Weighing in

Some thoughts on web comments as we remove ours

Graphic by Bram Keast

Over the last month we’ve been hard at work on the back end of our website. Among other things, we have switched to a new web host that provides a better service than we were previously getting. The Manitoban’s web traffic has grown by an order of magnitude in the last few years and we’ve become too big for the space we had at the old host.

As a regular reader of the Manitoban, you shouldn’t notice any difference except for faster load times and a lack of server errors at peak hours. Only one major change has been made to the functionality of our website: the removal of comments.

If you look at the Manitoban’s website now, you will notice that there is no longer a form to post comments to articles (comments that have already been published remain in place, of course). This is a decision we made late last year for a number of reasons.

The first and most important consideration is the fact that we don’t get very many comments, and we get far more spam and trolling comments than legitimate ones. So online comments have always been a marginal aspect of the Manitoban’s operations; we are shutting down a service that not very many people used.

A related reason is that although comments are the responsibility of our editors, we as a publication don’t get much use out of any individual comment. It’s our job to ensure that comments are accurate, civil, and not defamatory – it’s sometimes a more difficult job than you’d think, despite the low volume. A number of potentially interesting comments have languished in our spam queue for days or even weeks because editors were unable to source their claims.

Determining whether a comment is publishable is a low priority for us because, however interesting they may or may not be, the likelihood that anyone will see any particular comment is small. Despite doomsaying about the death of print publication, student newspapers still have folded sheets of dead tree at the centre of their operations. Anything that doesn’t go in print is of less value to us and to our readers, especially if it is complicated for our editors to deal with.

Another reason to remove comments is that online habits have shifted. These days, if readers have something to say about an article, they will usually say it on a social networking site like Facebook. Here they are speaking to people they know and can engage in meaningful conversation, while posting a comment directly on an article is more like bellowing full-voiced into the night.

Web 2.0’s detritus
There are also some more philosophical reasons to question the value of comment sections, though of course my idle ravings should not be taken as representative of the Manitoban’s decision-making process.

Ubiquitous comment sections are a child of Web 2.0, which was among other things a movement toward user-curated or even user-created content. YouTube, Facebook, and Wikipedia are examples of some of the most successful sites to emerge from that movement. Web 2.0 was a frantic indulgence of the creative urge and resulted in heavy investment of intellectual, social, and financial capital almost without regard for what people actually needed or wanted.

One of the unhappy results was that the traditionally cranky content of the newspaper letters page spilled uncurated onto the Internet as every news website installed a comment section whether or not they had any interest in maintaining it. It is now common wisdom that, except when visiting the few places that deliberately cultivate a community, you should never look at the comments. Still from time to time we all glance. It’s like cracking open some proscribed book or rubbernecking at a car crash: we can’t help ourselves.

And what do we find? Naked racism of the kind my elementary school teachers told me was gone from the world. A distressing inability to comprehend humour or irony. Top of mind responses that not only express the same sentiment as thousands of others, but even use the same words.

The comment form is an invitation to our predetermined top of mind responses to claw their way out and loose themselves upon the world. It’s an invitation to the crank, the rubbernecker, the guffawing boor within ourselves. The world in which we live now, the Web 2.0 world of comments and tags and AJAX and upvoting, conspires to train these ignoble parts of ourselves, sharpen their talons and amplify their hollers.

The central distinction between a comment and a letter to the editor is the lag between completion and publication. Usually your comment is completed, sent, and published within a few minutes of you reading the article, and usually it represents a raw brain dump. On the other hand, a letter takes longer to write and may not be sent the moment it is completed. The fact that letters will be reviewed by an editor between submission and publication means that letters generally represent a more reflective, post-critical view.

Under our new system, readers will have to talk to someone before their thoughts are published. This has numerous practical advantages – for example, we can clarify wording if we are unsure what is being said and ask for sources for uncertain factual claims.

But I like to think it has a more long-term moral advantage as well in that it pushes us away from reliance on the wisdom of crowds. As a persuasive writer, encountering resistance, even the mild resistance of clarifying questions, is edifying. If your ideas are tenable, they take on a sharper focus and become even more persuasive. If they are not, they crumble and you realize that you do not actually believe what you thought you believed. Either way, the world has become a slightly better place.

These days it’s hard to keep one’s faith in Web 2.0. We’ve all seen what has happened to Reddit, the great Web 2.0 outpost that is utterly reliant on user contributions and user curation through upvotes and downvotes: it has become a cesspit in which the most revolting sections of humanity wallow and gurgle publicly for the amusement of ghoulish readers. Perhaps it is time to reconsider whether the crowds are that wise after all.