The Misguided War on Comments Sections

Unpopular opinion: Comment sections are not evil.

Yes, people can be idiots in comments sections and they can be subject to spam about how you can make a hundred billion dollars a month working from home with Google. They can also be fountains of interesting discussion and even wisdom if you’re looking in the right places. I regularly see thoughtful, civil conversations even on the much maligned comments sections of YouTube depending on the video and topic.

So I couldn’t help but roll my eyes when Techdirt reported that NPR had become the latest website to shut down comments sections, in what amounts to throwing up their hands and admitting they can’t be bothered with moderation or even basic content filtering. The idea of news websites not wanting to be called out for errors or typos in their own comments sections is also something they may want to avoid.

So another website muzzles its own readers in a somewhat disheartening trend. Normally that would be the end of it, but this snippet from Karl Bode’s Techdirt article made me double take:

“For several years now we’ve documented the rise in websites that shutter their comment sections, effectively muzzling their own on-site communities. Usually this is because websites are too lazy and cheap to moderate or cultivate real conversation, or they’re not particularly keen on having readers point out their inevitable errors in such a conspicuous location. But you can’t just come out and admit this — so what we get is all manner of disingenuous prattle from website editors about how the comments section is being closed because they just really value conversation, or are simply trying to build better relationships.


Yes, apparently NPR is rationalizing the shutting down of comments sections as something positive for the readers:

“After much experimentation and discussion, we’ve concluded that the comment sections on stories are not providing a useful experience for the vast majority of our users. In order to prioritize and strengthen other ways of building community and engagement with our audience, we will discontinue story-page comments on on August 23.”

So apparently, nothing says “We love our readers” like silencing them.

There’s no point being diplomatic here: This is bunk. It’s PR, and it’s cynical spin move so transparent that it’s almost invisible. You don’t take things away from your readers, customers or clients because you love them that much. Especially when it’s a rudimentary component of websites that take almost no effort to filter on a basic level. What’s more, the above NPR article emphasizes social media outlets as taking the forefront of the “discussion” that NPR ostensibly loves so much:

Social media is now one of our most powerful sources for audience interaction. Our desks and programs run more than 30 Facebook pages and more than 50 Twitter accounts. We maintain vibrant presences on Snapchat, Instagram and Tumblr. Our main Facebook page reaches more than 5 million people and recently has been the springboard for hundreds of hours of live video interaction and audience-first projects such as our 18,000-member “Your Money and Your Life” group.

The idea that social media commentary and discussion makes reader commentary on the website itself redundant is as silly as suggesting that Facebook pages make websites unnecessary and obsolete.

What’s more, no, NPR, your Facebook page doesn’t “reach” 5 million people. You have 5 million fans, and Facebook pages infamously reach far fewer people as a result of Facebook’s algorithm tweaks unless you’re constantly paying for promoted posts. So if you’re willing to have those “discussions” potentially involve fewer people, or people who just opt to not use Facebook to discuss politics or current events, well. That’s one way to demonstrate how much you love your audience, I suppose.

You don’t have to take my word for it that people may not have Facebook or may not want to use it to comment on NPR articles; the reaction by actual NPR readers (you know, the ones NPR loves!) has been pretty negative. As it turns out, for how prevalent the myopic stereotype is of comments sections being filled with howler monkeys flinging shit at each other, people appreciated the ability to have intelligent discussions on-site, like this one user:

They’re getting rid of a great community of discussion. It’s the best forum I’ve known, with people from all walks of life discussing the news with a moderate amount of intelligence, and a healthy dose of wit. I’m pretty upset. After the comments go, I won’t visit NPR much anymore. There’s not much content compared to other sites. It was the discussion that kept me coming back.

Let’s take note of that last sentence: “It was the discussion that kept me coming back.” Does that remind you of any major websites?

Oh yeah, Facebook. Twitter. Reddit. Any social network through which conversation takes place. When you think about it, as a website you’re competing with these places for peoples’ Internet time. What’s telling about this comment is that by shutting down comments, or reader-driven discussion, media websites – many of which are already struggling in an age of Adblock and competition – many very well be shooting themselves in the foot.

Let’s call this what it is: A tacit admission that NPR either doesn’t have or doesn’t want to invest in resources to moderate and curate their comments. This is especially ironic considering many of the sites who have disabled comments regularly criticize Facebook and Twitter for their poor handling of Internet harassment. Yet these sites are perfectly content shutting out their community and herding them onto social media in the first place. All under the guise of loving them.

I’d be loathe to end this article without pointing out that yes, I have comments disabled on my own website. I have no community; I’m flattered that you’re reading my ramblings, but opening comments would do nothing but make my website look like a ghost town.