Comment Sections Fall Out of Fashion

As the discussion continues on social media, digital pubs deem reader forums pointless

Web_SocialMediaCommentingBack in the early aughts, when digital publications (or “blogs” as they were then known without derision) became the main way that readers engaged with news stories, comment sections were still communities where like-minded readers could impress each other with their knowledge and wit. They weren’t always nice or on-topic, and on some sites, the growing presence of trolls made comment moderators more vital.

But recently, many publications have decided to kill comments altogether, since the real conversation is happening on Twitter, Reddit and Facebook.

Last week, Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg announced that Re/code, their almost year-old site devoted to covering the tech industry, was eliminating comments.

“We thought about this decision long and hard, since we do value reader opinion,” Mr. Mossberg and Ms. Swisher wrote. “But we concluded that, as social media has continued its robust growth, the bulk of discussion of our stories is increasingly taking place there, making onsite comments less and less used and less and less useful. In effect, we believe that social media is the new arena for commenting, replacing the old onsite approach that dates back many years.”

The announcement prompted a slew of comments … on Twitter.

“I very much hope @recode’s decision to kill its comments section is widely copied by other news sites,” The New York Times technology writer Farhad Manjoo tweeted. (When reached by the Observer, Mr. Manjoo declined to comment further on his tweet about comments.) 

“Thanks! But we are not starting a crusade, just doing what we think makes sense for us,” Mr. Mossberg replied, on Twitter.

Crusade or not, Re/code is not alone in getting rid of commenting forums.

Reuters did away with comments last month. Earlier this year, publications including The Chicago Sun-Times and Popular Science got rid of the commenting function. Other titles, including The New Yorker and The New York Times selectively allow comments on some stories but not others.

Even a reading series devoted to reading Internet comments out loud has noticed the trend. “A lot of our readers opt to share tweets that have been directed at them in response to things they’ve written on various sites (as opposed to responses they’re getting to things they’ve tweeted),” said Jolie Kerr, a writer and columnist who co-hosts “SAY IT TO MY FACE: Confronting the Comments Section” at Housing Works.

In June, The New York Times and The Washington Post announced a project with Firefox’s Mozilla to develop a platform for reader comments tailored to the needs of news organizations. The project, which is funded by a grant of roughly $3.9 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and is expected to take two years to complete, points to the difficulty that media outlets have had grappling with the challenges of policing a comment section.

These communities, of course, do often devolve into a free-for-all. In August, Jezebel staffers used their blog to publicly draw attention to the violent rape imagery that they were being subjected to in the comment section on the company’s own publishing platform. In response, Gawker media reinstituted a system of pending comments, meaning that comments that haven’t been approved are, while visible, labeled as such.

“Blogs are like restaurants: no matter how good the food is, the customer is also there for the hubbub,” said Gawker media owner Nick Denton, who has an evangelical-like zeal when it comes to Kinja, his publishing platform that seeks to knock down the divide between writer and commenter. “Gawker and its sibling sites have always relied on readers for insight and information. So for us, it’s not an option to give up on comments.”

Another person who commented on Mr. Manjoo’s tweet was Mathew Ingram, a senior writer at tech site GigaOm and a vocal defender of comments.

“It’s not that you shouldn’t be on Twitter or Facebook. Obviously, you should,” Mr. Ingram told the Observer when we asked for comment on his tweet. “But if you close off an entire avenue of discussion with your readers, I think you are saying something, which is that only people who are on Twitter and Facebook matter. You are giving a lot of power and value to those networks that should arguably be yours.”

And that may be one of the most glaring problems with outsourcing comment sections to tech companies: losing control and reader engagement.

“The relationship with your readers is one of the most powerful things you have, so to just sort of give that away to someone else seems shortsighted,” Mr. Ingram continued. While he acknowledged that it is difficult for many news organizations to devote the resources to moderating comments, he thinks the answer is to make them better, not get rid of them.

Indeed, that was the conclusion reached by The New York Times and The Washington Post when they decided to devote resources to developing a better commenting platform. The newspapers “considered buying available software” but decided to build their own, in part because it would “allow the publisher to retain valuable user data instead of handing it to a third party.”

But Mr. Denton, while committed to comments on his blog network, doesn’t think they’re necessary for all organizations.

“Both are viable strategies,” he said. “The only mistake is to keep comments and neglect them.”

Comment Sections Fall Out of Fashion