Last week, the Seattle Times announced that it was giving its comments section—something that's filled with "vitriol, trolling and infighting"—a makeover. That includes a stricter Code of Conduct, the inclusion of a "respect button," the ability to ignore users who are upsetting you, and more. It goes into effect on April 17. All comment threads before then will be scrubbed and deleted.
Before we dive into this and laugh at whatever a respect button is, let's talk comments sections.
The internet, clocking in at 25-years-young, is older than me. I grew up with sanctioned computer time on our family's computer and, once I learned how to type starting in the second grade, the world was ostensibly at my fingertips. Unbeknownst to my family, starting at 12, I started making my own online friends. I wasn't allowed on MySpace because my mom watched too much Dateline. Instead, I formed friendships with strangers on the comments section of a dumpy little website. You can relate to that, can't you, Slog readers?
Now, I'm embarrassed to say what website it is because it is—and I'm not exaggerating here—a really dumb website. But I was 12. Okay. Fine. It was MyLifeIsAverage.com, a parody of the at-the-time internet staple, Fuck My Life. The site doesn't really work anymore, but in its prime, it was a place where people would anonymously submit anecdotes that detailed how their life was exceedingly bland. Every post would begin with "Today" and was punctuated with "MLIA." It was formulaic, it was consumable, and it was easily mocked. It was my gateway drug into being very online.
That's what the comments section was for. Hundreds of users would make jabs about the original post in its comments. But, as time went on, people began to form friendships. I can still rattle off usernames of commenters I admired and befriended (Bigfootexists, TheSaneManiac, HowxProfound, Crouton, LemonPancake, and so on). Eventually, comments stopped being about the posts entirely and were just forums for us to chat. The website's creator even got involved, marveling at the unintended community his website created. Contrary to what he said, I don't think he liked us very much. Eventually, we moved off of MLIA and onto Facebook (this was actually the reason I made a Facebook in the first place) and exchanged usernames for real names and, at least for some of us, hanging out online for in-person meet-ups.
Soon, though, the MLIA comments section devolved entirely; people started having cybersex in old posts from years back, which led to some vicious cyberbullying, and, ultimately, comments that seemed like innocuous edgy internet humor back in 2009 seemed a whole lot meaner and less-okay in the current day and age. Once MLIA moderators started censoring profanity the whole thing went to
shit sh*t. Asterisk workarounds and people saying "fudging" instead of "fucking" really solidified the death of the comments section and the death of the site.
What I thought was just something I did in the dead of night (before my mom caught on and—a fun fact for you—STARTED TURNING OFF THE INTERNET AT 10 PM) was actually a huge part of being on the internet: commenting. Discussion boards and forums are where the internet started and where it still thrives. I thought this was limited to bullshit like MLIA or Reddit or 4Chan, and, later, Tumblr. But, it's everywhere. Especially on news sites.
It makes sense, too. I'm saying shit that you want to respond to. Sometimes commenters have meaningful discussions, they add new information, sometimes they act as unofficial copy editors (thank you, even if you're horribly smug about it), on rare occasions there are compliments, and, more often than not, there's the trolling, the shit-stirring, the sock puppet accounts named after Lester's man bun.
So, to a degree, I get why the Seattle Times is cleaning up their comments. After all, it's not an uncommon trend. In 2015, WIRED put together a timeline of news sites that had nixed them all together. The trend more or less started in 2013 when Popular Science closed comments citing "scientific studies that found that blog comments can have a profound effect on readers' perceptions of science."
NPR found that "more than half of all comments submitted came from just a tiny group of shockingly prolific contributors who, it estimated, disproportionately tended to be middle-aged men." That's a small, but exceedingly vocal, part of NPR's readership that don't necessarily represent the views of the whole.
For the New York Times, moderating comments used to take hours:
With 12,000 comments moderated per day, this work is labor intensive, and has forced us to close comments on stories sooner than we would like simply because we didn’t have the resources to sort through them all.
They implemented machine learning technology to moderate comments. Even then, comments on articles close after 24 hours. And, really, how effective can it be? Social media giants are still using real actual people (how analog) to moderate their content.
The Seattle Times tries to clean up their comments section, too. They have web editors and engagement editors who, among other responsibilities, have to wade into the deep end and tackle trolls and delete hate speech.
Whenever I tell people that I spent a lot of time as a news producer moderating comments, I would immediately be met with laughter and/or looks of deep sympathy and condolences. Here's to hoping we can make our comments section a better place. https://t.co/VVLNBnozC6
— Amy Wong (@amyewong) April 4, 2019
The "what to do about comments sections?" conundrum is the curse of having a well-read site. But, it's also a luxury because this decision takes time and people and brain power. How many engagement editors sat around fine-tuning the "Respect" button idea (an idea that actually has academic roots)? At the end of the day, all of this feels futile, either close the comments entirely or let them be. Unless the Seattle Times is pivoting to machine learning technology to do all its moderating dirty work, isn't someone going to have to sift through all the reported comments and make sure that comments are toeing the line of the new conduct policy?
The 600+ comments on the post about comment policy change are rife with what the Times is trying to stamp out. A moderator even stepped in at one point: "We're seeing some name-calling in the comments here — 'you're a troll, you're a snowflake, etc.' Name-calling isn't allowed under our current rules, nor will it be allowed under the new code of conduct. Please keep the conversation respectful. Thanks!" I don't envy the Times staffer who gets stuck with this pointless job.
I'm not going to pretend I know how our (nonexistent) comment policy at The Stranger works. If you say some truly heinous stuff it will eventually get deleted. But we don't have any bells and whistles for you to deal with the trolls or the echo-chamber-crowding sock puppets. Hell, we aren't even going to get you guys a reply button let alone a respect button. Obviously, there are some of you who are the bane of my existence. Others, though, send me Christmas cards (thanks, Lissa!). I bet some of you might even like each other.
I didn't learn much from my stint in internet comments sections. My typing got a lot faster. I got some friends who I still talk to 11 years later and, when I was 14, an online internet boyfriend from Pennsylvania (hi, David!). Really, I don't think a comments section adds or detracts anything from a site. Yes, there are outliers and exceptions to the rule, but respecting people's comments and trying to sift through potentially terms-of-service-defying content isn't going to solve anything. All it's going to do is waste a lot of time and money.