Comments on a website are a funny thing. At their very best, they challenge both author and audience by introducing a valuable extra layer of insightful, brief and often witty points for further debate that serve to elevate the original material in the eyes of the average reader. The interaction helps to inform the natural bias of the author so that he or she can either take this on board or develop the argument further to ensure that it becomes more robust.
The visitor learns from the author who in turn learns from the crowd-sourced knowledge of the audience in a virtuous circle. It really is a case of the sum of all parts being far greater than the whole.
Of course, not all websites achieve such comment nirvana. For those that are fortunate enough to receive comments in the first place, it’s not uncommon for some of the comments to be ill-considered, factually incorrect, abusive or, on occasion, a collection of all three.
Some believe that it is the disassociation of place and identity that gives people the licence to say things that they wouldn’t necessarily come up with to somone’s face. Allowing pseudonymous profiles to comment does leave some writers fighting a seemingly endless crusade against the inevitable trolling and anti-social behaviour that can ruin a website.
There seem to be three main strands here. The first is websites (such as PopSci) who deal in topics that can on occasion violently divide opinion. Take global warming and the concept of evolution, for a starter. They made the decision to stop accepting comments on their website over a year ago, claiming that part of the reason was that evidence proved that strongly-worded disagreements by commentators could undermine the general public’s belief of how robust scientific research was. The more controversial the research appears in the minds of the general public, the harder it becomes for public funds to be allocated in support of such causes.
The second type of websites appear to be those for whom success is just a given because frankly the quality is always just so damn high. For example, Seth Godin’s brilliant blog doesn’t have comments enabled simply because, in exactly the same way that he doesn’t spend significant amounts of time of social media, he just doesn’t have the time (or the inclination) to respond. It’s not that he’s in some way ambivalent to that public commentary. It’s just that he has a relentless, razor-sharp focus on actually “shipping” his product on a daily basis and he uses his main text to refine his big ideas (as opposed to explaining the finer points).
Next you have the websites where bluntly the empty comment section at the bottom just looks a little bit feeble. As an individual blogger, it’s less of an issue (he says, confidently – although please prove me wrong by telling me why not in the comments below). But as a professional news organisation (such a re/code) that’s never had a great deal of engagement, it’s perhaps best to play it safe by removing the option (and the cost).
But of course, many blog posts survive with vibrant commenting communities. Just take a look at avc.com, a blog that I read daily that’s one of the leaders in the field when it comes to reader engagement. So how does Fred Wilson’s blog succeed where so many others fail?
I believe it’s down to a couple of simple facts. First, the information that is being shared by the author turns out to be genuinely valuable. Generous and insightful commentary on relevant issues by someone who has a fairly unique combination of knowledge, experience and influence. And that generosity is reflected in the quality of the commentary where the community – for the most part – regulates itself. Most people respect the fact that many other commentators are well-respected leaders in their own field.
A couple of the websites that have recently switched off comments have claimed that this is because commentary now takes place predominantly on social media channels. I understand their point but I totally disagree. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen because commentary clearly does happen in these places. However, I’ve always felt that over the six years I’ve been using it, the biggest weakness that Twitter has remains its inability to pull conversation together around a topic for consumption in a cohesive way. Hashtags are a really basic attempt that can only ever get you so far. Add in the space constrictions and you have no obvious social location to read in-depth commentary around a post that’s more effective in my view than that little collection of comments, lurking, for good or bad, at the end of an article.
If you want a vibrant community, you have to spend the time cultivating and encouraging it. I suspect that part of the issue is that the news organisations simply lack the resources to develop these communities. I can’t believe that the system we have now will survive the next decade online but I do think it’s short-sighted to simply give up on it at this stage. It’s always harder to build than to maintain.