"I made $500 a day with this one simple trick!!!"
"[Homophobic attack on writer]"
So goes a fictional, but all too realistic, conversation in the comments section of a typical news website. Virtually every site has, to some degree, a problem with commenters spamming the page with hate speech, non sequiturs, and other uncouth remarks that have no intent to further the conversation.
Even the most inoffensive of articles on kittens has almost assuredly been graffitied with pro-dog vitriol. It's why sites often employ a comment moderator to sift through the sea of feedback and nix the most offensive remarks.
But are comments sections even worth the trouble?
On Tuesday, Popular Science announced it was shutting down comments for good on all future web articles, saying they "can be bad for science." To back this up, the site's online content director, Suzanne LaBarre, points to — what else? — science.
In a recent study, University of Wisconsin researchers had people read a phony blog post describing the pros and cons of a new piece of technology. Participants then read either combative comments (Sample: You're stupid if you think this is a good product) or civil ones. They found that the uncivil comments "not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself."
In short: Awful commenters can negatively influence a reader's comprehension.
"The cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories within a website devoted to championing science," says LaBarre.
LaBarre is making the case only for scientific outlets, not the media at large. For others, the issue is more nuanced.
Comments can be a cesspool of argumentative nonsense. But they can also be an effective way for readers to point out mistakes and add valuable insight to complex discussions.
It often depends on the article in question. A post on gun rights or Alex Rodriguez will typically foster a more expletive-laden comments section than will one on the Fall fashion season. That's why New York Times columnist Paul Krugman concluded a post on September 11 memorials by saying, "I'm not going to allow comments on this post, for obvious reasons."
Though comments sections can be "consistently disgusting, subterranean conduits for what is, technically speaking, waste," says The Atlantic's Derek Thompson, they still, overall, "make The Atlantic a better site."
"The fact is, we want to hear from you," he says.
Some sites, notably The Onion's web outfit, disallow comments entirely — their satirists have even directly lampooned internet commenters. However, readers can still engage with the content through social media. In that way, they aren't being silenced, but kept off the site itself.
On the other end of the spectrum, Gawker last year rolled out a new commenting platform designed specifically to give commenters a greater presence on the media network's sites.
"I want to erase this toxic internet class system," Gawker's founder, Nick Denton, told the New York Observer.
The question doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing dichotomy. Sites that do allow comments use different methods to vet or feature them, and there is a lively debate over the best way to keep readers engaged without letting them run wild.
Quartz, after originally having no comments section, recently debuted a new model in which approved commenters can make annotations alongside articles. The New York Times features "verified commenters," which effectively pushes others down the page, further from sight.
At the least, mainstream sites tend to be moving away from allowing anonymous comments. Many, including ESPN, require commenters to log in through their Facebook profiles, the theory being that jerks are less inclined to troll once denied anonymity.
For better or worse, comments sections probably aren't going away anytime soon. Sites are more inclined to tinker with their commenting systems to sift out the garbage while promoting the gems. That's exactly what YouTube, home to some of the worst and weirdest comments on the web, recently said it would do. The site will soon allow users to block spammers and offensive commenters from their video pages.
Michael Erard details four other suggestions for improving comments in the New York Times Magazine, such as giving users a hand in promoting or panning comments.
"If the web is about participation," he writes, "we could enlist more of the off-line world’s tools to reward good participation — not just gripe about the bad actors."
What do you think, readers? Should we kick you out for good?
Let us know (nicely) in the comments section.
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