Trash Talk

Another week, another website that has turned off comments on its articles. It’s obvious why comments sections are so reviled, but why have so many news outlets stuck with them despite them being such slurry pits? They couldn’t possibly be providing a worthwhile service – could they…?

The world of online media is not a pretty place at the best of times. There’s a top soil of respectability, sure. Then you’ve got your crust of clickbait and cat videos, followed by a thick mantle of mindless filler. But then you reach the core. A boiling magma pit of bad opinions, poorly articulated philosophy and chronic contrarians. The comments section.

Think for a second. When was the last time that someone said to you, “Have you read the comments section on that article? Oh, man. You should really read the comments on that article. Go on. Here’s the link. Take a look at what they’re saying.”

It’s not impossible that something like that has happened to you – it may even happen fairly frequently – but we will bet our fucking boiler money that the last time somebody suggested you read a comments section, it wasn’t because they expected you to find anything enlightening, enriching or fun in there.

No. The chances are that if someone’s getting you to read below the line it’s for one reason, and one reason only: the comments section is an unmitigated shitshow.

But why, if they’re so hugely unpopular, do websites persist in having them? And we’re not just talking about websites that are desperate for attention – like your sister-in-law’s fitness blog or the Independent. We mean proper news outlets. The type that should pride themselves on providing authoritative coverage. Why are otherwise serious media organisations so obsessed with turning everything into a conversation? Especially when the vast majority of people who do turn up to talk are fractious old gobshites?

Is it a question of user engagement? Content generation? Brand loyalty? Some other largely meaningless euphemism that essentially boils down to mean ‘clicks and money’?

Weirdly, for once, it doesn’t seem to be.

What’s it all about then?

The Conversation Starter

You may have taken issue with our geological analogy above – where we suggested that comments are at the core of the internet. We stand by it though, and this is why.

The internet has changed so radically in the last twenty years that it’s easy to forget where it all started. But back in the mid-to-late-90s – back when you couldn’t open up a magazine without a CompuServe CD falling out, and you would scream at anyone who picked up the phone while you were connected on dial-up – the internet was predominantly chat rooms, forums and usenet newsgroups.

Long before your newspaper of choice had its own properly functioning website (and that happened a lot later than you remember) millions of regular internet users were used to having their voices heard. For a long time, that was all the internet was. People talking to each other, and people being heard. Conversations. Discussions. Opinions.

People announced their areas of interest, and were then left to form their own rooms, boards and mailing lists. Everything else has been built around that. With every development of web technology since, and with every advancement made in online news provision, the capability for chat or comment continues to be grandfathered in.

Why? Because when these sorts of communities work they are the envy of the internet. An interested, invested group of readers who engage with one another, with writers and contributors, offering up new and thought-provoking perspectives. It’s what every news outlet dreams of.

News outlets’ motivations in cultivating such communities are not exclusively ideological though, and if there was ever a way to successfully monetise such a thing, then it might provide the key to running a profitable online news service.

But is that even possible? Can you turn a profit on a comments section?

The Cost Of Free Speech

The idea that ‘comment is free’ is not quite accurate. Yes, including a below the line comments section on your article template is an easy and effortless way of generating masses of content (content that will hopefully encourage your readers to return to your site time and time again, thereby bumping your traffic stats and increasing your worth) but it isn’t actually free.

Let’s look at some back-of-the-envelope numbers.

On September 6th, the Daily Mail’s website published 629 articles. The first fifty of those amassed a total of 3,620 comments between them.

One article inspired 509 comments (a story about Ola Jordan’s boobs nearly popping out during Strictly Come Dancing) but the mean average was 72 comments per article. Extrapolating that out across the mailonline’s entire daily output gives you a ballpark figure of 45,288 comments a day.

Even if all of those comments were just two words long (‘drive-bys’ they’re called in moderator circles), it would amount to a full-sized novel being published below the line each and every day. But not everyone is as succinct as those commenters who post “yawn. boring.” underneath every article. Some like to expand upon their views.

So we counted up all of the words in the comments boxes underneath that 450-word article about Ola’s boobs nearly popping out. 7,928 words. The sort of word count you’d expect to see from a particularly pretentious New Yorker profile.

The average number of words per comment is 16. If that average holds across the site (and it actually seems to be quite a conservative estimate, given how opinionated certain commenters get when more contentious issues are under discussion) it means that the mailonline’s comment section is churning out about 724,608 words a day.

To put that figure into some sort of context, the complete works of Shakespeare weighs in at 884,647 words. The infinite monkeys below the line of the mailonline pump that out in 29 hours.

It’s an impressive machine. Millions of words a week, all whipped up for free by volunteers, aiding discussion and encourage visitors to return. Surely that’s a good thing? What’s the problem there?

Assuming an average speeding read of 250wpm (with no breaks), that equates to roughly 48 full person-hours of reading material each and every day. It would take six full-time members of staff, working a regular 9-5 shift (with no lunch break), just to read and monitor the comments alone.

Even if you got recent graduates and first-jobbers to do it all, you’re looking at a six-figure sum in salaries before you even get started. When you factor in the costs to your business that having employees incurs (contributions to pensions, national insurance, desk space, HR and IT support departments) even with a bare bones operation you are looking at a minimum bill of £200,000p/a. And probably significantly more.

That’s quite an investment just to allow members of the public to come and scrawl whatever they want over your website.

The Mail is not an outlier either. It’s the same sort of thing across other sites. The Guardian hosts between 50,000 and 60,000 new comments a day – most of which are at least a couple of lines long. The New York Times reportedly has seven people working full-time on comments screening, and they only allow comments on a very select number of their articles each day. The Huffington Post claims it used to deal with 70 million comments a year (more than 190,000 a day) back when it was an anonymous free-for-all, requiring the services of 30 moderators.

So this isn’t the sort of task you can fob off on to a dutiful member of staff in exchange for a hamper at Christmas and a couple of after-work pints. It’s a serious job. It involves serious cash.

It would be one thing if the financial cost was the only one to bear – but it isn’t always. There’s also the emotional cost.

A Picture Paints A Thousand Words

Of all the internet news outlets, no-one has put as much stock in the supposed value of comments sections than Gawker. They have spent a long time and a lot of money developing their comments system (a custom, purpose-built platform called Kinja) to harvest any potential value out if it.

One ex-editor of Gawker estimated that the cost of developing and implementing Kinja cost somewhere between $10-20m.

Whether they’ve been successful in recouping anything like that amount in return is a discussion for another time (and one that many, many Gawker users have opinions on). But in attempting to cultivate the most vibrant and useful community of commenters possible, they implemented a couple of capabilities which recently caused them to run headlong into a rather severe problem.

The first capability was allowing people to open anonymous, untraceable ‘burner’ accounts. Nominally, this was supposed to allow whistleblowers to post to the Kinja platform securely and dish the dirt on people without retribution (the idea being that it might provide juicy tips for stories). In practice though, it also let trolls post whatever they liked without obstacle.

The second was giving commenters rich-text capabilities – allowing for .jpg and .gif images to be embedded.

How did this cause problems?

One of the sites under the Gawker banner is Jezebel, which bills itself as providing “Gossip, culture, fashion, and sex for the contemporary woman”. As you can imagine, a site like that is catnip to a certain breed of commenter.

Rather than just being confined to writing ‘LOL shut up cunt’ at the bottom of articles (the traditional calling card of the internet troll), the more disagreeable Kinja users started to illustrate their comments. Their regular rape and death threats sat side by side with some of the most gruesome images that the internet has to offer.

Your classic hardcore pornography was a constant staple, punctuated frequently with pictures of torture, kidnap, mutilation and – on occasion – actual corpses. All of which was hugely distressing for the journalists, the moderators and other sensible Kinja users to have to deal with.

Obviously posting such content was a very clear breach of Gawker Media’s terms of use, so the pictures were able to be pulled without question or query. And who was pulling those pictures down? Jezebel’s staff. People who were employed to write gossip for a pop culture website were now being exposed – on a daily basis – to the sorts of horrifying imagery that is used in other contexts to terrorise and torture people.

Because of the ease of setting up a burner account on Gawker’s comment platform (and because Gawker made it clear that they wouldn’t track/monitor IPs to ensure the anonymity of any potential moles) there was no way to effectively block people from starting up another account and finding something even more disturbing to post.

In the words of Jezebel staff, the whole ordeal was “like playing whack-a-mole with a sociopathic Hydra.” You’d cut off one head, only to watch another sprout back in its place – even more pissed off than the one that went before it.

The Gawker/Jezebel example is one of the more extreme examples of comments sections falling dangerously out of control, but it is by no means an isolated incident. One of the moderators we spoke to in researching this article requested she remain anonymous, not because she was afraid of being identified by her employer, but in case she was identified by trolls.

In the face of such things, it’s easy to see why so many people are calling for an end to comments sections. If they’re not cheap to run, and they can be actively harmful to moderate, surely that’s reason enough to shitcan them? What possible worth could they have to justify all of the potential pitfalls?

Certainly sites like Popular Science, Re/Code, the Daily Dot, the Verge, the Chicago Sun-Times and others all decided that they weren’t worth the trouble, and ditched them. Others, while keeping theirs for the time being, are now publishing op-ed pieces on why it might be time to call time.

But something very interesting has been happening this week; something which is starting to show a serious fault in the primary argument for dropping comments sections.

Something which shows that, maybe, all this time, we’ve been looking at the situation the wrong way round.

The Comeback

The reason given by a number of the sites which dropped their comments sections was this: “We find that the most constructive conversation surrounding our pieces is conducted on social media”.

If nothing else, this is a nifty excuse. You shut down your comments section, but you don’t shut up your commenters. You merely invite them to take their opinions to social media. That way any hate speech is hosted by Facebook or Twitter and is therefore not your responsibility to moderate – and you save £200K almost immediately.

The perfect solution, right?

Erm, no. Not really – and journalists who covered the referendum on Scottish Independence last year have already had a pretty vicious preview of the problem.

The trouble is that there are some stories with which a reporter just cannot win. The BBC is a classic. For every person who thinks that the BBC is displaying a right wing bias (by deliberately refusing to report on anti-austerity marches, or asking Nigel Farage to appear on The Great British Bake-Off) you have another person with equal and opposite vigour calling it the ‘British Bolshevik Corporation’ and complaining that the license fee is tantamount to full communism.

Israel is another. Write anything vaguely balanced about the highly-charged situation in that part of the Middle East and you become, at once, a typical anti-Zionist anti-Semite and another clear example of the Jew-run media advancing its own agenda.

This week has brought another: Jeremy Corbyn. People have lost their goddamned minds over Jeremy Corbyn. Cover a story that paints him in a slightly negative light and you summon forth a swarm of Corbynites vehemently defending him. Cover a story that paints him in a slightly positive light and you are branded a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.

Even as a bystander watching such activity is tiring, but for the journalists involved in putting their bylines to those stories, it’s exhausting.

A number of journalists from across the political spectrum have spent this last week voicing their displeasure at Twitter, talking about how unpleasant it’s all become. It used to be fun and productive and helpful, they say, but the conversation nowadays is just vicious fighting.

Those reporting on the Scottish referendum last year complained of the same thing too; many threatening to quit social media in the face of brutal Cybernat campaigns. The sheer volume of vitriol leveled at them became unbearable, unmanageable.

Sadly, this will be the inevitable result of shutting down comments sections. People aren’t going to suddenly want to stop voicing their opinions. That’s one genie that won’t ever go back in the bottle. Instead those displaced commenters will simply take up an alternative platform, and the most obvious one of those is social media.

They can do that anyway, of course – the option has been open to them for as long as Facebook and Twitter have been around – but it’s no coincidence that the current trend for editors wanting to direct the conversation away from comments sections and onto social media correlates exactly with journalists’ growing dissatisfaction at the level of discourse on social media.

Comments sections are easy to avoid when you know where they are. But when anyone can actively approach you on Facebook or Twitter to tell you that your review of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet was a fucking disgrace and that you wouldn’t know good acting if it sat on your face you miserable feminazi, then suddenly it seems desperately unwise to have ever wanted to encourage people to take that conversation out onto the unregulated wilds of social media.

To be in control of the conversation that is being had about your content – in the way you are to a certain extent with your own native comments section – then, suddenly, £200,000 seems like quite the snip. Because as unpleasant as a comments section can be to a person who disagrees with whatever comments they contain, a well-moderated comments section is at least that. Moderated. Contained.

When the cruel commenters are cast out into the cold though, disgruntled and shunned, there’s no real telling what they might do. And as long as there is a free platform on offer which provides the capability to set up multiple anonymous accounts without verification, and the capability to post distressing images and videos freely (the exact same ingredients that made Kinja so terrible) then Twitter could become a whole lot worse.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll choose to organise their own comments sections – like off-guardian.org (an independently established refuge for those kicked off the Guardian’s comments section for persistently disobeying the comment guidelines).

Or maybe we’ll get unlucky.

And that really doesn’t bear thinking about.