Editorial: Why some people hate comments (and why we don't)
Barnaby Britton - Editor: dpreview.com
Mat Honan of Wired.com thinks the time has come to banish comments sections from web pages. Writing for Wired.com's Gadget Lab blog, Honan describes the 'collective delusion' among online publishers that comments are a necessary component of web content. Honan characterizes active comments moderation as 'a messy, frustrating and typically thankless affair that involves more time than most people have'.
I sympathize with this point of view. We've only allowed commenting on our content relatively recently, and in the case of full reviews, only in the past few weeks. And at first we had a tough time keeping up with the unwelcome comments - mostly spam - that appeared at the bottom of our articles. I don't know exactly where they come from, but there do seem to be armies of people in the world who are employed to sign up to sites like ours and post commercial spam in the comments until they either get bored or get banned. Nice work if you can get it, I imagine.
|DPReview admins can still see the spam, but you can't. How do we do it? Well that would be telling, but if you think that story is neat, check out this amazing deal two weeks ago my husband won $1 million...|
And then of course there are the trolls. Anyone who comes to dpreview.com regularly and looks at the comments or reads our forums knows what I mean. The users that occasionally derail conversations with raving accusations of brand bias, attack other people for not knowing as much as they do, or criticize our content for not being good enough, fast enough (or long enough or strong enough, or the wrong color, etc.).
Honan calls this 'digital graffiti on online real estate', and certainly, cleaning it up takes a degree of effort. I certainly don't agree with Digg CEO Andrew McLaughlin though, when he says that 'everyone who runs a commenting system ends up killing themselves or shooting up a post office', although I do have a few more gray hairs these days than I used to.
All of us on the editorial team at DPReview have to reply to comments that most people would consider overly critical, offensive and sometimes very personal, but I wouldn't describe their authors universally as 'parasitic trolls'. Why not? Because pretty often, if a comment from one of our users gets me riled and I reply, more often than not they'll respond, apologizing for being hot-headed and thanking me for engaging with them. It doesn't happen every time, but surprisingly often, nonetheless. It's easy to cross the line when you're not sitting across a table from someone, and we've all done it.
What I've learned about commenting, either by email, private message, public comments or forum posts, is that most people are pretty reasonable most of the time. And of the comments on dpreview articles, I'd characterize the majority of the discussions as pertinent and on the whole, constructive. There's always some mud-slinging of course, but that's where active moderation comes in.
Of course it's very hard not to take some of it personally. At the end of a long day, towards the end of a long week, I for one don't aways respond as well as I should to the more personal attacks that are directed towards us. But in general, if I take a deep breath and respond politely, offer explanations and ask for constructive suggestions, the fire goes out pretty quickly. Even if not, I'll certainly feel (and sleep) better. And although it's not always easy to follow, that's the advice I give to everyone that writes for the site.
So I don't think that comments sections should be banished - partly because I know there are ways of dealing with the truly suffocating stuff like commercial spam (without giving too much away, we've managed to pretty well hide it on dpreview.com) and I've been in this business long enough to know that a lot of conversations that start badly can still end well.
But I do agree with Mat Honan's final point:
'If we want actual conversations, we have to acknowledge that those conversations are as important as anything else we publish.'
This is precisely why we continue to add new features to our forums, and if you read our weekly newsletter you'll have heard me banging on week after week about our system for creating your own articles. When we created the articles section of the site a couple of years ago, it was intended to do two things - mainly to allow us to post a more diverse range of content, spanning short reviews, technique articles, photography-related features and so on - but also, and no less importantly, to allow you to do it too. If you're a logged-in user and you've got something to say that's too long for a comments box or a forums post, why not write an article?
One of our priorities for the rest of this year and beyond is to get more comment on dpreview, to make the most of our readers' vast reserve of knowledge and experience and make our site a better resource for people who want to learn about photography. I want you to talk to one another, and continue to talk to us. Because the more you do, the less noise there will be.
What do you think? Let us know in the... well, you get the idea.