Popular Science (a major U.S. science periodical) recently shut down comments on its site (popularscience.com), because it has determined that comments are bad for science.
Research has shown that readers are strongly affected by online rants, which is often what comments degenerate to, which then polarize how people perceive scientific issues. (See the story here: Why We’re Shutting Off Our Comments.)
How does this affect the PopSci community? How will readers engage with the site if they can’t comment? Is turning off comments bad business for community management? Or have comments ceased being a useful interactive tool?
As a Social Media Manager, part of my job involves monitoring comments on blogs and managing communities. I check for spam, trolls and violations of guidelines. It can be a lot of work. On the positive side, I see first-hand how comments can help build a community around a brand. People connect, share information – and debate – creating a living, breathing community by virtue of their participation.
I monitored the Popular Science decision closely. The online reaction to the announcement was mixed, although there was silence on the PopSci site since comments were disabled on the announcement post. The Washington Post‘s Alexandra Petri argued that, “it can’t come soon enough,” but Matthew Ingram of paidContent echoed the sentiment of many, asking “why not try to fix comments instead of killing them?”
That’s what YouTube is trying to do. While PopSci was shutting down comments, YouTube announced big changes to its commenting system, which is seen as the worst of the web. YouTube comments will now be powered by Google+ on the channel discussion tab, which means every commenter needs to have a Google+ account, obviously helping sign-up rates for the social network, but also increasing credibility of comments.
Other sites are beefing up accountability as well. Huffington Post has started to ask new users to verify their identity when creating an account to “reduce the number of drive-by or automated trolls.”
The British newspaper, The Guardian, groups online comments in three categories: all comments, staff replies, and Guardian picks, which “have been chosen by Guardian staff because they contribute to the debate.”
The two strategies (identity verification and positive reinforcement) may work to some degree, but they won’t eliminate all angry, uncivil comments. The anonymity (and ease) of the Internet has emboldened the rude.
We faced a stampede of comments on a story our CEO, Ilyce Glink, wrote for Yahoo. It was about a couple’s glass house (literally) and was shared 152,000 times on Facebook and at the moment, clocks in with over 4,000 comments. It was wildly successful in terms of traffic and click-throughs, but there were too many comments to moderate. Yahoo, like The Guardian, tries to reward constructive comments by featuring them at the top of the discussion, but who can go through 4,000 comments on one story?
Ultimately, comments are only a fraction of your real engagement. Most of your visitors will read your blog and never start a discussion. (The numbers are probably akin to the thousands who listen to a radio broadcast and a tiny percentage who call with a question or comment.) And of the many who do, you may not want to have the conversation they want to start.
So, PopSci’s decision is not as draconian as it first sounds – but it’s still a difficult decision for most blogs.
After all, comments can be constructive and allow you to directly interact with your customers. Positive comments can serve as testimonials of your product and negative comments can provide guidance on how to improve.
In the end, there’s no one-size fits all strategy. Should you have comments on your blog? Maybe. Ask yourself if they give your customers a way to share and connect with others in a positive way. Do you have the time to manage them? Are they overwhelmingly rude and unconstructive? And, do you put up with all of that because occasionally, a gem will stand out and make it all worthwhile.
All of these questions bear on the decision. Comments welcome.