I have to admit, I have a comment addiction.
Writing comments, and even more so, reading them. I read them on posts, on news stories, editorial pieces, and when it comes to “reviews” which are basically comments about products, where ever I can find comments, I devour them. It was like the last vestige of unfiltered opinion.
Then I started to notice a shift in the comments. Maybe, I thought, I was getting jaded, comments seemed to take a turn for the crazy. It became like watching Jerry Springer. Having dinner with Wendy Brandes, she said “I'm a small blog, and therefore I interact a lot with my commenters who are also my customers, but I feel like that's the exception rather than the rule now. I certainly avoid reading comments on news sites such as the New York Times because you really see the worst of humanity there. Racism, sexism, ageism, you name it. It detracts from the article.” In a separate conversation with another blogger, weeks later, she noted the trend in a similar way.
“I certainly avoid reading comments on news sites such as the New York Times because you really see the worst of humanity there. Racism, sexism, ageism, you name it. It detracts from the article.”
It became obvious it wasn't in my imagination. This week, Fast Company (and the New York Times) wrote about a scientific study on how negative comments do more harm than just airing their opinion, they polarize readers and they cast a shadow of doubt on the writer. The study asked 1,183 participants to read a fictitious blog post about a thing called “nanosilver” outlining pros and cons… half read the post with constructive comments, and the other half read the same post with nasty comments. To me, it was not surprising what they found:
“Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself. … Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.”
From my personal experience, reading comments can sway my opinion on a post I really have no other information or knowledge about. Whether that's good or bad, remains yet to be seen. But as negative comments can detract from the articles, even well-researched ones. Could it be possible that more and more websites are considering shutting comments off completely?
Do Comments Bring the Community Together or Tear it Apart?
For years comments were what brought the internet community together. Comments at their best can make a post into a conversation sometimes outshining the original text, at their worst they can polarize a community, or worse push a blogger to the point of quitting. Yet this trend towards negative and hostile comments has forced larger publications, like the New York Times, and also the Gawker network to invest in developing custom commenting systems to filter out the crazy and try to highlight the constructive comments. It's become an issue where companies are having to invest dollars that could go into paying their writers into developing software to curate better commenting culture.
What of bloggers and publications who do not have the budgets to create custom comment systems? Do they moderate? That just seems to fuel the fire. I've personally received “Shame on you for deleting my comment.” comments from people who somehow do not realize that some blogs have to hold new commenters for approval because of spam issues. Do they shut off the comments? A few years ago, that was like cutting off the voice of community, defeating the purpose of being a blog.
What of bloggers and publications who do not have the budgets to create custom comment systems? Do they moderate? That just seems to fuel the fire.
As the negativity spreads, from large sites to smaller ones will the value of a comment be worth the trouble? With social media sharing and conversions being tracked through affiliate programs, and click throughs becoming more important indicators of “engagement” for brands, perhaps the value of a comment will decline as the culture of commenting loses their credibility.
I personally like to believe that comment culture can enhance in the future of publishing. Commenting really has shifted our thinking that media is a one way street, and made the it personal for many of us. So personal that we tend to forget that leaving comments on someone's work (literally, on the same page) is a privilege, not a right.
However the trend towards negativity and how it affects so many websites may inevitably lead to a trend towards shutting off commenting features. It might mean demise of comments for everyone unless the internet community does something to change.
I only wish I knew what that something was.