Are Comments on News Articles Pointless?

By Deane Barker

I’ve always maintained the commenting on major websites – especially news sites – is just a complete disaster these days. Comment threads on sites like CNN and USAToday (especially USAToday, for some reason…) make me not want to live on this planet anymore.

Nick Denton, of Gawker fame, agrees. Apparently, he doesn’t even go near the comment threads on his own sites anymore. He was quoted at SXSW:

“The idea of capturing the intelligence of the readership – that’s a joke.”

[…] “I don’t like going into the comments. … For every two comments that are interesting – even if they’re critical, you want to engage with them – there will be eight that are off-topic or just toxic,” he said.

Over at the Neiman Journalism Lab, they’ve been following the death and resurrection of comments at the New Haven Independent. In an editorial explaining the removal of comments, the Independent wrote:

The tone of commenting on the Independent – the remarks readers post at the bottom of stories – seems to have skidded to the nasty edges and run off the rails. We’re responsible for reading, vetting, and posting all comments on the site. We’ve failed in our responsibility to keep the discussion on track.

We started noticing it during last fall’s mayoral campaign. Both sides became apoplectic every time their opponents were simply quoted in a news story. They resorted to personal attacks and relentless fury. Or they spent the day trying to pick fights with each other through the comments section. The tenor bled onto unrelated stories.

I’ve noticed that worse than the general inanity of the comments on news sites, they get so, so nasty, so quickly. And there are regulars that pick on each other. Based on some of the comments I’ve seen get through, I wonder what’s being filtered.

And what is to gain? Never once have I seen a comment on a CNN or USAToday story that has one one single thing to further debate in any constructive way. They could shut down their comments and lose not one iota of value. Contrast this to the New York Times, which seems to do much better, for some reason. Comments there seem to be vastly more cerebral and seek to further the debate in some reasonable direction.

(It reminds me of this site, which compares random comment threads on MetaFilter to random comment threads on YouTube. The difference is striking. Reddit, in particular, does amazingly well with comments. Read the /r/bestof subreddit for some really phenomenal threads.)

My sadness about this reached it zenith (nadir?) last week when I read this analysis from an Australian news site which tracked down several trolls and asked them what made them troll people. The answers were just…

  • It just makes me happy when I can make someone angry. It sounds weird but I kind of feed off their anger. The angrier I can get them, the better I feel,

  • […] I’d feel responsible but I wouldn’t care. I’ve pretty much lost all hope for humanity anyway, I don’t believe that anything can save people,

  • […] I randomly targeted a lady for no reason, humiliated her for no reason – just to be a bitch. Looking back now it was petty. I’m one of those remorseful trolls, I suppose.

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