NPR made a big announcement in the middle of last week: It is ending its users’ ability to offer comments at the bottom of each story posted on its site.
“We’ve reached the point where we’ve realized that there are other, better ways to achieve the same kind of community discussion around the issues we raise in our journalism,” Scott Montgomery, NPR’s managing editor of digital news, explained.
This is terrific news. And all other major media organizations should follow NPR’s lead.
No, I am not anti-First Amendment. And, no, I am not so thin-skinned that I can’t take criticism. Neither am I so arrogant as to believe that I have the right way of looking at everything in the political world.
But I do hate the comments sections of media websites. Or, more accurately, I have grown to hate them.
When I started The Fix in 2006, I spent lots of time thinking about the comments section — and nurturing it. I would regularly go into the comments to interact (or try to interact) with readers. I incentivized and deputized regular commenters to keep order.
Then I gave up. Because none of the tactics or strategies we tried had any real effect on the quality of the dialogue happening on The Fix. No matter what the original post was about, a handful of the loudest — or most committed — voices in the room hijacked the comments thread to push their own agendas. Anyone trying to urge the conversation back to the topic at hand — or even something approximating the topic at hand — was shouted down and shamed.
It was the opposite of the community I was trying to build. Instead of providing a place where political junkies could trade thoughts, ideas and jokes about the political scene, the Fix comments section turned into a town in which the loudest and most obnoxious guy appoints himself mayor.
What I also came to realize — thanks to the rise of software that allowed real-time quantitative analysis of who was reading what — was that the number of people commenting was minuscule compared with the overall audience for the blog. It was like my freshman year of college. I assumed everyone was going out every night and getting drunk because the people who were doing that were SO DAMN LOUD about it. Only later did I realize that the loud, party-all-the-time crowd was a minority and that there were lots of people who rolled their eyes at them.
NPR found the same thing. These stats are telling: In July, NPR.org recorded nearly 33 million unique users and 491,000 comments. But those comments came from just 19,400 commenters, according to Montgomery. That’s 0.06 percent of users who are commenting, a number that has stayed steady through 2016, he added.
Numbers like that make clear that comments sections aren’t fostering conversation — they’re killing it. A very small group of people are dominating every conversation, making it more difficult for someone who may be, say, an expert on a particular topic to offer their opinion for fear of being berated for trying to break into the club.
The rise of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook — as well as more niche question/answer sites such as Quora — have made comments sections increasingly obsolete, as well. No, not everyone has a Twitter account or Facebook page, but (1) they will soon, and (2) accessing conversation around a particular topic or story is far easier on these social platforms than trying to navigate the still-clunky comments sections of most media outlets.
The best-case scenario for retaining comments is providing real-time moderation of them to keep the conversation as close to the topic and as far from being mean-spirited as possible. But even that is impractical for two main reasons. First, it’s cost-prohibitive. No media outlet can afford to have staffers monitor every piece of content — or even half, or even a 10th — that gets posted every day. Second, monitoring comments brings its own problems. Who is the monitor? How do they decide what comments are good and which are bad? Does being partisan make a comment bad? Why? And so on and so forth, ad infinitum.
I’ll be the first to admit that rooting for comments sections to die seems and feels, at first glance, profoundly undemocratic. But that’s because you are probably thinking of your platonic vision of comments sections — in which someone you have never met before offers up a great, on-topic article you missed, you strike up a friendship, connect offline and become the best of friends forever. Which never happens.
What the comments section actually is in this supercharged partisan media environment is a mud pit where the only rule is that there are no rules. And, by definition, when fighting in a mud pit, no one comes out clean.
So, good on you, NPR for taking a stand against comments sections. I hope everyone in the media space follows your lead. It would help make online conversation great — or maybe just less worse — again.