Encouraged by research that suggests online comment threads on the whole diminish intelligent debate – summary here – the respected Popular Science website has decided to do away with user comments altogether.
“As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide,” explains Online editor Suzanne LaBarre. “The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.”
Comment sections had become a “grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them” – a culture in which “a politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics … from evolution to the origins of climate change”.
While PopSci.com would continue to engage in conversations with readers on social media and through correspondence, they were no longer willing, writes LaBarre, to see the “the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine … being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science”.
A brave move, and it will be fascinating to see if others follow suit.
For those sticking with comments, Michael Erard has offered “Four Ways to Improve the Culture of Commenting” at the New York Times.
In a nutshell:
1. Get your users to do the moderating, as a community;
2. Create a “Commenting weather systems”, so that the best comments are elevated, using reader feedback and syntactical analysis by algorithm;
3. Engender “connoisseurship”- including by the introduction of “a Pulitzer Prize or something similarly prestigious given to comment threads, with the award shared equally among the commenters, the moderators, the writer and the publication”;
4. Make comments searchable.
Would any of these things change comments? Maybe not all of them. But if the Web is about participation, we could enlist more of the off-line world’s tools to reward good participation — not just gripe about the bad actors.