The war on comments
Media organisations are finally acknowledging that the comments’ ecosystems they have created have gone feral
Anyone who reads online media knows that the mood music has changed when it comes to the comments which readers leave under a piece of writing. The Guardian’s Web We Want series has been the jumping off point for many writers and commentators to have their say on the wild, wicked world which exists below-the-line. My colleague Una Mullally wrote about this the other day – and it’s worth noting the pedictable stream of comments which her column inevitably attracted – while the New York Times has also been examining the issue of late.
To many writers and readers, the standfirst to Una’s piece probably sums up the current state of affairs: “comment sections as they currently exist have failed. Instead of fostering intelligent debate, they are taken over by ranters and ravers.” The question is just why they have failed and if there’s any will to change this? It’s not enough to just keep saying “never read the comments” because that sure as hell has not worked.
I suppose it’s best to look at my own gaff in this regard before we go any further. Readers comments were one of the reasons why doing this blog has been such a blast. Between the blog starting in 2007 and changes in how comments were handled and managed in 2012, OTR attracted hundreds, nay thousands, of comments on every subject under the sun. There were heated discussions, humour, a few head-the-balls (that would be me) and naturally, some short-term, bad-tempered spats too. It was a lively and engaged community of people who came here for the music and stuck around for the other stuff from sports to politics too. It was a community who provided me with leads on dozens of stories too, a really valuable resource from my point of view. It was a community of insiders and outsiders who were all keen to contribute. It was a community of people that I grew to like and be fond of.
But it was a community which required time and attention. It’s odd now to look back at the hey-day of OTR and see just how much time I spent tending the garden. Back then, the comments were pre-moderated (ie I read them before they were published) and I think 99 per cent of the ones which weren’t spam got published. In order to make sure the blog worked, I made a decision from the very start to take the time to engage with readers and what they had to say. There were times when both writer and readers ended up bruised as a result of this policy, but I always maintained that if people took the time to come here and contribute, I should make the time to respond no matter what was said. No-one at the paper asked me to do this but to me, it was just simple manners: if someone made a point about something you’d written, you should respond.
However, #NotAllWriters…. To my mind, one of the main problems why we now have a rabid world of below-the-line comments is because writers don’t want to bother with them and certainly don’t want to engage. You can’t really blame them when you see the kind of comments their pieces attract. Sometimes, it’s not the pieces which are attracting the odium, but rather the writer themselves, regardless of what they are saying. Who has the time and stomach to engage with that kind of rot?
But it could have been so different when the rules of engagement were initially set out. The blame for this lies squarely with the media organisations who added comments to every piece they could in an effort to increase traffic and traction. These organisations didn’t think it through and certainly didn’t realise you needed people to moderate these spaces. They also didn’t ensure that the comments structure worked for the good of the writers and the readers.
Some did: here’s a great piece by Marc Burrows on his time as a moderator at The Guardian and it’s telling that he writes more about the positive than the negative. But most organisations didn’t because they wanted to save resources and didn’t see how spending money on moderators would help the bottom line.
Most thought writers would handle the job, but most writers decided they had no intention of doing this so that battle was lost from the get-go. Sometimes, there would be an effort made to be seen to manage the issue – the appointment of an editor or overseer, for instance – but it was always tokenistic. When comments turned out to be more trouble than they were worth, organisations largely abandoned the space and the ranters and ravers took full advantage of the situation. Sensible readers ran a mile and took to social media instead. You get a different class of ranter and raver on social media and you can always block or mute the ones you don’t like.
We’ve now reached the point where writers and their readers who want to be informed don’t read the comments (or at least say they don’t – I think most writers read and note them because it’s human nature after all) and yet the comments keep coming. Every single opinion piece on every single subject – and not just the controversial ones like abortion, immigration and what the Germans think of the Irish – receives a run of comments so someone must be reading them. Perhaps it’s become like those ludicrous Outbrain articles you get under articles web-wide and that comments have now become such a part of the online furniture that no-one is prepared to remove them or even know how to do it.
Yet it’s inevitable that changes will have to be made. Writers are becoming louder in their opposition to the stuff which appears below-the-line under their pieces. Simply allowing readers to flag abusive comments just does not work – these comments should never be allowed to appear in the first place, but that takes a degree of moderation which media organisations appear reluctant to embrace. The Guardian’s research into the 70 million comments on its site since 2006 showed that female writers attracted more vitriolic and abusive comments than male writers and confirmed what everyone has thought for a very long time. It also begs some interesting employment law questions: is this really the kind of environment which employers want for their employees? How long before a case is taken alleging that below-the-line comments have created an unfriendly and hostile workplace?
You could argue that it’s too late and the time to strike was when everyone started togging out with comments left, right and centre in the first place. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it won’t solve this one. Neither will deciding that writers have to engage with the comments. There are many suggestions about what to do (here are some of them, for example, as collated by The Guardian), but perhaps the best thing to do at this stage, the only thing to do maybe, is to turn the comments off or, as this newspaper has done from today, restrict commenting to subscribers. Mischevious readers and destructive commentators have had their fun. We can leave the whole issue of comments to Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat, like we’ve left everything else, and put the onus on those tech companies to police those environments (ironically, something media orgs have simply not done themselves). Sure, who really wants to comment under a piece of journalism any more anyway?