Over the last year and a half I’ve committed to a substantial experiment with website comments. I’ve commented thousands of times on sports, political and photography websites. Many of those sites allow upvotes, some allow downvotes (Disqus), almost all of them allow at least a single level of reply.
Reply means not to the original poster but to another commenter. The worst system is Medium which turns every comment into its own essay. Medium doesn’t allow login (sending an email for a short-term login is not login, Facebook is not login, Google account is not login). I’ve gone from being in the top 5% of contributors at Medium to avoiding Medium altogether.
What did I learn from a year of commenting? Quite a bit. First, the best comments often outbat the original essay or article. Commenters often have real world expertise and experience that a weblog author or a journalist simply doesn’t have.
Second, however profound or worthwhile a comment is it is simply buried under the endless flood of dross. Sites like Slashdot recognised the issue of low-value comments early and added a complex system of upvoting and downvoting and filtering. Sadly systems like Slashdot were too geeky and complex to grow into the wide web.
Simple upvoting and downvoting like Disqus or YouTube, or ThumbsUp/ThumbsDown on Facebook worked very well, until the gatekeepers realised that garbage establishment comments would be covered in downvotes. We had to have upvotes/approval only. Nonsense comments would have their 25 upvotes (bot or not) and the 728 downvotes would simply not be visible.
Out of the simple and popular commenting systems, Disqus alone stands tall these days with downvotes.
Some of the most enlightened publishers (Unz Review and MoonOfAlabama come to mind) occasionally promote a great comment into its own essay. When Medium tries to turn throwaway comments into their own posts, it is like some hideous bamboo plant growing out in every direction. Done thoughtfully, promoting comments into their own article improves the quality of a site. It also rewards the best commenters.
Third, bots are a huge problem. Visiting political sites, it’s clear that there are patterns of comments roughly repeating the same thing over and over again in every thread with slight variations. One could argue that humans are capable of tediously boring and mindless repetition. Some of these comments and votes are no doubt dullards just cutting away at their favourite saw. There’s too many of these comments and the floods are too overwhelming for bots or low-value boiler room propaganda operations not to be involved. GHCQ in particular is open about hiring people to “shape the narrative”.
Israel does it in more or less secret. The USA is regularly caught out. There is no law in the United States about misleading the public so it’s natural that they would do this. The Americans tend to apply brute force and technology even where finesse would better serve so it seems they are more inclined to overwhelm with bot force than with human sophists. Russia has its own professional commenters, but almost all of those are busy shaping the Russian narrative in Russian. Those regularly accused of being paid Russian operatives rarely are. As someone with a degree in Russian language and literature and who lived in Russian for ten years, it’s fairly easy for me to recognise Russian turns of phrase and outlook.
There’s an equal noise about “CCP paid posters” and “ChiCom bots” on the political sites now. I’m not familiar enough with Chinese expression and philosophy to be able to recognise those. China does have a lot of people so if Chinese leadership did want to try to control narrative on foreign political sites (the mentality is pretty insular, I’m not sure they would bother), throwing bodies at it would be fairly easy for them.
Fourth, drive-by commenters lower the value of comment sections. This is really just re-iterating my second point. The flood of comments. Drive-by are particularly disruptive though: the comments are off-topic, ad-hominem, divisive and short. Derailing a discussion is the next best thing to controlling a discussion. When possible lower the standards of a website comment section to stop polite society from readin the comments or the website at all.
MoonOfAlabama characterises itself, as per Bertholt Brecht, a whiskey bar. More and more influencers and foreign policy sorts (Canadian, German, UK, State Department workers, journalists) read Bernhard’s off-narrative musings. To discredit MoonOfAlabama, some enterprising soul in either the CIA or Mossad decided to regularly send in disruptors. The sign that this is professional work is the narrative enforcers show up first in the comments almost every time, disrupting a discussion before it starts.
Why doesn’t the MoonOfAlabama publisher Bernhard put a stop to it? MoonOfA is published on Typepad.com which is great value (just $15/month, all you can read, all you can write). WordPress has not lived up to its promise of low-cost publishing (yes, WordPress is free but it’s neither secure nor stable without substantial investment, nor does it offer any advantage over Typepad without substantial enhancement, enhancements which in turn increase maintenance costs exponentially). For very little investment, the State Department and CIA very effectively neutralise MoonOfAlabama.org.
Fifth, as bad as the commentsphere is, giving up comments altogether is far worse. At that point, a weblog or a portal becomes a one-way megaphone like the old-brainwashing of the printed press. One site with which I’m intimately familiar, Informed Comment, decided to stop comments about a year and a half ago.
The publisher didn’t like what he heard any more (his political viewpoint had shifted radically and was not popular with his readers) and didn’t want the hassle of moderating commenters. Without comments, I don’t much want to read Informed Comment any more. It’s like facing a professor or even a high school principal or a police chief at a podium who is not taking questions. The time for one way communication is over.
Sixth, the ground rules need to be tight. Civility, no ad-hominems of course but there are smaller issues like allowing either completely naked URLs (usually breaks formatting) or even worse, allowing URL shorteners. We’ve written comment software to deal with naked links and URL shorteners (naked links become link to website.com; URL shorteners are expanded or are blocked) on WordPress.
In any case, due to the flood of bots, low-IQ posters, reading comments is a thankless and low-reward task.
Seven, profanity should not be allowed ever, anywhere. Obscenity/profanity is of course closely related to civility and ad-hominems. But it’s a simpler rule to police and patrol and will make a bigger difference. On most sites, SMS style communication should also be automatically rejected. Both profanity and shorthand lower the standards of communication and encourage poorer standards of communication from visitors who would know better. And discourage visitors from either reading comments (part of the goal of the narrative control three letter agency crowd, who would like to get back to one-way communication, the sooner, the better) let alone participating themselves.
Eight, due to all this dross, good and informative comments are lost and have almost no long term value. 2202 Disqus comments have resulted in 1892 upvotes. While I’m certain 1. many of those comments were of limited value and 2. my perspective is often an unpopular one neither of those explains how little attention even good comments attract. Commenters are too lazy to even vote up or down on other people’s comments.
Enough negative, what’s the solution?
On the publisher side, more moderation. Laissez-faire is a tragedy for the commons. Ron Unz has had a complex and powerful custom voting system implemented on Unz.com. He allows only registered users to comment. Those registered users are allowed to agree once per day with someone else’s comment. This makes registered users spend their votes very carefully and makes it very difficult for any interest group to flood a site. There may be hidden rules to disable voting for new users.
Most publishing systems should certainly allow at least upvotes and some kind of sorting by upvote. Publishers should strictly go after and kill all kinds of “first” comments and off-topic comments. Your website, publishers, is not a kindergarten. Even in kindergartens the children are not allowed to paint on the walls.
Our own commenting system will take some of the Unz.com innovations into consideration, as options to enable. Not every site will need as complex a vote system as Unz.com so we’ll work to simplify it.
On my side, as I spend a great deal of time reading comments, I’m seeing many well-thought comments slide into oblivion. On a personal site, I’ll start rescuing some of them. What the issue with these comments can be typified by two examples: on MoonOfAlabama.org, there may be five or six comments worth reading in a discussion including 150 comments, sometimes less. On ZeroHedge.com, there’s three to ten comments worth reading on threads which range up to 1000 comments. Many of those better comments just disappear as they are replies to lower value comments and don’t sort out to the top, even when Best is preferred.
I don’t have enough time or enough expertise to comment on every issue myself, nor am I inclined to. Still I can certainly rescue well-thought out comments and offer them a better fate than disappearing into the bot-flow.
Photo by Photo by ?? Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash
Alec has been helping businesses succeed online since 2000. Alec is an SEM expert with a background in advertising, as a former Head of Television for Grey Moscow and Senior Television Producer for Bates, Saatchi and Saatchi Russia.