It seems that nobody likes reading the comments section under online articles, writes Polari’s editor. So, to celebrate Polari’s 5th birthday he has decided, for the best of reasons, to dispense with this feature altogether.
Whenever I start to read the comment section, whether under an article in the Guardian or a video on YouTube, I invariably regret it. There may be one or two insightful comments but for the most part it’s the equivalent of the madding crowd throwing rotten vegetables at the felon in the stocks. And I know I am not alone in this view. I do not know anyone who has said, in all seriousness, “I like reading the comments section”. It is nevertheless an unquestioned feature of the online experience, so much so that it is deployed as if it is obligatory. From new blog installations to the renovated BBC website, there it is, asking what you think, what your views are. I think that it is time to question the reasons for maintaining this contentious feature.
Ever since tech pundits defined the concept of Web 2.0, the orthodoxy has been that the successful website is an interactive one. The philosophy of Web 2.0 championed connections and networks, considering user input and interaction more important than static content. For the magazines and newspapers, whose stock in trade is by definition static content, the comments feature offered the quick and dirty path to inclusivity. The Web 2.0 revolution, with its ambition to give people a voice, meant that it was the key to online commercial success. The comments section was, thereon, inevitable and inescapable.
Back in the days of Web 1.0 in the 1990s, the mantra of the dotcom revolution was “content is king”. Interactive content was limited to rudimentary forums, which were uninviting places that were of the geeks, for the geeks and by the geeks. Then the dotcom bubble burst at the end of the century, technologies advanced, and a new internet arose from the ashes on the principles of Web 2.0 claiming to democratise the internet.
That said, the phenomenon of the comment section is as much about 21st century individualism as it is about principles of democracy and free speech. This individualism hinges on inclusivity, an illusion that the comments section maintains, and the consumer of electronic content appears to be at the centre of the action rather than an observer.
Yet left to its own devices, this ‘feature’ is not so much about giving people a voice but who can shout the loudest. The fact that it is so easy to leave a comment is the key to the problem. You do not need time to think about what you’ve read. You can just react. Opinions are instant. Just add hot air.
There will always be interesting points made in the comments section, just as there will always be interesting conversations in social media forums. But those comments are invariably buried under a torrent of dreck. The very immediacy of the comments section nurtures the instant, single-minded opinion. It’s the natural playground of the hothead, the bully, and the pedant.
Then, perhaps I am just being an idealist. Journalism can, after all, be a grubby affair, and popular opinion columnists are paid to do little more than sound off. How else could reactionary bullies like Melanie Phillips, Toby Young and the dread Julie Burchill maintain lucrative careers in this field? This style of journalism is prejudice with a voice and rarely a mind, if only because it is reactionary in the truest sense of the word. It’s a process, not an analysis, and bows to the commercial demands of a publication in search of page hits by appealing to the worst instincts of the readers. Of course, to whip readers into a frenzy guarantees a slew of comments, which is then considered the measure of success.
Rather than continue this questionable practice, we have decided to let the content speak for itself, to separate the content from the discussion, and promote the use of social media as the place to wrestle with articles and ideas. Removing the option to quickly post a comment will not stop the hotheads, bullies and pedants altogether. You only have to take a quick look at the daily Twitterstorms to see that. The networks and connections that people foster in the social media sphere at least stand a chance of giving individuals a voice. In the open-to-all, cutthroat world of the comment section, that is definitely not what is happening.