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Shutting Down a Comment Section is a Bad Idea

Over the past year a number of high profile news sites ranging from Popular Science to The Chicago Sun-Times have closed their comment section (or, in the case of Vox, launched without one), and now Re/code is joining that club.

The news site announced yesterday that they are disabling their comment section:

The biggest change for some of you, however, will be that we have decided to remove the commenting function from the site. We thought about this decision long and hard, since we do value reader opinion. But we concluded that, as social media has continued its robust growth, the bulk of discussion of our stories is increasingly taking place there, making onsite comments less and less used and less and less useful.

Our writers are all active on services like Twitter and Facebook, and our official Re/code accounts on social media post our stories all day long. Readers aren’t shy about offering their opinions to us on these and other social media services, and you are likelier to be able to interact with us there.

In effect, we believe that social media is the new arena for commenting, replacing the old onsite approach that dates back many years.

I think that is, at best, a misguided move.

Yes, a lot of sites feel that social media can and have replaced the debate aspects of the comment section, and you’ll find any number of supporting arguments from bloggers, but from where I sit I see too many downsides without gain.

The topic of social media as a replacement for a comment section came up a couple weeks ago when Reuters shut down the comments on their news articles. Pando Daily reported on the story and suggested that Twitter was already a replacement:

I’ve found that the most insightful questions raised about my own stories usually happen on larger forums like Twitter — after all, if readers have something smart to say, they want as many people to see it as possible. And because so many journalists live on Twitter these days anyway – or if nothing else, they spend more time on Twitter than they do mired in comment sections — it makes sense to leave the discussion there.

Yes, a lot of people are on social networks, but each network has its own flaws. Twitter is ephemeral, and its 140 character limit removes the option for nuance and intricate debate. And Facebook has in the past mucked around with comments just as much as they have with the News Feed algorithm, making it hard to carry on a conversation.

All those insightful questions raised on Twitter  weeks ago, or even yesterday, are now vanished into the ether. Sure, you could find them again if you wanted to, but as far as new readers are concerned those tweets might as well not exist. (And have you ever tried to dig up a multi-threaded Twitter debate after the fact? Bleh.)

As David Gaughran, JA Konrath, and Barry Eisler showed us earlier this week, a comment section is much more permanent and public than a social network. Those three took to The Bookseller’s comment section a few days ago to rebuke The Bookseller for its selective coverage of Amazon.

That comment section is far too long to quote here, but it is well worth the time to read. The comments add a lot of context to the original story (or rather they show the lack of context), and what’s more, many of the comments are more worth your time than the original article.

But just as importantly, they would not exist if not for the comment section.

image by geishaboy500

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Jessica November 21, 2014 um 2:41 pm

I have to disagree and say that good journalism is what makes these websites. I avoid comments on a lot of articles because people get so worked up over someone’s opinion on an app or piece of hardware. Is even worse when it comes to PRSI stuff.

Better that these blogs/companies are not wasting money and time policing these threads 24/7.

Greg Strandberg November 22, 2014 um 12:04 pm

Visit the newspapers in the state of Montana. They’re controlled by failing corporations, companies going through bankruptcy. They lay off their workers and put more money into advertising than reporting. Government officials pay them for stories, sorry, 'advertising.'

Yeah, reporting is great…when you care about it. Thank God they haven’t taken the comments out of our paper – when they do I’ll see no reason to pay for it any longer.

Juli Monroe November 21, 2014 um 3:18 pm

I agree, Nate. There are sites that I frequent as much (or more) for the comments than for the articles. While lots of comments are little better than "I agree" or "Me too," I’ve seen many a thoughtful discussion play out in the comments when people add their perspective to the article. I’ve had my opinions changed because of comments.

Yes, there are trolls, but I think they are a small price to pay for the extra engagement.

Angélique November 21, 2014 um 3:21 pm

I would rather think that news website are shutting down their comment section to solve another problem: offensive comments. While many commenters offer constructive comments, there are more and more people taking advantage of internet anonymity to be insulting.
I guess moderating is becoming too time consuming on those huge websites, and some of them might not want to take the risk to be held responsible for hosting some of these offensive comments.

Greg Strandberg November 22, 2014 um 12:05 pm

You’ve visited Copyblogger, I see.

DaveZ November 21, 2014 um 5:34 pm

Yeah, comment areas don’t easily scale. On sites like mine and Nate’s, the discussion is rich. But it seems the levels of maturity and appropriateness degrade the larger a site gets – the traffic combined with the cleanup becomes unsustainable. I prefer my "news" comment-free and cancelled my digital subscription to the NYT like a year ago because it was a distracting cesspool. But for smaller sites, niche sites, communities, it’s really priceless (assuming the bots don’t crush the site, as almost happened with me).

Nate Hoffelder November 21, 2014 um 6:29 pm

True. I hadn’t considered the different nature of smaller sites and big news sites like Reuters. We’re fortunate in not having to focus on the controversial and divisive issues.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) November 21, 2014 um 7:02 pm

They are doing it for one reason and one reason only: By commenting elsewhere, it’s free advertising. Far more people are likely to see the article if they force people to comment on twitter or FB, etc. If I comment on their article via FB, my friends/family/fans/followers have a chance of seeing it. If I send a tweet, same thing. If I comment randomly on the article itself…only a few random people will see it. It doesn’t "spread."

It’s the same reason I almost always port my blog posts to FB. I often get more comments there (and from different people) than those who comment on my blog. To "hit" a certain audience, you need to be in multiple places and they are probably finding that "likes" and comments on other media is more useful to them. Shutting off comments essentially forces "commenters" to be more "useful" to the newspaper/article/site.

Nate Hoffelder November 21, 2014 um 7:41 pm

Now that is something I hadn’t considered: turning a negative (lack of permanence) into a positive (free advertising). It’s almost enough to make me want to add a Facebook comment widget to my posts.

Who do you port your posts to Facebook, exactly? I could never see how to do it.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) November 21, 2014 um 7:51 pm

My blog uses Simple Share Buttons Adder by Neal–but there are any number of wordpress plugins you can use.

You can also just post the link. FB will grab the first two or three lines of the post.

There are some people who are ONLY on fb, so it’s just another way to reach an audience. I’m sure I should be on instagram and others, but there is only so much time in the day. I don’t find twitter particularly useful but other people swear by it.

I actually enjoy engaging with readers, so I like the blog format, but these days, probably half my comments come from FB. And once someone comments, it usually results in other comments because a different set of people may suddenly see the original. I think this is why the magazines/articles like the feature. They don’t really care if the world reads the COMMENTS, but they want people to see the article. The comments, be they at the site or on FB are not of actual use to the magazine. It’s the traffic and visibility they are after. They are hoping for new followers/eyeballs.

Sharon November 22, 2014 um 7:01 am

I am so small and irregular as blogger that I don’t get any comments as a rule. But when I share it on FB, I usually get a fair amount. So I agree with Maria about the usefulness of this strategy at least for me at the present. Twitter does seem to work for a lot of people, but I find it much too ephemeral to be of much use to my way of approaching SM – which is to use it occasionally to find out what people are doing and to reap a fair amount of cute animal pictures.

DaveZ November 22, 2014 um 7:50 am

If advertising were entirely the case, they could use native Facebook Commenting on Recode itself in an effort to cross post to a person’s wall and perhaps cut down on drivebys as it’s linked to a higher percent of "real" account. I assume there was more than factor in shuttering comments at Recode.

Regarding Facebook importing, Nate – I use Jetpack to post headline, excerpt, and image to my "official" ZNF Facebook feed for folks who prefer that venue. Hootsuite can do similar outside of WP and I think a WP SEO plugin was recently updated to do similar. I only have a small number of Facbeook followers, compared to my personal Twitter feed, and engagement will probably continue to decline given Facebook’s deemphasis of this sort of autoposting.

Nate Hoffelder November 22, 2014 um 8:27 am

Oh, I use a bookmarklet to post a link to Facebook. It’s the same one I use for sharing links from other sites.

My question to Maria was based on the misunderstanding that she was posting an entire blog post on FB. If that had a benefit then I would have considered doing the same.

Thomas November 21, 2014 um 9:19 pm

I think having a comments section is a very good thing on most sites, given the generally sorry state of journalism on those sites. When most tech sites post barely rewritten press releases from a company’s PR flack, someone needs to point out (and occasionally mock) the hooey. Personally, I’m too antisocial for social media to "take up the slack". Besides, I really dislike handing out my personal info to anyone online.

David Gaughran November 22, 2014 um 6:23 am

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head and that at least part of what motivates people to get rid of comment sections is that they don’t have a permanent record of people disputing the claims in the article attached to the article. Someone who sees that article at a future date won’t realize there was a huge dispute about it, because they are hardly going to search Twitter etc.

tl:dr it’s a way of burying dissent, especially to future readers.

John November 22, 2014 um 8:16 am

I stopped reading websites that have removed their comments section. By removing the comments section they have silenced the objective voices and made the conversation one sided…..their side. No thanks! I refuse to be quiet when I disagree with a one sided commentary.

Nate Hoffelder November 23, 2014 um 10:54 pm

I don’t like the absent comment section either, and sometimes that does affect my decision to share a link to an article.

And I actually have a similar rule for sites that require login info; I don’t leave comments.

Lori G. November 22, 2014 um 9:33 am

I like the comments section of articles. It is often times better than the article itself. Yes, there are a lot of haters and not so bright commenters, but the discussions among the other commenters can be quite educational.

AltheGreatandPowerful November 22, 2014 um 10:19 am

When I find no comments section I make note, if I come back and see no comments again I just stop coming back to that site at all.

Greg Strandberg November 22, 2014 um 12:02 pm

Comments sections are a great way to limit free speech. First, you give it to ’em, lulling them into complacency. Then you take it away, angering them. But they can go to social, so what’s the point?

Well, the point is that people new have a less-favorable opinion of you because you limited their free speech.

It’s a great way for companies and individuals to not have to listen to what they don’t want to hear. Blocking on social media is about the same thing.

So these are people willingly ensuring they limit the information they hear. Wow, am I the only one that sees this for what it is – shooting yourself in the foot?

No one wants to hear their stupid, but God, I sure the hope someone tells me when I’m walking down the street with no clothes on.

Many, many companies have ensured that will no longer happen, and it’s to their long-term detriment.

Reader November 22, 2014 um 2:53 pm

I do not comment at sites that require a Facebook registration for commenting.
I do not trust Facebook to confine my data to its site.

Other commenters here have made good points re small sites and large sites. If there are 100+ comments for an article, I generally don’t bother posting, for several reasons. First, my comment will probably get lost in the crowd. Second, many comments may mean that trolls have taken over the thread.

As others have pointed out, often the comment thread is of greater quality than the original article, which is a good reason for having comments.

If no comments are permitted, I usually don’t bother reading.

Mackay Bell November 22, 2014 um 4:24 pm

Insightful post, and insightful comments. Much to think about. While there are issues with comments sections getting out of control, this is clearly an effort to suppress free speech (and possibly gain promotion by shifting comments into social media for promotion).

But my ultimate conclusion is that this is a good trend. Let’s be honest, the main stream press was never about free speech, it was about promoting the speech of those in power. Occasionally the little guy might get a word in for show, but only if those in power decided it was okay. Re/code is basically a corporate shill, providing just the minimum amount of "objectivity" to be taken seriously. Let’s face it, they are there simply to promote corporate actives. That’s their business and they have no desire (or obligation in my opinion) to provide a platform for alternative views. I doubt their sincerity when they say they want to continue the debate on social media. It’s a convenient dodge.

But fine, that simply empowers websites like this one. The debate in the comments section here is one of the main reasons I check the site every day (sometimes several times a day). I can only imagine the hassle it is for Nate to manage it, but it’s a huge added on feature of his coverage. I only check Re/Code if I am very, very bored.

I’ve generally stopped commenting on sites like Re/code, Salon, Huffington Post and the New York Times anyway. Anything I might have to say gets buried and much of the commenting is pretty stupid. The nice thing about this site is the people commenting generally are interested in the same things I am, and seem to be of above average intelligence and knowledge. (Possibly more attractive too.) I comment here, on Passive Voice and Apple Insider and on smaller sites. Much better (possibly because they are smaller) conversations.

So, I say great. Let the general news type sites put out the corporate line of thinking and let all the discussion take place on smaller sites like this one. Increasingly, I have stopped bothering to go to the corporate sites, like Re/Code, and figure if they have anything interesting to say I’ll find it here first. Then I can glance at it (if even necessary) and return here to discuss.

Yes, there is the danger that some people will simply get all their news from Re/code and never be exposed to alternative views (other than fleeting moments on social media) but I’m not so interested in what happens to stupid people.

Jgo October 28, 2015 um 9:33 am

To me it’s about the idiotorial boards wanting to quash opinions differing from their own. Like dictators — who prefer one-to-many one-way communications as opposed to individual-to-individual communications — they see comment features as a personal threat to their power and other aims.

Quite a few even consider any opinion contrary to their own to be "hateful", "harsh", "uncivil", regardless how it is stated.

One of the best comment features was that on ComputerWorld from IDG, which also had a thumbs up or down as an alternative to those "me too" comments. At first the thumbs got scammed as it was easy for one individual or bot to "vote" multiple times (just like my deceased grandfather continues to do in Chicago according to family legend), but that was addressed before they moved to disqusting, privacy violating disqus (ditto, BTW for FB, Twit, etc.). They’re very eager to build digital dossiers of readers, but opposed to accepting their guidance and corrections to factual errors, for instance.

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