Web comments. The mere mention makes me glance around nervously, like an evil dog.
When I relaunched this website a few weeks ago, the comments section vanished. There were two main reasons. (1) It drove me crazy that the comment provider, Disqus, was inserting an ad above the comments featuring links to four spammy articles and (2) I got several complaints about abuse in the comments underneath various posts and didn't want to moderate them. I got thousands of fantastic, smart, funny comments throughout the years that actually accomplished what comments are supposed to be: Insightful elements in a thought-provoking conversation. I loved those comments, even the ones that were critical of something I'd written. But there were enough bad apples to make things unfortunately go sour.
But I'm just a tiny speck in the world of Internet comments. Anything nefarious going on in the comments section on my site paled in comparison to the vitriol, hate and toxicity in the comments on the Yahoos and YouTubes of the world. Especially the YouTubes. Dear God the YouTubes.
I've been struggling with what to do about comments on this site. Should I do what lots of other sites have done and switch to Facebook comments, which do a pretty good job raising discourse via evaporating anonymity? Should I just put the old comments section back and go back to maintaining aggressive cognitive dissonance about what's happening within? Should I just go with this comments-free website and direct people to discuss the writing on Facebook?
I never thought of option four.
A Jewish online magazine called Tablet just changed their commenting policy: If you want to comment on articles, you have to pay.
It's $2/day, $18/month or $180/year to comment on the website. Their rationale?
[T]he Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal -- and, often, anonymous -- minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee-less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation.
For those who don't want to pay, they're directing readers to Facebook and Twitter. They're also going to start a weekly "letters to the editor" column featuring emails.
Their plan resonated loudly with me as it fundamentally changes the entire relationship paradigm of publisher and reader. Internet media, since inception, has always been governed by one expectation: Content is free. You may have to deal with a few ads, a lot of ads, perhaps a roadblock full-page ad or (ahem) a five-second survey -- but it's all free. (Some websites -- almost all the online versions of old media publications -- have gone with full-on paywalls, with varying levels of success. It's still uncommon enough that the "Content is free" concept is still the default.)
Still, this Tablet concept is a brave new world. (As far as I know) No one's ever asked readers to pay for the right to publish their own thoughts. It's such a jarring change that I expect it to do terribly.
Which is really the point, right?
I'm not going to start charging for the right to comment on this site. But if I did, it wouldn't be for the attempted revenue stream. It would be entirely for the sake of keeping the comments section from turning into what it did on those few old posts. From turning real estate on my website into a generous public platform giving a few trolls the opportunity to share racist, angry, hateful or ignorant thoughts with tens of thousands of people. It's not about the money, it's about using a token amount of money to strip the veil of anonymity away even further.
Tablet's move is an extreme measure, no doubt -- but almost certainly a harbinger of things to come as publishers continue to try to figure out ways to make the conversations on their websites default to civility as opposed to anarchy.
So, any thoughts on what I should do about comments for this site going forward? Leave your thoughts in the... um... hey, what's that over there?
This post was originally published on Wednesday, February 11, 2015 at 11:00:00 AM under the category Web & Tech.