Essays on Technology and Culture

Twitter is Not a Comment Section—It’s Worse

I’m no fan of comment sections. They’re all-too-often the worst of the worst of the worst of the Internet of Garbage. This is mostly because nobody wants to pay anyone to keep them from becoming a dumpster fire. Comments are easy social glue to keep people on your site, and for cash-strapped digital publishers, the ad views and metrics from a burning dumpster fire at the bottom of each page are still preferable to paying someone to spray a hose on it.

But, there has been a trend of high profile websites turning off comments. Popular Science led the charge in 2013, tech site Re/code switched theirs off a year ago, and back in July The Verge switched their comments off as a temporary measure. And there’s been more than a few others, as well. The most recent high-profile site to ditch comments is Vice Media’s Motherboard, which led to a backlash from a particularly gross, and very popular web comic focused on video gaming. I won’t be linking to it.

You’d think I’d be all for this development. One less section of toxic ooze at the end of otherwise great writing, one less place for people to be horrible to other people without consequence. I should be running naked through the streets in celebration. (You can thank me for that image later.) But, I’m not. I’m sitting at my desk, grumpily writing about why it’s bad.

See, there’s a huge problem to just ditching comments on a high-profile, highly-trafficked website, and that problem can be summarized in one, simple word: Twitter. Twitter is not a comment section. Twitter is worse than a comment section. Comment sections on websites generally have the advantage of being self-contained. Twitter is a public network, with a public harassment problem that its new leadership have decided to ignore in favor of shuffling chairs around. So, now if you want to make a statement about an article, you’re putting yourself at risk of becoming another victim of rampaging hordes with pitchforks, virtual and real. How is this an improvement?

Oh, right. It’s an improvement because it gives the publication an avenue for “feedback” while freeing them of two burdens. First is the burden of displaying advertising next to the poorly-spelled, vitriolic vomit of your typical comment section dweller, second of churning through underpaid community moderators—or outsourcing the task to overseas moderation companies. The publisher comes out smelling of roses, and with somewhat diminished overhead costs, while the sort of people who are going to be obnoxious assholes whenever they have a megaphone get free reign to be obnoxious assholes with the biggest megaphone in the world.

There are people who are trying to fix comments. You have ideas like the brilliant Jess Zimmerman’s proposal to “make comments cost money”. She’s “not proposing just charging to comment…” but also that “we should pay people when their comments reach a certain threshold of value.” It makes sense. If comments are as valuable to the online reading experience as some people would have you believe, why not provide some financial incentive for people to write good ones?

A more practical (read: “cheaper”) solution is something along the line of Digg’s new Digg Dialogue, or the croud-sourced model of Civil Comments, which is in beta. Their idea is:

Instead of blindly publishing whatever people submit, we first ask them to rate the quality and civility on 3 randomly-selected comments, as well as their own. It’s a bit more work for the commenter, but the end result is a community built on trust and respect, not harassment and abuse.

Elsewhere, MakerBase is being designed from the ground up to mitigate the possibility of abuse. It’s not a comment section, but if the same principles can be applied to one, along with some of the other ideas being floated around, a day might come where comment sections are actually worth reading. But first, publishers will have to care, and make investments in these ideas. As long as money is tight, and Twitter is ubiquitous, it’s not likely to happen. So, we all suffer for it.