Talking New Media has brought my attention to the fact that Above the Law announced on Tuesday that it is shutting down its comment section. Starting tomorrow, this legal blog will no longer allow comments to be left on its posts:
Today the comments are not what they once were. Although occasionally insightful or funny, ATL comments nowadays are generally fewer in number, not very substantive (often just inside jokes among the commentariat), yet still often offensive. They also represent a very small percentage of our total traffic (as we can tell because of the click required to access them).
It’s not clear how or why our comments changed in number and quality. Did the layoffs of the Great Recession cause lawyers and staff to worry about sharing sensitive inside information about their firms on the web? Did the revelation of NSA surveillance by Edward Snowden make everyone paranoid about their digital footprints? Did the rise of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, redirect quality conversation to other venues? We don’t know.
What we do know is that the decline in comment quality is not unique to ATL. As noted by Wired, NiemanLab, and Digiday, numerous websites have eliminated their comments sections in recent years, largely because they felt that the comments were not adding sufficient value and that discussion had migrated to social media.
Inspired by these sites, ATL will also be eliminating comments, effective tomorrow.
It is times like this that I am very grateful for the comment section here at The Digital Reader.
It’s not just that the community here is such that I would not dream of shutting off the comments (not even temporarily like The Verge and Engadget) but also that I have a first-hand example of how it is still possible, even in 2016, to have a positive and engaged comment section.
If even a socially inept solo blogger such as myself can foster an engaged comment section, then what are all these big sites doing wrong?
I haven’t worked for those sites, so I can’t answer that with any certainty, but I think Techdirt is on to something:
Many sites justify the move by claiming comments sections are just so packed with pile that they’re beyond redemption, though studies show it doesn’t actually take much work to raise the discourse bar and reclaim your comment section from the troll jungle if you just give half a damn (as in, just simple community engagement can change comment tone dramatically). Case in point is Salon, which decided to repair its awful comment section by hiring a full time moderator, rewarding good community involvement, and treating commenters like actual human beings.
You can read a similar arguments over at Digiday.
Could it be that simple?
I can’t answer that question with absolute certainty, but I do know that a site just as responsible for the tone of its comment section as it is for the editorial slant. We can see that in the sites which have shed their comment section, and also in Salon, which invested in its commentariat.
What do you think is the cause of the decline in some comment sections? What am I not seeing?
image by Tama Leaver