Every time I think I’m torn about cutting our comment section, I look at what’s actually been posted.
No, that’s not entirely true. A few of the stories we posted in the last two weeks inspired some thoughtful comments, and several even made me smile. (Thanks Moondoggie for asking if the gay-hair sweater should be washed in Head & Shoulders!)
But overall, our comment section cannot be described as vibrant.
It wasn’t always like this. I remember reading long comment threads on stories we posted several years ago to xtra.ca, the predecessor to dailyxtra.com. I’m at a loss to find them in a search now, but I swear there was a time when our readers shared their responses, pooled their knowledge, offered new perspectives and argued vehemently with each other in a passably civil-ish environment.
These days I’m happy to see three comments posted to any story on Daily Xtra — if they’re on topic and even constructive, it feels like a great success.
When did it get so hard to host constructive, civil debate? Where did all the commenters go who populated our once robust comment section?
I know we’re not alone facing these questions, especially as conversation shifts to social media streams and away from the news sites where stories are first published. Reuters and Re/code both documented this shift and curtailed their comment sections accordingly last year, while Popular Science led the way in 2013 when editors felt their comment section was only undermining the scientific doctrine they exist to champion.
But I believe we’re at least partially to blame for the now-shallow pool of contributors to Daily Xtra’s weak comments section.
Take it from the moderator: a comments section — particularly on a news site dedicated to free expression — is hard to police. I never wanted to police it, of course. In the interest of fostering an unfettered exchange of even unpopular ideas, our initial comment policy erred on the side of free speech and prohibited only defamatory comments.
Within six months of launching dailyxtra.com we had to re-write the comment policy. No longer did it only prohibit defamatory comments; now it banned personal attacks as well. It also reminded posters to stick to the topic at hand and to treat each other with civility and respect — “even as you challenge each other’s politics and perspectives.”
I know it’s like asking why internet trolls exist, but the need for such a policy change continues to baffle to me. Does the anonymity of hiding behind a screen — requiring no contact with the person whose view you oppose — free some people so completely from the constraints of civil behaviour that they feel no compunction about viciously lashing out? Even to the point of destroying the discussion forum that some seem so reluctant to leave?
In hindsight, we should have tightened our comment policy much sooner. Maybe then we could have continued to offer a constructive space for dialogue, rather than see our comment section devolve into an exchange of increasingly personal attacks that drove many commenters away.
Or maybe the migration was already underway across the industry as readers moved their discussions to presumably more hospitable social media streams. Either way, our statistics show that of the 135 comments posted to Daily Xtra last September, 48 percent of them came from just two people. That was a particularly shallow month for us but it’s still (embarrassingly) true.
Having studied the activity in our comment section for the last six months and found similar results, we had to admit that the vibrant exchange of ideas our comment section was meant to host has slowed to an ineffective and often problematic trickle. We have therefore decided to close our comment section this month, or at least eliminate this version of it.
We remain committed to inspiring constructive dialogue and open to suggestions on how to foster it on Daily Xtra. Maybe a return to some form of Letters to the Editor, where editors can curate comments that readers take the time to email us (after some reflection, hopefully)?
I don’t have the answer right now. None of us do. Just ask the editors at Jezebel who struggled last summer to stay a step ahead of a barrage of violent gifs posted to their stories while trying to maintain their comment section without driving legitimate posters away. “This weekend,” staff wrote in August 2014, “the user or users have escalated to gory images of bloody injuries emblazoned with the Jezebel logo. It’s like playing whack-a-mole with a sociopathic Hydra.”
Jezebel eventually reintroduced a pending comment system, where some users are pre-approved based on a proven track record and others have to wait for an editor to vet their post. Readers can also, after heeding a warning to proceed with caution, choose to view pending comments that have not yet been vetted.
I can’t help but admire the 865 replies the Jezebel team received from its readers when it implemented its comment-system change. I truly wish we had managed to foster and maintain such a dedicated community of constructive commenters here.