Comment Culture, or, What The Hell Is Wrong With People?
March 1, 2020 9:37 AM   Subscribe

Open commenting at cleveland.com is going away. "I can’t count the number of times I’ve been out and about or spoken to groups where one of you -- or three, or 10 of you -- pull me aside to tell me how much you abhor the comments platform on cleveland.com because of its incivility. The opposite never seems to happen, though. You’ve never pulled me aside to thank cleveland.com for providing a free forum for the robust exchange of thoughtful ideas." As of the end of February 2020, open commenting on stories at cleveland.com (the official Web home of Cleveland's sole remaining major newspaper, The Plain Dealer), will cease, and all comments on older stories will be deleted.

FAQ about the change.

A lack of widespread engagement in the comments section is being cited as one of the major reasons for the change: "Out of an average of 7.5 million monthly unique users, just 4,000 commented in the month of December. That is a tiny bit more than one tenth of one half of one percent of our audience. Across all of Advance Local news sites, just 2,340 commenters drove more than 60 percent of all comments."

Cleveland.com is owned by Advance Local, the digital/web arm of Advance Publications (started by Samuel Irving Newhouse Sr., who built a media empire in the early 20th century), and this policy change appears to be company-wide, across all news sites run by Advance.

Besides owning the Condé Nast family of publications and a share of Reddit, Advance owns several news sites that cover smaller cities or regions across the U.S., often serving as the web arm of local newspapers. These sites include:

AL.com (Birmingham and Huntsville, Alabama)

GulfLive.com (Mobile, Alabama and Biloxi, Mississippi)

MassLive.com (home of The Republican newspaper of Springfield, Massachusetts)

MLive.com (Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Flint, and Grand Rapids, Michigan)

NJ.com (Trenton, Newark, Jersey City, New Jersey and the southern part of the state)

Lehighvalleylive.com (Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton in the eastern part of Pennsylvania)

SIlive.com (the Staten Island Advance paper, the only daily newspaper published in the Staten Island borough of New York City)

Syracuse.com (Syracuse, New York)

Oregonlive.com (Portland, Oregon)

Pennlive.com (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania)

Letters to the editor and op-eds will still be published, and commentary on Facebook and Twitter will continue.
posted by soundguy99 (70 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's the astroturfers, Bob.
posted by subdee at 9:43 AM on March 1 [9 favorites]


That'll make it easier to not read the comments.

A Sault Ste Marie news site recently announced that they would no longer allow comments on any stories having to do with indigenous issues. I really appreciated the style of the announcement -- they don't talk about meanness or engage in bothsiderism -- they're really just quite clear that the problem is racism, that the racism is gross, and that 'you' are the problem.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:45 AM on March 1 [58 favorites]


The comments won't be missed by anyone but the racists. I'm certain that those individuals will cite this as an example of political correctness run rampant, and why Stumpy deserves another term in the Oval Office.
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 9:52 AM on March 1 [9 favorites]


I'm glad that they got rid of comments on WTOP's news page (folks still comment on FB) because yeah, that was just...not a great example of humanity.
posted by sperose at 9:53 AM on March 1 [1 favorite]


A while ago Tyler Cowen announced he'd be removing comments on marginalrevolution.com, and then didn't, which I appreciate because the comments are where people point out the political spin in the blog posts. Also you can get a sense for what people on the far right conspiracy theorist end of the political spectrum are thinking, and see those opinions being debunked (or at least disputed) at the same time.
posted by subdee at 9:53 AM on March 1


Properly moderated comments or GTFO.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:59 AM on March 1 [55 favorites]


CBC also dropped comments from stories relating to indigenous people because racism.

The Intercept has by far the worst comment section of any not-explicitly-right-wing news org. They really need to get rid of it.

I often feel bad about my low-quality posts here (there are many! especially considering I don't drink!) but then I look at the comments on the CBC or Intercept and feel pretty OK about myself.
posted by klanawa at 10:00 AM on March 1 [19 favorites]


The only good comment section is on Metafilter.
posted by Reyturner at 10:06 AM on March 1 [62 favorites]


CBC also dropped comments from stories relating to indigenous people because racism.

I remember when this happened and I was very happy about that decision. Trolls are so quick to talk about free speech being threatened. I always want to remind them, you still have free speech, what you do not have a pass on is the consequences of your free speech, especially hate & bigotry. Actions have consequences. Don't like it, pound sand.
posted by Fizz at 10:08 AM on March 1 [13 favorites]


NPR dropped comments in 2016. haven't missed 'em.
posted by dismas at 10:10 AM on March 1 [11 favorites]


The final tweet from @AvoidComments still holds:
Don’t ever, ever, EVER read the comments.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 10:16 AM on March 1 [7 favorites]


The Tyee is a fine site but they did a story about Jordan Peterson, which put them on the radar of angry white boys. Stories about vaccines attracted anti-vaxxers; stories about trans rights attracted TERFs and stories about indigenous issues attracted racists. Their comment moderation standard was comically naive: they will delete "personal insults" but you can openly deny the existence of trans people or the humanity of indigenous people, so long as you don't make it "personal."

So naturally, all the interesting voices left or were drowned out. The articles are still mostly fine I guess, but I couldn't stick around for a crew that allowed that to happen to their "community."
posted by klanawa at 10:28 AM on March 1 [16 favorites]


Moderating comments is truly a drudgery, but at least in the old days it was pretty simple shovel work. The bad things stood out and you could identify them immediately, and the bad actors tended to stand out just as clearly and you could whack them just as easily. But since the advent of organized, informed and professional astroturfing there's a whole layer of not-quite-TOC-breaking stuff that isn't mass produced, isn't profane, is written in response to individual comments, but stirs the sh*t in ways intended to destroy civility and comity. Your comments section can be wrecked from within in a matter of weeks or months. It's so labor intensive and so, so exhausting to clean up after these guys that may sites are giving up. The Atlantic shut their comments down last year, and they were a really good community until they weren't. Places like MeFi that are clearly so far to one political end or the other don't leave much room to breathe for astroturfers: there's no way that the rabble-rousing would go unchallenged by everyone. But sites that try to live in the center stand almost no chance, as half the folks aren't going to go to bat for one wing or the other just to defend moderation.

Destruction of the public square, of places where diverse groups of people can meet and get to know one another, is a great way to wreck democracy. Anyone who can't understand and be concerned by that kind of freaks me out a bit. I honestly don't get how political monocultures are viewed as a positive thing. (Present company included by the way: I like to think that if someone came in here with a reasonable set of questions and tone of discussion that a thread could exist without a lot of acrimony and hate. I might be wrong, but I like to think it could happen.)
posted by Cris E at 10:34 AM on March 1 [37 favorites]


I’ll be honest. If it wasn’t for bouts of insomnia or waiting for appointments, planes, trains or cabs I wouldn’t even read or comment here let alone on social media (or god forbid news paper sites). I’m too busy. As are most people I think.

Therefore I think every single blog community inevitably trends to being dominated by people who have the time to be on them all day for good or bad. It’s a narrow swath of people.

And that either leads at best to echo chambers or, if there is no moderator or cost/barrier to contribute, lowest common denominator trolling.

And if anyone can join at anytime with no moderator then even the more liberal or tolerant outlets descended into trolling which weaponizes and chases away the reasonable comments.

If the media outlet relies on clicks then the content will conform to attract the most of what they already get — angry engagement — and trolling gets worse and worse until it’s trolls all the way down.

Take Seattle’s alt Weekly. The Stranger. The Stranger years back was great. I used to read it the time. Eli Sanders was incredible. The comments were sometimes really informative.

I hadn’t read it since like 2013. Went there last week. That comment section has become a cesspool of alt-right nincompoops and racist dirtbags. And now the Stranger essentially caters their blog section to nothing but those commenters. The writing is god damned terrible.
posted by Everyone Expects The Spanish Influenza at 10:41 AM on March 1 [25 favorites]


I just watched an older video Destin ("Smarter Every Day") made about the future of warfare. It's interesting in the "obvious, but confirmation from experts" sense. The military knows comment sections on the internet are a front in warfare, in the intersection of the "cyber" and the "human" (propaganda) domains. The professional astroturfers are part of warfare.

just 4,000 commented in the month of December. That is a tiny bit more than one tenth of one half of one percent of our audience.

The professionals. Any more, wading into a comment section is you going to war by yourself with a handgun against the army. It's pointless. And as an org, do you really want to be in the business of providing a battle field, or are you just trying to report news?

Get rid of the comment sections.

Plus, woo, he was a DoD civilian like me. Knew I instinctively liked him for some reason.
posted by ctmf at 10:52 AM on March 1 [11 favorites]


Metafilter: Properly moderated comments or GTFO.
posted by Mrs Potato at 10:59 AM on March 1 [20 favorites]


I've always wondered why newspaper sites don't tie commenting to subscriptions. People like to write comments, so that's a real benefit, which could help raise money. It seems like it would make moderation easier, since it's tied to an identity and a payment, even if the publicly-visible name is anonymous. It seems like it would really cut down on the junk.

It's not too different from this site, really.

The downside is that the paper might become beholden to people who threaten to cancel subscriptions if they're cut off, but that's the same as it ever was. Make the subscriptions annual and non-refundable, and tell them to pound sand.
posted by alexei at 11:02 AM on March 1 [22 favorites]


as long as Youtube doesn't get rid of its comments. Because if the future is to be mostly online comment free (except for sites that are explicitly and/or implicitly about discussion), it will help to have a living of example of why this must be.

Because on Youtube, the leap from "here's something I think" to "You are a complete fucking moron, your entire bloodline should be exterminated" is ... well, it's as quick as that. Unfettered freedom in action.
posted by philip-random at 11:03 AM on March 1 [3 favorites]


The military knows comment sections on the internet are a front in warfare, in the intersection of the "cyber" and the "human" (propaganda) domains. The professional astroturfers are part of warfare.

Obligatory: In 2013, Elgin Air Force Base was the most "reddit crazed city."

"Containment Control for a Social Network with State-Dependent Connectivity," a research paper from Elgin AFB a year later.

"Conclusion: By modeling the group social response as a networked fractional-order system, a decentralized potential field-based influence algorithm is developed in this work to en-sure that all individuals’ states achieve consensus asymptotically to a desired convex hull spanned by the stationary leaders’ states, while maintaining consistent influence between individuals (i.e., network connectivity) .This work considers individuals whose social response is modeled by a FOS withα∈(0,1]. Since some individuals may respond with a more complex dynamic (e.g.,α∈(1,2]), future efforts will focus on generalizing the development to include networks with heterogeneous members with higher order dynamic response. Future effort will also consider different influence capabilities between individuals. For instance, a person tends to have a larger tolerance for a difference of opinions for a certain social event in a close friend than a loose acquaintance, and thus, can be more easily influenced by the close friend."

Does that prove that the Air Force was studying social networks with intent to influence people within America? No, it doesn't prove it, but it certainly gives us good reason to be skeptical. I'd say things like this underline the point that it's been warfare for quite a while now.
posted by deadaluspark at 11:05 AM on March 1 [10 favorites]


Allowing comments was a devil's bargain to help sell advertising. More user engagement, more stats about eyeballs!

As it turns out, that didn't solve the immense, multilayered problems that led to consolidation, shrinking newsrooms, and shuttered institutions.

To me, a large part of what made a newspaper worth reading was the fact that it has an editorial structure. Writers submit articles, which are (in theory) reviewed by editorial staff, who may more may not help refine the end result, and who curate what it is that's being published and shared with thousands and thousands of readers. That's not to say that newspapers were all amazing all the time, but there was a certain expectation of a certain baseline quality to what you would be reading, because that level of exposure came with a certainly level of responsibility.

Giving that same exposure of thousands and thousands of readers to the public - regardless of whether these comments were moderated or not - felt like a mistake from day one to me. Suddenly, any racist blowhard who had time to bang on their keyboard was given the same broad audience as the career columnist who'd been putting the work in for decades. It's no surprise that national rhetoric shifted the way that it did.

When I started a (music) news site back in 1999, I made a very deliberate decision to not have comments, ever. You were coming to my site to read what I and my volunteer staff had to say. We put the work in to get the audience we had, and part of why the audience stuck was because what we offered was high quality. Of course, this was a completely uncommercial venture, which makes it much easier to pontificate on about what did and did not influence our decisions around content.

The conglomerates that were running newspapers saw the writing on the wall about the internet, and they chose to fight it. I remember sitting in a meeting with the CEO of Medianews and the heads of a bunch of regional newspapers, where it was handed down on high that everyone would be using the same (terrible, terrible) content management system, and everything unique about your organization would be stripped away so that less work was involved in selling ads on the network. I think I was 19 at the time, and I couldn't believe how absurd these plans were... but I'm veering off-topic a bit.

Good riddance to the comments section, it never should have been part of any newspaper's online presence beyond "letters to the editor."
posted by Leviathant at 11:08 AM on March 1 [23 favorites]


Another thing to consider is that "cyberwarfare" isn't just for nation-states anymore, either. Many companies have the money and the knowledge, many being tech companies, to engage in cyberwarfare.

Monsanto had former intelligence operatives running their Defame and Discredit opposition research division, which focused on destroying the reputation of anyone who had anything critical to say about Monsanto, online and in the courtroom.

Weinsten also had intelligence agents working for him to discredit his accusers.

Former intelligence and police operatives selling their capabilities and knowledge to the highest bidder is absolutely a massive problem in general. It is a problem entirely because private companies have war chests of money so large that they can afford to take part in their own cyber warfare and legal warfare. When they effectively have more money than governments, they can buy the best minds of the government.
posted by deadaluspark at 11:21 AM on March 1 [22 favorites]


Comments sections have a desrvedly bad reputation, but sometimes they provide a needed corrective when the public gets it right and the media get it wrong. The (subscriber-only, moderated) NYT comments section was more worth reading than most of the paper's actual articles a few weeks ago when the paper was putting out a steady stream of happy talk about how coronavirus wasn't so much an actual threat as an example of How Humans Are Bad At Judging Risk. NYT commenters have also provided a reality check on stories that paint overly rosy pictures for job-seekers or give health advice that assumes that everyone has access to a primary care doctor.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 11:22 AM on March 1 [5 favorites]


Y'all must have missed the Air Force wanted ad for sockpuppets circa 2010 then?
posted by Mrs Potato at 11:24 AM on March 1 [3 favorites]


Good riddance to the comments section, it never should have been part of any newspaper's online presence beyond "letters to the editor."

Meanwhile, my local alt-weekly (East Bay Express), still limping along after ditching almost all of its permanent staff, has taken to printing random comments from its website as "letters to the editor". Despite a policy (still printed every week) that letters must be accompanied by a full name, the current print issue includes "letters" signed commy2020, Dg41510, and freezonetrumpet. In principle they are at least using some discretion to decide which comments are fit to print, but in practice the bar seems to be placed a half-inch above "Dear sir, fascinating website! We offer Best Quality Meds..."

(And actually I'd rather see a letters column full of "Best Quality Meds" -- it would make me laugh -- than some of the bilious drivel they publish.)
posted by aws17576 at 11:27 AM on March 1 [6 favorites]


Properly moderated comments or GTFO.

Exactly. A while back the Portland, Maine daily adopted a comment policy that includes limiting comments to paid subscribers, along with diligent moderation and eliminating comments completely on certain articles. And, as mentioned above, the NYT has a subscriber-only policy as well.

It can be done.

Destruction of the public square, of places where diverse groups of people can meet and get to know one another, is a great way to wreck democracy. Anyone who can't understand and be concerned by that kind of freaks me out a bit.

Agreed, though the argument can be made that anonymous commenting on a website is not necessarily a public square.

You can still comment on articles by sending an email or snail mail to the editor of your local newspaper, but that takes a little more thought than clicking the comment button.

That’s not particularly a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned.
posted by SteveInMaine at 11:30 AM on March 1 [12 favorites]


Agreed, though the argument can be made that anonymous commenting on a website is not necessarily a public square.

It really is a lot more like going into a business with a very large lobby where people can mill around and shout at each other with impunity.
posted by deadaluspark at 11:32 AM on March 1 [5 favorites]


When our local newspaper stops printing racist and homophobic articles including threats to shoot people written by the actual editor of the paper I'll celebrate. Until then, the local press is dying a well-deserved and painful death. Good riddance.
posted by winterhill at 11:38 AM on March 1 [9 favorites]


Okay I'm old enough to remember when 'comments' consisted of letters to the editor of a newspaper. The newspaper staff carefully selected a handful of comments each day to display in the next day's issue. (Yes, this still happens, but most people under a certain age only know and expect 'open comments').

I remember a radio station where listeners complained that the radio staff fielded calls into the station, only letting select calls get through to the show. So as an experiment (really as a joke) they decided one day to let every call get through to the show. It was really, really awful. They made their point and no one complained again.

All it takes is an intern spending maybe an hour a day to go through submitted comments and select a handful of well-written, respectable, yet representative comments to publish the next day.

It even encourages people to write their comments well if they want to have a chance of it getting published. I remember my Dad being proud when one of his letters once got published by a newspaper.

It makes sense that general websites like cleveland.com should ban open comments. They should replace them with fielded comments.
posted by eye of newt at 11:48 AM on March 1 [12 favorites]


It would seem like the selection of "handfull of well written..." would be a much larger job (especially nowadays) than would/should be handled by a an intern. And the extra burden would be hard on barely surviving Newspapers now.

I could see getting local volunteers involved but that has its own problems.
posted by aleph at 11:56 AM on March 1


A well-funded professional astroturfer shoud be able to get good at writing "well-written, respectable, yet representative" comments. Now the intern's got a problem. Do you choose a side and decline to give them a platform? Do you do NPR-style both-sides-ism? What if the astroturfers are good writers but the average joe isn't?
posted by ctmf at 12:02 PM on March 1 [4 favorites]


A well-funded professional astroturfer shoud be able to get good at writing "well-written, respectable, yet representative" comments. Now the intern's got a problem. Do you choose a side and decline to give them a platform? Do you do NPR-style both-sides-ism? What if the astroturfers are good writers but the average joe isn't?--ctmf

This is a problem that has been solved over 200 years ago. There's no hard and fast rule on choosing who to give a platform. It is called editorial discretion by the publisher.
posted by eye of newt at 12:11 PM on March 1 [14 favorites]


I remember a radio station where listeners complained that the radio staff fielded calls into the station, only letting select calls get through to the show. So as an experiment (really as a joke) they decided one day to let every call get through to the show. It was really, really awful. They made their point and no one complained again.
One of our local radio stations where I was growing up had a late night phone-in (remember those?). Pete Price was the guy's name, on Radio City out of Liverpool. Most of the time, calls were screened and only people who had interesting points to make were allowed on. On Sunday nights, the lines were thrown wide open for anyone. The airwaves were peppered with swearing, racist comments, people phoning up to harangue the presenter for being gay, people who just wanted to call up and make chicken noises.

The Sunday show was by far the most popular in the ratings.
posted by winterhill at 12:12 PM on March 1 [6 favorites]


alexei: I've always wondered why newspaper sites don't tie commenting to subscriptions.

I know that The Globe and Mail and National Review have both done this, probably to pull their naturally right-wing comment sections out of the alt-right cesspools they were becoming.
posted by clawsoon at 12:13 PM on March 1 [2 favorites]


"There's no hard and fast rule on choosing who to give a platform. It is called editorial discretion by the publisher."

That's why that job can't be done by an intern. And why it's so much a burden to add to the existing load.
posted by aleph at 12:45 PM on March 1 [2 favorites]


All it takes is an intern spending maybe an hour a day to go through submitted comments and select a handful of well-written, respectable, yet representative comments to publish the next day.

And once a year, after the previous intern gouges their eyeballs out with a fork, they can give the position to another intern. Wash rinse repeat. The position comes with a free daily quart of whiskey.
posted by happyroach at 12:46 PM on March 1 [8 favorites]


So as an experiment (really as a joke) they decided one day to let every call get through to the show. It was really, really awful. They made their point and no one complained again.

I always thought it would be interesting if the Metafilter mods would do this, for like an hour or something, just let ALL the comments go through, and let people know what kind of bullshit they have to put up with every day. (I think cortex also used to have a “best of Metafilter spam” site, but that was a while ago.)
posted by Melismata at 12:50 PM on March 1 [6 favorites]


Was the whole "comment section" idea a holdover from the initial days of the internet when everyone thought it was going to be a Utopia of people from all over being connected and sharing ideas and etc. while forgetting that the baser sides of human nature could turn just about anything to shit?
posted by gtrwolf at 1:28 PM on March 1 [7 favorites]


I don't think anyone in marketing cares what they write, only that they get that extra dopamine hit from "participating" and associate it with the site.
posted by ctmf at 2:18 PM on March 1 [2 favorites]


A while back the Portland, Maine daily adopted a comment policy that includes limiting comments to paid subscribers, along with diligent moderation and eliminating comments completely on certain articles.

How did it work out? The other approach is to bring back letters to the editor, or blur the line between those and over the transom Op-Eds. Submit your thoughts like any other freelance writer, after registering so that editors can easily perma-block people after say 5 unacceptable submissions.
posted by msalt at 2:20 PM on March 1 [1 favorite]


I'm doing it right now. Give me some favorites, so I can get another hit when I come back later.

Also they can show advertisers, see, someone reads our articles. "User engagement" evidence is better than abstract "page views"
posted by ctmf at 2:21 PM on March 1 [4 favorites]


Incidentally, I read Metafilter for a year after my friend tipped me off to it, without realizing that there were comments here. This is the best comment section I know of but even here, sometimes I look back fondly on that first year.
posted by msalt at 2:22 PM on March 1 [9 favorites]


I honestly don't get how political monocultures are viewed as a positive thing.

The recent history of American politics---in which people voted based on sort of random stuff, including heavy doses of propaganda and effective censorship instead of their own specific, material interests---is the odder situation. I don't actually have that much in common, politically, with someone who benefits from the policies that harm me, and vice versa.

Much bipartisan civility is more about people being denied understanding of their own true political interests by a lack of education or information than it is about real "dialogue" or what have you.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 2:29 PM on March 1 [4 favorites]


mixed feelings about this - on the one hand, there were an awful lot of subintelligent commenters on mlive.com - on the other hand, i don't know that all people are going to follow media they can't talk back to - like it or not, they feel that others are monopolizing the conversation

the end result will be them going to news sites that reinforce what they want to be told and what they believe

still, it's not that great of a loss - but i'm not sure milive going down would be that great of a loss, either - my local paper, the kalamazoo gazette, got dropped by me years ago - they've only been publishing 3 times a week, the online interface was awkward and unreliable and every time i look at a copy in the library, it's gotten thinner

we can claim that the comment section isn't valuable, but a lot of people seem to be concluding that newspapers aren't valuable - it's not like we necessarily get an alternative viewpoint on a lot of local issues, which sometimes the commenters did manage to provide

the successful media of the 21st century are going to have to learn how to have conversations - i don't think people will settle for less and i don't know why they should
posted by pyramid termite at 2:33 PM on March 1 [4 favorites]


gtrwolf: yes.
posted by Melismata at 2:34 PM on March 1


> A Sault Ste Marie news site recently announced that they would no longer allow comments on any stories having to do with indigenous issues.

jacquilynne, what a beautifully written announcement. That made me happy to see.

I disagree that the NYT is something to point to as laudable. Their comments section might be better than, say, The Stranger’s, but it’s still full of a lot of ignorant, awful shit. It hurts more when those comments are in the section recommended by the NYT’s editors.

I also disagree that Metafilter has the only good comments section on the web. I think it’s pretty great, but there are other places where you can have a respectful conversation. The Ask a Manager comment section come to mind. Captain Awkward’s, too. I am a member of a fair amount of Facebook groups that are very well moderated and the support and resources I’ve found there have changed my life, as much as I hate that they occur on Facebook.

And keep in mind that Metafilter might be very good for you, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for anyone with one or more marginalized identities. It’s great this site is continuing to improve on those fronts, and I truly respect, and hell, love the moderators here — but it’s shitty to ignore the existence of other great comment sections on sites with communities you or I might not be a part of that are moderated just as well or better than this one.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 3:42 PM on March 1 [10 favorites]


msalt: Submit your thoughts like any other freelance writer, after registering so that editors can easily perma-block people after say 5 unacceptable submissions.

Half-baked prediction: AI content moderation will only get really effective when they program it to get pissed off and vengeful. "Wait, are you a sockpuppet of the person who submitted a dozen idiotic, hateful rants last week?? Get the fuck out!!"
posted by clawsoon at 4:17 PM on March 1 [3 favorites]


I have decided that the commenters at https://loveletters.boston.com/ are the WORST of late. The column that Meredith writes is thoughtful. I like her podcast. But 9 out of 10 commenters on the site think that everyone (especially women, of course) who wrote in are the stupidest dumbest whorebitches in the world who deserve to die for their dumb whorebitch stupidity and how dare they actually have relationships and fall in love. Every time Meredith has to end a column with "Readers? What do you think?" I wince. I don't want to know what they think. I'd like to read thoughtful discussion and advice, not evisceration for your existence.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:21 PM on March 1 [5 favorites]


As an awfully generous person who just came up with a way to make 4300 dollars an hour from home I feel personally attacked right now.
posted by zymil at 6:22 PM on March 1 [17 favorites]


In one metro newspaper columnist gig I had, my editor mentioned that I should interact with the commenters more. I said I would provided I had institutional support in the form of content moderators, since I was often on the receiving end of a lot of misogynist pile-ones, and she was like, “Yeah, that’s never happening. The more comments on a story, the better it is for our business model.”

And that’s the story of how I confirmed that plenty of newsroom management had no problem throwing their writers to the wolves if it boosted the bottom line. Shitty comment sections are everywhere but I do wonder if anyone’s studied the particularly gendered or racial aspects of which writers got targeted.
posted by sobell at 8:56 PM on March 1 [13 favorites]


long ago and far away, I had a job at one of those Dot.coms that had lots of capital and no clear plan of what to do with it. At some point, I got assigned the challenge of developing something called "online community" for one of their sites. So I did some research, mainly through email discussion with a few folks I'd crossed paths with via Slashdot. Even then (1999 or thereabouts) the going wisdom was that functional online community was a pipedream unless there was some kind of real world version running in tandem. People simply had to be in the same room with each other every now and then, had to verify the un-virtuality of the others in their community. Otherwise fucking chaos.

which is what I told my bosses. Their quick response was to shelve the community building stuff and assign me to some data base stuff.
posted by philip-random at 10:28 PM on March 1 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure it would work at a "normal" newspaper, but Gawker/Gizmodo Group/Whatever-its-called-now had a fun comment section, and the (oft-maligned) "greys" and dismiss button were a big part of it.

Greys - your posts really only displayed for everyone if you got endorsed by a staff member (= "taken out of the grays"). Otherwise, your posts don't make the cut, unless (a) the user specifically asks to look at all posts or (b) an endorsed user talks back to you.

Dismiss - You get to delete any response to your post. This was by far the best part. Don't think the person is adding anything? Dismiss. Think the person is wrong or a jerk but don't want to dignify their nonsense with a response? Dismiss. They can start their own post, they don't need to piggyback on yours.

I understand the Gawkerverse isn't for everyone, but I liked it (until Spanfeller and co. bought it and provoked the great Deadspin exodus.) Now I'm kind of a lost soul. It actually surprised me how many web publishers aren't doing comments, have completely dead comment sections, or have all terrible comments.
posted by anhedonic at 11:25 PM on March 1 [6 favorites]


I wish my city's papers would take the hint from our sibling city and get rid of comments. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had a great article about locally black owned restaurants last week but the comments were all "this article is racist, what about the white restaurants?" or "make sure you're packing when you go there, these places are all in the hood".
posted by octothorpe at 4:31 AM on March 2 [5 favorites]


anhedonic, I never made an account at gawker, but I found myself reading a good number of the comments, especially on deadspin. Other sites, I’ll find myself scrolling through comments and catch myself, wondering, “why the hell am I reading something written by who knows who?” but rarely on Deadspin. The comments, to some extent, were just as interesting and informative (or stupidly funny) as the articles. The other sites, to some extent, had varying degrees of the same sort of worthwhileness, but Deadspin was the best. Reading those writers work elsewhere with no comments still feels weird.

Sport wise, some of the SB Nation sites have cultivated solid communities. Windy City Gridiron has a short paragraph for every comment section detailing what is and isn’t acceptable behavior on the site. With Spandex, the uproxx wrestling site also seems to have a solid community that seems to get along, but honestly, it’s on a separate tab, and I rarely get that far.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:15 AM on March 2 [1 favorite]


The theory I've had for a long time is, the problem isn't just that people are awful and thus comment sections are awful. The problem with comments on newspaper articles is, the comments section of that article is basically a free-for-all comment pop-up -- this isn't a community, it's just whoever showed up for this fight today.

Basically, I think comments about news stories within a pre-existing, long-lived community can end up being good. However, I think comments attached to singular news stories in a vacuum are nearly always going to be bad. Comments sections on news sites don't build a community of interested parties to discuss, they just provide someplace for anonymous passers-by to carve hate speech into the walls and move on.
posted by tocts at 6:44 AM on March 2 [6 favorites]


No love for the cesspool of the surprisingly active Yahoo News comments section?
posted by clawsoon at 7:02 AM on March 2 [1 favorite]


I frequent the Inside Higher Education site for articles and the shift in the comments section (moderated via Disqus) has been notable over the past few years.

You can still see contributions from people who obviously have ties to higher education, sharing their views on items, but the volume of brigading has been cranked to 11. You just have to click on a contributor's profile (assuming they have not yet figured out the privacy block) to see where they're "coming from."

I have found so much of value from the comments.. Book and article recommendations, interesting perspectives.. But lately it just feels like a war zone.
posted by elkevelvet at 8:14 AM on March 2 [3 favorites]


So, a friend of mine was murdered a few years ago in Nashville. Her husband did it and it was a very violent crime. She was African American and he's white. The newspaper in Nashville covered the story. The comments section was so vile, so racist, so filled with unbridled hate that I was stunned. There was no room to report the comments. So, I dug into trying to contact someone. Anyone, to try to get the comments moderated. It took me hours. I ultimately got connected to the reporter on the story. I know, she has nothing to do with my issue but literally, she was the only person I could get on the phone. I told her why I was calling and she said "Oh my god, don't read the comments. Please don't read the comments." I told her that, unfortunately, I had and that I was sad for my friend and angry about the newspaper opening the forum for racists to opine on how the ethnicity of my friend made her murder OK. She listened to me, bless her. I acknowledged that I knew she did not have the authority to make the changes needed. She said that she'd let her editor know. Tough times.
posted by zerobyproxy at 8:55 AM on March 2 [19 favorites]


CBC also dropped comments from stories relating to indigenous people because racism.

I remember when this happened and I was very happy about that decision.


Yeah, I have mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, less racist comments is a good thing. On the other hand, shutting down all comments on stories about indigenous people and issues, but not other subjects is shitty. If you want to comment and discuss about something affecting your community, but you're indigenous then too bad. A lot of people wouldn't want to do that anyway, but it's still grating that the racists get to shut down an avenue of discussion because no one can be bothered to hold them to account. And as flawed as the CBC comments section is for discussion, it's still very visible and accessible for a lot of people. Except if you're First Nations, Métis, or Inuit.

In my opinion if you can't run a comment section properly then just shut the whole thing down. Which brings us conveniently back to the main subject of this post.
posted by ODiV at 9:14 AM on March 2 [6 favorites]


The theory I've had for a long time is, the problem isn't just that people are awful and thus comment sections are awful. The problem with comments on newspaper articles is, the comments section of that article is basically a free-for-all comment pop-up -- this isn't a community, it's just whoever showed up for this fight today.

My experience is that this isn't all that true. I occasionally read the comments on the CBC and there are lots and lots of indications that the people who comment there are absolutely regulars. The article in the first post suggests the same thing -- most comments come from a small number of regulars, rather than from a broad swath of humanity.

The problem isn't that all people are awful, it's that some people are awful, and those people spend a lot of time being awful in the comments section, while less awful people (or people who are awful in different ways) who have no desire to engage with that awfulness, go elsewhere and do other things.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:21 AM on March 2 [11 favorites]


All blogs should simply have some barrier to entry that can discourage trolls but also monthly or daily limits on comments per user. With a way to borrow more from other users or be authorized by post authors for a subject/post that requires more depth.

An entrenched regular user base that dominate communities may not always be trolling problems, but it does lead to a sort of entitlement and dominance that discourages other users. Nearly every community out there ends up with maybe one or two dozen users that dominate every discussion and end up steering nearly every topic in the same place.
posted by Everyone Expects The Spanish Influenza at 9:32 AM on March 2 [4 favorites]


I'm skeptical that this isn't a resource thing, given that the Plain Dealer has in the last decade gone from more or less a real medium-sized city paper to a waifish thing that's delivered like three days a week. Forums, in general, have many more readers than writers, which has been consistent going back to the earliest days of the mainstream Internet. But I do believe them that few readers read the comments due to the tenor. Honestly, the tone in many forums is unpleasant, even if you're part of the "in" group. Pretty sad that the growth of Facebook/Twitter as platforms means that presumably as much work will be put into monitoring those sites than was put into their own, but it's a reasonable decision to make.
posted by wnissen at 10:02 AM on March 2 [2 favorites]


Agree. To me the big thing about newspaper comments is that they're literally just for talking about the article but no one from the newspaper participates in the discussions or, honestly, actually pays attention. The writers are not paid to interact there. The moderators are usually not people who otherwise interact with the newsroom. Like, the newspaper's purpose is not about the community discussions so they're barely-resourced when resources are tighter. Add to this that many newspapers are on a platform that barely allows for decent moderation tools (one thing I've heard a lot is that banning people has no effect because people can come back with sock puppets basically forever) and if the moderators aren't in touch with the newsroom they definitely aren't in touch with the devs who built the site (often but not always software that was bought and paid for and doesn't have the ability to be adapted to moderation wants/needs). One reason MeFi manages to do what it does is because the back-end improves or changes to deal with new challenges in community conversation.

just let ALL the comments go through

Honestly, 99% of comments go through (maybe slightly less during political season) and the ones that don't are usually either hurtful towards a person or group, or someone having a meltdown or someone doing something they're very much not supposed to be doing. Maybe a view of the site where you could see those comments? But definitely not this site, with those comments, because stuff would get unworkable really quickly and people who are already feeling kind of run down by society would flee in droves. Working on inclusivity and engagement means human moderation.
posted by jessamyn at 10:14 AM on March 2 [10 favorites]




Sport wise, some of the SB Nation sites have cultivated solid communities.

I write for one of those sites (Niners Nation) and am very active interacting with commenters. It is in general good times, in part because (like here) it's regular group of commenters with a common interest. One result is that it's self-policing to a degree, and the editor also removes bad ones.
posted by msalt at 11:36 AM on March 2 [2 favorites]


I respect you all, regardless of your opinion. I have never felt that I couldn't say something that might be controversial, and I always always think things all the way through several times before posting. I am sure I am like most, if not all, of you, and so for that reason, I love this place.
posted by MorgansAmoebas at 12:27 PM on March 2 [3 favorites]


I've written to and tweeted at the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate dozens of times over the last ten years about their absolutely offensive comment section. Not only are there plenty of assholes in the Bay Area, but numerous people across the country incensed by the existence of San Francisco Liberals who feel compelled to voice their poisonous garbage where they think it will have an outsize impact. It doesn't matter that I've told them that I refuse to share articles because no matter how important or interesting or uplifting there's always a pile of garbage at the end. They are driven by "engagement" analytics and that's it. I use ad blockers now to hide the comments by Disqus and Spot IM, but I still won't share articles.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:08 PM on March 2 [7 favorites]


numerous people across the country incensed by the existence of San Francisco Liberals who feel compelled to voice their poisonous garbage where they think it will have an outsize impact.

I'm pretty sure that explains the CBC comment section, too. There are always people telling you that you should never listen to the CBC in the CBC comments.
posted by clawsoon at 4:27 PM on March 2 [5 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that explains the CBC comment section, too. There are always people telling you that you should never listen to the CBC in the CBC comments.
The BBC News website is the same. There are a number of people who spend an awful lot of time on the BBC website talking about how you shouldn't trust the BBC or pay the licence fee. If the licence fee was scrapped and the BBC went away, they'd be bereft.
posted by winterhill at 2:09 AM on March 3 [4 favorites]


Come to think of it, I think the very worst comments section I know of (partly because it's in such a surprising place) is the LGBT news site Pink News. Every story tangentially related to trans people has page after page of transphobic comments. The site editors must know, but I guess TERF hits are still hits.
posted by winterhill at 4:20 AM on March 3 [5 favorites]


Every story tangentially related to trans people has page after page of transphobic comments.

This is definitely astroturfers, or professional trolls purposefully working to recruit people into a hate cult, like the alt right on reddit. Ever since conversatives lost the issue of gay marriage they've settled on trans rights as the new issue they can leverage in the culture wars to get otherwise liberal people to vote against their interests.
posted by subdee at 5:21 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]


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