In Defense of Comments

You’ve heard it a million times: don’t read the comments.

It’s my least favorite of internet mantras (perhaps second only to if you build it, they will come, but more on that some other time) because it dismisses a huge swath of internet participation, and prevents us from realizing the potential of what comments can be – making it all that much easier to accept the status quo.

Don’t get me wrong, I have few illusions about the downsides of many comments sections out there. They can be chaotic, terrifying messes that serve up the seeming worst of humanity – sometimes, not reading the comments can be an important act of self-care.

But I often hear this phrase combined with an implicit: what did you expect? and that’s where I think we need to push back, because not every comment section is a cesspool – many of them are clean, well-lit spaces where good things are happening for people who come to the internet to learn, share, and connect with others.

In fact, at their best, comments are community. If you only skim the comments on YouTube, you might miss it, but on sites all around the web, connections and relationships have been built in the comment sections of journalists, bloggers, news sites, retailers and more.

I little while back, I asked people on Twitter and Facebook to share their favorite comments sections – I wondered if there were sites people would be genuinely sad to see the comments disappear. It ended up being one of my most popular Facebook posts. Here’s what people came back with:

There were a few other suggestions as well – a friend of mine was pleased that she’d never received an angry comment on her personal finance blog, another pointed out that without the help of commenters on ModCloth, she’d never find the right fit, and another recommended The Truth About Cars as having a particularly smart community of commenters.

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list, and it’s biased towards the interests and reading habits of those I happen to be connected to, but seeing the range of these recommendations confirmed for me that a lot of people are reading the comments, and getting something from it besides higher blood pressure. For those who’ve loudly proclaimed that comments are beyond saving, I’d encourage you to check out some of those sites and see if you find anything that strikes your fancy.

Two things stood out to me in reviewing these sites:

  • Engagement (and moderation) counts – Maybe it’s the observer effect, but many of these sites and individual writers are definitely reading their comments and aren’t afraid to get into the mix. Writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Captain Awkward do a great job of publicly moderating discussions and letting commenters (and the rest of the community) know when something crosses the line, and news organizations like The Guardian have invested significantly in online editors and moderation staff.
  • Anonymity isn’t the problem – This is most certainly a topic for a longer post, and perhaps I should say it isn’t the primary problem. I think anonymity is a bit of a red herring, but it always seems to come up in discussions about comments. Many of these sites have robust comment sections without any kind of Real Name policy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue for the past few months, and I definitely don’t have all the answers, but since it’s Monday morning and we’ve got a nice fresh start on the week, I’ll invite you to join me in a little weekly goal: be a better commenter this week.

Maybe that just means reading the comments and responding to some of the positive ones, maybe it means commenting on a piece you found interesting or helpful, even if you don’t have much more to add – be part of that virtuous cycle.

If you’re ready to get started, feel free to share some of your thoughts on sites that should be added to the list above, or your ideas on what makes for a good comment section below!

  • Lucy

    Askamanager also has a really robust commenting community. People disagree, but any real nastiness is shut down quickly. It has more of a community feel than any other blog I read regularly– and in fact, I would say reading the comments enhances the content!

  • http://marieconnelly.com/ Marie Connelly

    On a related note, the Huffington Post just announced yesterday that they’re ending anonymous comments in favor of a real name policy: http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2013/08/21/huffington-post-banning-anonymous-comments/EjrAPge98I3Sp0YTdSTRnN/story.html

    I think it’ll be very interesting to see how they implement, and what impact it has. Fewer comments but higher quality? Fewer comments but no real change in quality? Part of my suspicion that anonymity is a bit of a red herring here comes from seeing comments folks leave on new sites via Facebook, etc. But then, apparently the LA times has seen some success with that (http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/media-lab/social-media/143192/news-sites-using-facebook-comments-see-higher-quality-discussion-more-referrals/). I am more inclined to agree with danah boyd’s perspective though, that these policies exclude a lot of people from the conversation, not just the folks who are there to troll. To be discussed in a future post, perhaps!

    At any rate, this interview with Justin Isaf (former Director of Community for HuffPo) about how they manage comments and community at the scale of 70+ million comments a year might be of interest to folks: http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/top-stories/190492/how-the-huffington-post-handles-70-million-comments-a-year/

  • Ping

    For a while, in my earlier days, I ran a Harry Potter fan forum. It was really fun, and I tried to foster a positive community. But I knew that, at some level, I was running a dictatorship, not a democracy. Sure, I loved getting feedback and input and tweaked plenty of things based on that. But, at the end of the day, I was in charge, and what was on the site was a reflection of my values. If I let it descend into chaos, it was my responsibility. (Just as it’s really my responsibility that it’s dead now, since I don’t have the time/interest to put into it anymore.) So, I definitely agree that engagement and moderation counts. A lot.

    • http://marieconnelly.com/ Marie Connelly

      That’s awesome, Ping! I feel like managing a fan forum like that would require a lot of time and attention – and with any community, you’ve got to know what it’s all about for you, and what the guidelines are. Definitely a labor of love, but I think that engagement and moderation are also what helps foster positive communities – good on you for doing it as long as you did!

  • Mark Lee

    Hey! I’m one of the editors at OverthnkingIt.com. So glad our site got mentioned on this list, and we’re super grateful that we’ve managed to cultivate a great community in our comments section.

    Funny to see The Verge make this list, though. Often times the commenters are insightful and hilarious, but practically every smartphone post quickly descends into those terrible fanboy wars that make you question your faith in humanity. That being said, I still read the site religiously and more often than not skim through the comments.

    • http://marieconnelly.com/ Marie Connelly

      Thanks for stopping by, Mark – you’ve got some fans out there for sure!

      I think it’s an interesting point about The Verge (and I heard this from some folks about Ars as well) – there are certain debates that are always going to happen. I’d imagine that’s true when you’re talking about sites like SBNation as well.

      Do you guys see a lot of that at OT? Shows or movies people love, or hate, or love to hate, in the comments on your posts? I’d be interested to hear how folks make the decisions about when it’s time to shut down debate on a particular topic.

    • Mark Lee

      Flame wars rarely break out over a particular pop culture property. Impassioned arguments? The pedantic but respectful “well actually”? Quite often, but not shouting matches. It’s the identity politics pieces that get people all riled up. Things got pretty ugly when we were talking about racial motives behind casting of the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie, for example.

    • Mark Lee

      I should also add that our Eurovision video series attracted a lot of ire for our, shall we say, less than earnest takes on countries’ kitschy pop acts. I’m pretty sure I’m banned for life from Hungary.

    • http://www.ranetides.com/ Nate

      Hey Mark, I’m a reporter at The Verge… and I can’t really argue with you about the smartphone posts. There’s unfortunately very little way around that… fanboys are looking for an excuse to get offended.

      We’ve found that if we can have moderators on board to try and steer the conversation in a good fashion, we can get some good discussions out of them, but if the first comments get off on a bad food, it makes it sadly harder to get back on track. Think things are hardly unique for us though, I see it across all kinds of tech-focused sites.

  • Tofu

    I’d like to suggest that, while Real Name isn’t required, Username is. You need an ongoing presence and reputation of sorts.

    • http://marieconnelly.com/ Marie Connelly

      That’s a good point, Tofu ;) – I’d say building community is founded on building relationships, and it’s hard to do that with anonymous101, anonymous102, etc. Having the expectation of a consistent username, at least within a given site or platform, makes a big difference.

      I do think there can still be space for anonymous comments that add value to a discussion. There are some interesting examples of this on http://www.captainawkward.com where people will sometimes leave replies as “Anonymous for this post” or something, indicating that they’re a member of the community, but feel the need to contribute something that doesn’t get associated with their screen name.

      Perhaps that only works because they’re still showing some connection/understanding of the norms of that community – I don’t know of any comment sections that are 100% anonymous that I would genuinely recommend. I’d be interested in hearing suggestions if anybody has them though!

  • http://www.ranetides.com/ Nate

    TL;DR

    JK. Commenters can be such a pain, but it’s great when a real community comes together in the comments section. Something that Ars and The Verge both have in common — both have robust forums that lets the commenters write their own content at length and engage / extend the relationships first formed in the comment sections. A good policy! I joined the Ars forums over a decade ago and it ended up pointing me to the site’s content, strangely enough, rather than the other way around.

    • http://marieconnelly.com/ Marie Connelly

      Ha! Thanks, Nate.

      There was an interesting discussion about Ars when I first posted this question on Facebook – mainly about how no tech site can avoid the Mac vs PC kinds of debates. Are there articles (or…types of content?) at The Verge that you think drive particularly strong (in a good way) discussions in the comments?

    • http://www.ranetides.com/ Nate

      Well, Mac vs. PC (or the more modern iOS vs. Android vs. Windows Phone) thing is never going to go away.

      But, the stories where we have the best engagement and discussions are usually things about the future, where the readers haven’t had as much personal experience with it and they’re learning something new (or finding out new stuff about a subject they’re already interested in). More artistic stuff is usually good for that too. Anything where the commenters don’t already have as many preconceived notions.

      It’s especially rewarding when you are writing about a subject where lots of commenters have preconcieved notions and you manage to spark a good conversation or debate, but it’s harder to pin down exactly when or why that’ll happen…

    • http://www.ranetides.com/ Nate

      Apropos of nothing, check out the comments on this post I wrote yesterday:
      http://www.theverge.com/2013/8/21/4644016/11-story-lego-tower-sets-new-guinness-world-record

      There’s no fascinating discussion going on here — but a lot of damn funny stuff. I read through it this morning and had a good laugh; it was fun to see the commenters having a good time with a fun story. Small things like that definitely help build a community, IMO.

    • http://marieconnelly.com/ Marie Connelly

      HA! This is pretty much the perfect article for you, Nate.

      It’s funny that the comments are kind of a mix of “read the article”, “math!” and debate about whether or not something qualifies as a tower. Like you said, good to see folks having fun with it! (Also, what a cool project for a school district to take on – those kids must be super excited.)

    • http://www.ranetides.com/ Nate

      Yeah… I wish I got to do something like that when I was in school!

      I don’t know why, but there’s one thread in those comments where someone was like “what are they gonna do with it?” Someone replied RTFA (read the fuckin article) and then everyone started posting ridiculous replies like “but what is the tower made of?” and “i bet it could break a world record” and that kind of nonsense. Super sarcastic, but also just kind of fun and ridiculous. Made me laugh out loud at my desk.