Should websites shut down comments?

Edited except from Zach Talks: A Conversation with Seeking Alpha Founder & CEO David Jackson:

Popular Science said that “Comments can be bad for science. That’s why… we’re shutting them off”. And Re/Code claimed that “social media is the new arena for commenting, replacing the old onsite approach”. But we’re seeing the opposite at Seeking Alpha. Many of our readers say they value our comments more than our articles. A team of researchers at Purdue University found something remarkable: when comments on a Seeking Alpha article disagree with the article (measured by average sentiment), the comments are more predictive of the future price of the stock being discussed than the article.

So why is there so much pessimism about text discussion on the web, and why are sites shutting off their comments? I think there are a two factors which determine whether your comment community will be valuable:

The first is: what do your users really come to do? Many people simply want to feel good about what they already believe in. So they come to websites to read articles they agree with, and to have shouting matches on behalf of their “team” with people they disagree with. They’re not open to learning or being persuaded. This phenomenon afflicts areas like politics and climate change. The comment sections on those sites become toxic.

The second factor that determines whether comment communities will be valuable is that they need to be nurtured. I think many websites get this wrong. They think that once you have comments, every commenter has a right to free speech on your website. They don’t. You need to view a comment community as a party you’re having in your home. Someone’s right to free speech doesn’t mean they can walk into your party and ruin it by shouting at your guests.

Moderating comments requires a meaningful resource commitment, which you’ll only make if you deeply believe in the value of comments.

6 thoughts on “Should websites shut down comments?

  1. I think you are missing a third, and key for this discussion, aspect of what comments have become: venues for professional, well-funded “social media marketing” teams to influence discussion / thinking on behalf of sophisticated corporations, usually using proven, stealth psychological techniques.

    As Pop Sci found out, they were more providing a stealth marketing channel to their users (often for campaigns where “winning ugly” is the most effective technique) than a forum for the free exchange of productive ideas. They don’t have the resources to play whack-a-mole against sophisticated and very well-financed marketing teams whose agendas run counter to the ideals of the site hosts.

  2. Good point. We’ve experienced that on Seeking Alpha, and developed tools to counter it. We found that some people were doing marketing for specific companies / stocks. So we enabled you to look at the stocks that a person comments on, so you could see if they were a real investor or only ever commented on a single stock. Here’s my comments page on SA — you can see all the stocks I’ve commented on, and can filter my comments by stock:

  3. I asked why the guardian closes its comment section after 2 days. They replied with two reasons: 1. to keep discussions on topic and controversial; 2. to not spread their resources too thinly. I think the latter reason holds the most truth, community commenting is a beast that needs taming. But they’re not good reasons for closing a comments section though. Technology can help manage comments. (Online comments are my thing)

  4. Pingback: Does this make someone a troll? | A Founder's Notebook

  5. Pingback: Tweet Parade (no.35-2015) - Best Articles of Last Week | gonzoblog

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