Take Your Debate Elsewhere: No On-Site Commenting Allowed

By | August 6, 2015

nocommentsA new online news channel from Vice launched this week. It’s got a great name – Broadly – that gives props to its target audience: women, feminists in particular. Editor-in-chief Tracie Egan Morrissey told Wired in an August 3 interview that she wants Broadly to “drive conversations about women for women, telling true stories that other places just aren’t.”

But those conversations about women for women will not actually be taking place on broadly.vice.com. Instead, Broadly will rely on its Facebook, Twitter and YouTube profiles for conversational feedback from the audience.

Morrissey’s reasoning for this:

“When women are speaking online, it’s such a lightning rod for every angle — other feminists are telling you you’re not doing feminism properly, MRAs are coming in and calling you a fat whore,” she says, describing the constant abuse and harassment that she saw as an editor in the comments at Jezebel. “No comments on Broadly,” she says, matter-of-factly. “That was that.”

Broadly is not the first news site to launch, or relaunch, sans on-site comments. When Columbia Journalism Review redesigned its site in March 2015, it ditched on-site comments with no explanation.

On-site comments on news websites are becoming more scarce. In July 2015, The Daily Dot announced the death of its on-site comments.

“[…] we suspect that many publishers will soon find that their existing commenting systems do not serve their readers as the conversation continues to move off websites to social media, where most of our content is discovered and consumed,” wrote editors Austin Powell and Nicholas White

Both Reuters and Re/code dropped on-site comments in November 2014. Re/code editors Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher posted in a note to readers: “We believe that social media is the new arena for commenting, replacing the old on-site approach that dates back many years.”

And Mic.com followed in December 2014, noting that the “passionate discussions we see on our Facebook page — as well as the conversations our audience is having with our writers on Twitter — are more productive and organized than what tends to happen in our comments section.”

Devoting resources to moderating on-site comments and controlling the trolls are what push newsrooms to rely on social media instead. Good moderation is time-consuming, and like Morrissey said, the constant trolling is emotionally draining/damaging.

It takes dedication to facilitate a good debate. It means both promoting and pruning commentary, and outsmarting and outlasting the trolls.

It not as if news story comment threads on social media are so much more civil, useful or valuable, but news organizations aren’t directly “liable,” so-to-speak, for the idiocy splattered all over Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms.

I get it. A well-reported news article is less undermined when an insulting/derogatory/off-topic/spammy comment isn’t posted directly beneath it, and it takes three or four clicks and a social media login for trolls to add their two-cents.

But that means it also takes three or four clicks and a social media login for me – an avid lurker – to read what others think about the issue/article. Sometimes the comments teach me just as much as the article itself.

I’ll be very interested to see how Broadly intends to creates a safer space for women to have conversations about stuff women care about on platforms it doesn’t control: Facebook, Twitter and the comment cesspool of YouTube (truly one of the places on the web where you should avoid reading comments).  Men dominate commenting on most forums and hosting “conversations” on gigantic social media sites isn’t likely to change the participation inequality.

Here’s a burning question to consider: How many news organizations track how many of their social media-based commenters actually read the original story that sparked the social media-based conversation?

At the April 2015 Journalism Interactive Conference at the University of Missouri, Angilee Shah, the social media manager at Public Radio International, told the audience that the PRI Facebook posts/promos garnering the most comments (usually about something political/controversial) tend to be the ones with the LOWEST click-throughs to the actual story. Commenters on Facebook react to the promo on Facebook and to other people’s comments on Facebook.

To combat all those uninformed commenters, Shah said she asks the reporter or editor to get involved in the Facebook conversation stream, and edits the Facebook promo, to get more of that commenting audience to read the actual story.

If “informed commentary and debate” are what we journalists really want as a by-product of our news stories – akin to democracy – then moderation is a requirement on social media, too.

I would still like to quantify how much news organizations give away by pushing the conversation to social media. News stories — all that hard work of gathering, filtering, designing and reporting the information — are the foundations for conversations, both online and in real life. What incentives are currently built into existing on-site comment platforms that invite so many bad actors? If the structure of on-site comment platforms were improved, would more news organizations reconsider their on-site comment sections? Or it is futile to compete with the enormity of social media?

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