Why we need to get rid of internet comments

We need to get rid of comments.

Banning people isn’t enough. Moderation isn’t sufficient. Let’s just get rid of ‘em. No more debate, no more talking and no more discussion. We had our fun, and now it’s over. Let’s close up the comments forever and leave it be.

It sounds like hyperbole, but I’m not exaggerating. (Okay, maybe a little for dramatic effect). But given the amount of changes we’ve seen in the past few months regarding comments and the people who make them, surely we can agree some people have seen the light – and more needs to be done.

Today, Gamespot announced a new comment policy, essentially a three-strikes system, accompanied by a new code of conduct in how the site would approach comments. It’s a great step. IGN took a similar one several weeks ago, and although I haven’t heard any good news about it, I haven’t heard anything spectacularly bad either, so I assume it’s doing its job.

The problem with comments – and this applies to much of the internet – is that the possibility of having a say in an issue is equalised with the substance of your words. The ability to make a comment is seen as a right, which is a misunderstanding in itself, but all sort of discussion is seen as valid.

Short point: It’s not.

PopSci took a dramatic step this week by completely banning comments. It took a bold step – by saying the contents of the site were simply not up for debate. It wasn’t that people weren’t allowed to have a say, but that the discussion was actually bringing down the scientific community. Because people believe their comments are just as good as any other person’s, debates over subjects the scientific community take for granted are now up for grabs.

Arguing the community on a gaming site is as important as a site discussing scientific theory and content is wrong, but nevertheless, PopSci sets a good example.

It's not the only one. Google has introduced changes to YouTube comments as well, (a "community" long-regarded as the pit of commenting hell). 

Just consider some of the discussions on major gaming sites over the past several months. Hell, last month on Polygon there was a major discussion on whether reviews should be “objective” or not.

That isn’t a discussion worth having. It’s not that there are opinions or a grey area – there’s not one there. There is no merit in suggesting reviews should be “objective”, because they aren’t designed to be that way and that’s not the method by which they are written. End of story.

Or consider the IGN topic regarding Gamespot reviewer Carolyn Petit. Awful things were said about Petit, (I’m not going to link to them). IGN’s policy on comments is a welcome change, but it can’t be everywhere at once, so it’s not surprising these types of comments were made. (Considering IGN’s audience, it almost seems inevitable).

The debate over user-controlled comments and moderation is worth considering in light of the popularity of Reddit and Something Awful – two of the most popular message boards in the world with two very different approaches to comments and user activity.

Reddit, famously, very much takes a user-controlled approach. Comments aren’t moderated, and the best rise to the top. The “best” being those comments which are voted on by the community as being witty, or funny, insightful, or whatever.

The upside of this is the reader of any particular thread sees the most useful comments first. But they also show comments seen as the most popular, which aren’t always right.

The lack of moderation also means we have sub-Reddits with racist and sexist content, although lately Reddit has been stepping down on those. (Again, the benefits of moderation).

Something Awful takes a much more clinical approach. Users are banned for the slightest of rule-breaks, including not using punctuation or simply breaking the rules of a particular thread.

Of course, having all replies be equal in a message board is akin to the commenting problem – every viewpoint is seen as being valid, whereas in Reddit, unpopular views may be more likely to drop to the bottom. In a sub about science, for instance, this would be of great benefit.

We’re seeing more sites take the Something Awful approach with comments, by working on moderation and banning those who make hurtful comments.

But here’s the problem – neither of these approaches weeds out the bad comments. They simply approach them in different ways.

We live in an age in which all opinions, views or updates are viewed as valid. “I’m going to the gym!” I say on Facebook – instantly get three likes. Awesome, I think to myself. What I just said was valuable and useful to someone.

Except it’s not. We live in a delusional echo chamber, and the internet magnifies that effect. We need to stop this notion that what we say matters, because most of us are stupid, uninformed and have no right to speak authoritatively on any issue that we haven’t seriously studied.

Do we really think the people commenting on Anita Sarkeesian’s videos have done as much research as she has? Do we really think people insulting those in the trans community have gone through as much hurt and pain as they have, or understand the ramifications of their words?

Are we supposed to believe that someone commenting on the fact global warming is a myth has done as much research as professional scientists?

Enough is enough. We need to stop the notion that having a say is somehow a right. No, it’s a privilege. By cutting out comments altogether, we can move the discussion elsewhere.

After all, it’s lazy, isn’t it? By making the first comment or putting an argument on someone’s article, I’m robbing their attention and have an in-built audience. But if I want to create a blog post rebutting someone, it takes a lot more work to gain an audience.

Maybe for news posts and more harmless content, comments can slide. We can let them be.

But for features, or pieces of content that are somehow controversial? It’s time to get rid of ‘em.

After more than twenty years of using the internet as a place to talk, we need to change it up. By getting rid of comments, we can force everyone to do the most important thing to build empathy and knowledge – simply listen.

 

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