible.

So, for many organisations, turning off their comments is the only solution they can come up with.

This is nothing new, of course. Back in 2013, Popular Science became the first major site to switch off comments, because “comments can be bad for science”, since, as they explained to readers, studies have shown that “even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story”.

Last year, Wired published a timeline of sites that had abandoned comments, and even then the list was limited only to major sites, the ones with the most traffic. Many smaller sites have done the same. In any case, the list would be far longer now.

I was probably vaguely aware of much of that, but, perhaps because of my own recent bad experiences, I immediately noticed when two New Zealand media sites announced this week that they, too, were abandoning comments.

Three days ago, Radio New Zealand (or “RNZ” as it now wants to be called) announced that they were turning off their comments. A post on their site—written by their “Engagement Editor”—said “More and more, the conversations around RNZ's journalism are happening elsewhere.” That means Facebook and Twitter, mostly, and it’s where most commenting is happening these days.

Today, Duncan Grieve, Editor and Publisher of The Spinoff, announced they were turning off comments today. He mentioned costs, but said the real reason was this: “We’re turning [comments] off because they have been getting horrible at times. Seriously bleak and offensive. And I don’t see that changing.”

Like RNZ, The Spinoff will leave the comments to happen on social media. Here, Grieve was refreshingly honest:
This doesn’t mean we’ll let anything go on our social channels. But while we will monitor… them, fundamentally those are other people’s platforms. We can control them to an extent, but I feel less of a sense of responsibility for what happens on Facebook than on The Spinoff. For me, all the nightmare shit which happens on Facebook is ultimately Zuckerberg’s problem. Whereas what happens on our URL is on me.
This won’t help if there are spectacularly toxic or abusive comments posted on their Facebook Page and not deleted, but in general it may help reduce the number of outrageously bad comments. That’s the same goal of other sites that do the same.

Where does this leave the rest of us, the folks who act like responsible human beings when we comment? Some will be out of luck if they don’t use social media. Some sites will try and come up with better systems, such as ones in which a person will have to provide real-world verification of who they are and where they live before they’re able to comment. Still other ideas, like the Coral Project, are looking at better software solutions.

Ultimately, though, we’re in this mess because some people just can’t act like responsible human beings, or worse, delight in causing pain to others. At the moment, we have no way to fix that problem, and until some better system or technology comes along, ending the ability to comment may be the only option that big sites can take.

This may not be the best possible solution, but it appears to be the only practical one available. All things considered, it’s far more effective than people having to warn others with, “don’t read the comments!”

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