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How Not to Solve the Comment Troll Problem: Make Readers Pay

No one knows how to solve the comment troll problem, but that doesn’t stop sites like The Kernel from proposing ideas which won’t work.

While websites left, right, and center either killing their comment sections or adopting stricter policies, The Kernel wants to add a financial incentive to discourage trolls and encourage constructive comments.

But failing that, there is a way to save comments and shore up the flagging news industry simultaneously. It is this: Make comments cost money.

Hear me out before you decide I’m a capitalist swine. I’m not proposing just charging to comment, which would mean the richest people had the most voice. I also believe we should paypeople when their comments reach a certain threshold of value.

How do you determine whether a comment has value? Probably editorial judgment—that’s how you determine whether an opinion piece should be published—but in the spirit of democracy and not overburdening the editors, we might fold in votes from users. The point is, the comment has to do something for someone else, not just act as a release valve for a particular person’s poison.

That’s a novel idea, but I don’t think it would work out in practice.

For one thing, there is the issue of selection bias. Asking the editorial staff to rate commenters can result in the staff rewarding people they agree with or people they like.  Or in the case of letting commenters vote, it can result in a discharge of trolls supporting each other.

But more importantly, this system would raise the cost of commenting on a site and thus drive away commenters. Even when commenting has no financial cost, there’s still an investment of time and, with some sites, the aggravation of dealing with their account management system.

Add a financial cost on top and you’ll find far fewer people interested in commenting. What’s more, financial transactions require a verified id of some kind, something that the anonymous (and sometimes most valuable) commenters will avoid like the plague.

TBH, I don’t know of a solution to the comment troll problem, but I don’t see charging for comments, or simply banishing all comments, as solutions. The latter strikes me as a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water, while the former carries to high of a price.

But I do know of one solution I liked. I can’t tell you where I saw it, but one of the blogs I follow has replaced the comment section with an option to instead email the blogger. This allows engagement and also prevents trolls from gaining any satisfaction from publicly being a troll.

This won’t work on a high traffic, blog but I do like the concept.

image by Marcy Leigh

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AltheGreatandPowerful September 24, 2014 um 2:41 am

We ought to charge the author of that piece for a serious fine to cover the time wasted reading it…

puzzled September 24, 2014 um 6:34 am

Hey Nate, I want my 10 bucks!

Felipe Adan Lerma September 24, 2014 um 6:40 am

These two guys that posted before me got it right 🙂

Yeah, what a dumb obtrusive unmanageable idea. And even if it was smart manageable and non-obtrusive, I still wouldn’t pay.

Greg Strandberg September 24, 2014 um 11:13 am

I’m sorry if social media is way ahead of sclerotic corporations with smart people at the helm who unfortunately have no idea what to do.

We get 10 articles a month on my local paper’s online version and then you’ve got to pay $50 a year to get access. We still get some pretty crazy stuff.

Maybe they need more mute buttons. Rarely do I see a random bad comment, it’s more like the same person over and over. On Twitter you can mute, you can do it on Google+.

Amber September 24, 2014 um 4:56 pm

By making people pay to comment you would be leaving out a whole swath of people that simply can’t afford to pay for something so trivial and another segment that doesn’t care alot about the topic to fork out cash but still has some good insights. Trolls also tend to have an ax to grind and I can see alot of them actually paying to comment more than a more moderate person.

Nate Hoffelder September 24, 2014 um 11:02 pm


Tom November 4, 2014 um 10:35 pm

Limiting comments to people who pay wouldn’t solve the issue of trolls. I’m not sure of the solution. I think there must be technological tools to discourage or eliminate anti-social behavior, voting, and eventually hiding posts sometimes works well.

I don’t know if email the author wouldn’t work on a high traffic blog. Andrew Sullivan has been doing it that way for years. He then selects "readers comments" sometimes publishing them. I do think it makes it more of a one way conversation.

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