Is There Still a Need for a Comment Section?
by Reena Leone
“Don’t read the comments.”
That has become a mantra of creators across the Internet. No matter how much time and effort one puts into an article, video, photo, etc., inevitably someone will have something negative to say. Comment sections have become battlegrounds rather than bridges to creators or brands, a haven for spam and hate speech. The ability to anonymously voice opinions and spew whatever comes to mind has directly contributed to the growing practice of trolling: posting deliberately offensive or provocative comments online with the aim of upsetting or eliciting an angry response from someone. A perfect example of this is the the trailer for the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot; here you’ll find a comment section riddled with disdain, fat-shaming, blatant misogyny and claims of ruined childhoods, all over a movie that hasn’t even been released yet.
This was not always the case. At the dawning of Web 2.0, comments were considered critical to success; they were the first real example of two-way conversation between a brand and their online audience. Comments, along with product reviews (which were brilliantly harnessed by Amazon) were the first example of consumers having a direct digital line to voice their thoughts and opinions with brands on formerly one-way web pages. However, consumers were quick to realize the power they wielded. The Age of the Customer brought forth legions of trolls and spammers like orcs out of Mordor. Now there was a venue to openly complain, criticize, battle and belittle anonymously.
Spammers began to see an opportunity as well, deploying automated bots, armed with free Rolexes, work from home opportunities and prescription drug offers. Many a blogger was notified they had comments only to find a horde of spam had invaded their turf.
Spam aside, comments are just too important to relinquish altogether. Turning them off would lead to accusations of being unwilling to answer questions or “engage.” Letting anything go without review meant truly odious words would live under one’s brand and reputation. So brands began to moderate heavily. They set user guidelines and began investing in technology that automatically filtered out both posts that violated said guidelines as well as spam. Despite their best efforts, two things started to happen:
- Commenters figured out new ways to stay vicious while still staying within the guidelines
- Social media began to change the entire digital space and made comments obsolete
Once social share functionality was introduced, the higher quality conversation around articles, blog posts, videos, etc. moved outside of the website. It makes sense if you think about it; would you rather talk to random strangers about an article on that article or have a discussion about it with your family and friends as you share it with them on Twitter or Facebook? Also, if read something and really liked it, would you rather comment on it or share it with others who might also enjoy it?
With the best conversations about a piece of content happening on social networks like Facebook or Twitter, the comments section is losing it former importance. Comments are no longer the preferred place for two-way conversations.
Social isn’t the enemy but a saving grace in a way. Social sharing can lead to an increase in organic audience growth, expanded reach, and as Google factors in the impact of social media on its search algorithm, even improve search optimization. Tools like Disqus allow users to use their social logins to comment instead of creating a new login for every site. But despite this, native comment sections still are a breeding ground for negativity.
In response, several large publications like CNN, Bloomberg, Reuters, and Popular Science have decided to do away with comment sections entirely. In fact, Wired has chronicled the end of commenting; since 2014, more and more news sites have been ditching their comment sections. However, the removal of comment sections has been met with some fierce opposition, especially in a time where there is a lot of backlash at the media and concern around free speech.
This begs the question: does digital media still need comment sections? Personally, I can see both sides of the argument, so I’m not sure.
“I look at comments similar to ecommerce product reviews,” explains Katelyn Fogarty, Acquia’s Sr. Manager, Digital Marketing (and fellow blog author). “It really shows the value and engagement [of a post] if a reader comments.”
Kate also notes that social media has contributed to the lack of engagement with comment sections because it’s easier to take to sites like Twitter to voice opinions.
“I personally think comments are important and we might just need to find ways to encourage users to comment and not skip over [them]”.
A happy medium that sites like Hellogiggles (whatever, I already admitted to technically being a millennial) have been implementing is “selective commenting”; allowing comments on some articles and not others, at the discretion of the publication. But probably the best hybrid approach is using social media plugins to act as the “outsourced” comment section of a website. The best example of this in my opinion is Buzzfeed; who uses the Facebook Comments plugin. Even though native commenting is available, Facebook commenting is the first option users are presented with. It uses Facebook’s own reporting functionality to mark things as spams and report abuse. As a frequent Buzzfeed commenter, I will fully admit to reporting spam and hate speech when I see it. I know, sometimes heroes don’t wear capes.
I, like many people apparently, got Sarah Manning in the ever-important “Which ‘Orphan Black’ Clone Are You?” quiz.
There are some industries where despite some negativity, comments still hold quite a bit of value. In the tech space, where credit, kudos and collaboration are important, so are comments.
For us at Acquia, the ability to comment on posts is particularly important to our audience of technical pros and developers and our engineers who operate in the collaborative model of open source development. The Acquia Development Center sees a lot of quality exchanges between members of the Drupal community. Comment sections on websites with technical content serve as forums, and are a familiar way for audience members to not only communicate with the “brand” but also with each other. While Acquia is far from a major news publication, and doesn’t publish polarizing articles about politics, we need to provide our customers and users and partners with a “place” to share, ask, critique and comment. Both on our own properties but also in the greater digital world outside of our walls.
What do you think? Should comment sections be eliminated in favor of social media discussions? Or do comment sections still have value?
(Yes, that was intentional).