I've heard comment sections compared to "sewers", and that sounds rather literally correct. Most of them are logistically required, but consistently disgusting, subterranean conduits for what is, technically speaking, waste. Not The Atlantic, of course. We have the Internet's best commenters. But, you know, other people's websites.
If you have ever visited YouTube, you cannot pretend to not know what I'm talking about.
So this got me thinking: Popular Science has officially shut off its comment section, pointing to research showing that disagreeable comments hurt the reading experience. Or, at least, the reading comprehension. One study out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that mean comments under an article about nanotechnology "polarized readers," taking attention away from the story and warping the audience's grasp of the article. Another study found that even simple disagreements between commenters "impacted readers' perception of science," wrote Suzanne LaBarre, PopSci's online content director.
Like a narrow Supreme Court opinion, PopSci's defense was case-specific, without presuming to tell other sites they should follow along. Comments "erode the popular consensus" on scientifically validated topics, LaBarre wrote, such as climate change and evolution. It's perfectly legal to wonder aloud on your Facebook page whether dinosaur bones are real or placed there by a spiritual entity to test our faith. But it's not quite the discussion a site like PopSci wants to cultivate under a column by a world-renowned paleontologist. "The cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories within a website devoted to championing science," LaBarre wrote eloquently.
I read the news on Twitter—which itself acts like a metastasized comment section, often for better and often for worse—where other writers and editors bemoaned the quality of their comment sections and wondered if they should pull a PopSci and leave their articles unadorned by reader feedback. Around the Web, some major sites are moving in opposite directions*. Medium is totally clean. Sites like The New Republic hide their comment sections under a click. Quartz debuted without comments and has added subtle paragraph-by-paragraph annotations.
Meanwhile, communities like Reddit have elevated the comment section by relying on the wisdom of crowds. Reddit is nothing but links, headlines, and an infinite scroll of chatter, with the most popular commenter quips at the top. Nick Denton's Kinja project ostensibly seeks to bring that sensibility to Gawker Media, allowing democratically elected comments to be featured on his homepages like any other article by a paid writer.
Are comments good or bad for online journalism? The best answer is the least satisfying. They are both. Some articles are better with feedback. Some articles work better with a quiet audience. Some sites channel conversation to become as delightful as the paid-writer paragraphs. Some sites don't. Some commenters are wonderful teachers, even sources (I can't tell you how much I've learned from my own). Many commenters are contemptible trolls.
A few months ago, The Atlantic digital team convened a brief meeting about our own comment strategy. After hours of meetings, most of us decided we wanted a comment section that felt democratic, encouraged voting, prized smarts, and included fail-safes for deleting racism, sexism, and the worst kinds of deliberate idiocy. The fact is, we want to hear from you. You make The Atlantic a better site. But sometimes, too much feedback can start to sound like, well ... feedback.
*Some move in both directions at the same time. Like this one. Have you tried to write a comment for James Fallows recently? You can't. There is no Fallows comment section. On the other hand, Ta-Nehisi Coates might have the most engaged and erudite commenter community on the Internet. Our boss Bob Cohn unpacked the Atlantic's commenter philosophy this year.