People are strange. I don’t think that this is really an idea that has a whole lot of contention, but ultimately it’s a truth that a lot of people have to deal with. There’s a reason call center workers and IT professionals groan when they’re going into the office on Monday much louder than other folks. It’s because they know that a lot of strange people are going to call them seeking help, and they’re going to be jerks about it. That reality also goes into comment sections on websites. Often times, you’re going to find that there’s going to be some goofball who has decided that he wants to try and ruin your day because he’s perceived that you’ve wronged him somehow.
Back when I first started in the journalism field, I worked solely in the print medium. The major benefit of said medium is that if most people are going to complain about what you’re doing, they’re just going to skip your article and go to a different one. There’s not really a direct line between the editor and the crowd, so the only way you’re going to find out that people aren’t enjoying your work is if they send letters to the newspaper or emails to the editorial staff. I moved over to the net in late 2009-early 2010, and found that the world was much, much different.
The great thing about the internet is that everyone in the world has a voice. The downside of the internet is that everyone in the world has a voice. When the town drunk has the same amount of clout in a certain scenario, it goes without saying that the dynamic has shifted. During my time working on different websites, I’ve seen a lot of really really dumb posters. Heck, often times my notifications on my twitter feed has some “brave” soul trying to “get me” for some e-celeb that neither knows them nor cares about them as a human being. In business, often times I walk into my office in the morning and find my voicemail full of complaints that are attributed to mother nature, not the products I sell or service I offer.
At the same time, what would happen if I shut down the voicemails in my office? Well, first and foremost I take away the voice that my customer base deserves to have. Second, I’m going to find that I’m getting a ton of letters that say “cancel my service.” Not to mention, why would I even shut off the voicemails? What does that tell people outside of the business? It’s simple. Fear of criticism. Fear of feedback. Fear of truth. Yet there are articles from the Washington Post, CNN, and The Guardian suggesting that websites should do exactly that, saying that “they can just talk about it on Twitter.”
There was a time where I thought the same. Where I thought that comment sections weren’t worth the hassle because there were some people out there that would say mean things from time to time about my mother/sister/grandma/dog and it might hurt. Then I grew up. I also had a long talk about the community with my then boss, Joe Vargas. We discussed the importance of allowing discussion. Ultimately, it’s a bridge between the writers and the readers. It builds community, and shows that the people who are writing the articles aren’t any different than the people reading them. It keeps you humble, in essence. It’s the same reason I keep the phone in my office ready for any customer to talk to me. I’m one of two people that runs the business, and I know that the accessibility is ultimately what keeps people coming back when they’re upset.
Though it’s unfortunate that the person who pointed that out to me could have possibly forgotten what he told me, ultimately I saw the folly of my ways, and now I’m watching tons of people get ready to make the exact same mistake. We even see the same from Anita Sarkeesian and Jonathan McIntosh. They shut down discussion and analytics for the same reasons that all of these other people are getting ready to do the same. They fear criticism. They fear feedback. They fear truth. These folks fear that certain discussions are going to shatter the world that they’ve created for themselves, where they’re always correct, and no one can challenge them. It’s akin to a child’s pillow fort. With any sort of force it all comes tumbling down. It’s not because they’re trying to stop trolls from commenting, because trolls are a small amount of commenters statistically in just about any comment section. Beyond that, moderators can cull the comments. It’s like nuking a cornfield because there are a couple of raccoons in it. It makes no logical sense.
To close this one out, I love the comments section in the same way that I love my voicemail at the day job. Every once in a while I groan because there is a problem customer or something along those lines, but ultimately if I pay close attention to the people who make my business or website what it is I’ll find gold. Maybe I’ll find a way to improve my way of doing things. Maybe I’ll have the chance to re-evaluate my stance and see someone else’s point of view. Maybe I can allow it to become the subject for further articles on a similar subject. Ultimately, the community is the heartbeat of any business or website. If you let it flourish, it will appreciate you. If you let it falter or try to stamp it out because of a perceived slight against you, it’s not going to stop.