Thoughts on the evolution of story comments


Stars and Stripes suspended its comments section May 10. Most likely, you didn’t notice.

The change was not announced. The comments and links simply disappeared from the desktop version of the site. For now, comments are still enabled for some mobile app users (the iPad, for example, but not the iPhone), but that is temporary.

Stars and Stripes Editor Terry Leonard said a hiring freeze imposed on the Defense Media Activity, Stripes’ parent organization, drove the decision. “Manpower shortages have left the organization without the personnel to effectively moderate the posts to ensure a healthy comment environment,” he said. He added that Stripes might consider restoring comments for specific stories “as the topic warrants.”

Realistically, though, that’s not likely. In the six days following the suspension, only five readers contacted Stripes’ service desk about the change; only one objected. One more reader contacted me. So ends an era.

Stripes’ online comments were dominated by a few regular posters and ranged from a dozen or two to as many as 100 comments per day. By contrast, Stripes’ Facebook page can generate hundreds of comments for a given article and sometimes thousands in a day.

If this was a contest, Facebook won out.

News outlets have long wrestled with the challenges of maintaining a vibrant and civil comments section. Vibrant isn’t the hard part — it’s keeping debate civil that’s difficult. It’s usually a losing battle.

Just as otherwise reasonable people may act like animals in traffic, normally respectful human beings can turn vile when sitting in front of a keyboard and screen. The combination of anonymity and physical separation brings out the worst in many of us.

Not so long ago, readers invested time, thought and energy to carefully craft letters to the editor. They did so with the sincere hope that their ideas would rise above the competition and their names would make it into print. Whether letter writers pointed out injustice, noted errors, offered clarifications or alternative perspectives, questioned headlines or challenged conclusions, the one thing they did was add to the quality of the whole. Letters sections were edited for space and, as a result, worth reading. You learned things there you wouldn’t get anyplace else.

In the 1990s, when I was editor of the weekly Navy Times, we fielded 50 to 80 letters a week. Competition to get into print was stiff. Readers rose — and wrote — to the occasion. Stripes, with its daily circulation on two continents, had a similarly robust letters section back then. Not anymore. Today, Stripes receives just a few letters to the editor a year.

Online comments killed letters to the editor. Then Facebook killed online comments.

As soon as readers discovered they could comment on an article and see their words — and even responses — instantly, rather than waiting days or weeks, the letters section was doomed. Why sweat the details crafting a 100-word letter that might get published when you can post a six-word quip and push it live in seconds?

Managing comments was initially seen as an editorial responsibility across the industry. But this proved highly challenging. Creativity knows no bounds when it comes to circumventing rules, especially automated enforcement. Banned words were easily overcome by creative misspellings. And speed and volume were overwhelming. Before, editors controlled the pace and timing of their letters reviews; self-posted comments reversed the process. Suddenly, the readers had the upper hand.

Legal concerns also entered into the fray. In print, publishers were responsible for the words they printed, so they were obligated to closely monitor and edit letters. Online, however, courts found that publishers could escape responsibility if they simply acted as a pass-through medium. Combined with the volume and time involved, most abandoned moderation altogether.

Legally speaking, comments were less like letters to the editor than banter in a bar. Like bar owners, publishers aim to establish a threshold for acceptable behavior in their spaces, because ugliness is bad for business. But finding the balance between lively debate and rank distastefulness isn’t easy. It only takes one comment to send a comment string off topic, and that can happen multiple times in a string.

Active moderation is much harder than it looks. Like a cop assigned to a rough neighborhood, moderators see the worst their community dishes out. Making matters worse, commenters hide behind a veneer of anonymity, using creative pseudonyms that hint at who they are or deceptively imply they’re someone very different. My view: Pen names undermine the integrity of the conversation, making it easier for participants to behave poorly and devolve into personal attacks.

Good citizens steer clear of bad neighborhoods, so comments sections often become a den of bullies and creeps. Only the most brutal verbal combatants survive.

This is why most publishers either shut down their comments sections or abandoned moderation and left the readers to themselves years ago. Moderation is a no-win game.

Yet commenting is hardly dead. Stripes played this game on two fronts for years — maintaining both its online comments and a robust Facebook page. Rather than leave its site bereft of comments, Stripes now has the opportunity to meld its strong Facebook presence and site by using Facebook for inline comments. Take a look at ArmyTimes.com for a sense of how this works.

Facebook accounts for some 20 percent of Stripes’ internet traffic and represents a much larger and more diverse audience than the denizens of the now-defunct comments section. And because Facebook requires a name — and most users rely on Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family — Facebook users usually are who they say they are. With comments seen by spouses, children, parents, friends and co-workers, they are also more likely to be civil (note I said more likely — unfortunately, there is plenty of uncouth behavior on Facebook, as well).

While most Facebook comments are brief and glib, substantive and deep comments do stand out. These add value to the conversation.

For my money, it never made sense to have two separate comment streams — one online and moderated and another on Facebook and barely moderated. But it makes even less sense to have no comments on the site. Not having comments diminishes the community aspect of the site. Adding Facebook comments would not only preserve reader interaction but also introduce more active-duty voices in the conversation — something too often missing today.

I asked some of the more frequent commenters on Stripes.com their thoughts on the recent change in comments policy. “I am more or less ambivalent,” wrote one, who acknowledged the nastiness of the banter there. “My thoughts? Well, maybe it is for the best.”

Maybe it is. News sites, like newspapers before them, are valuable places to share knowledge, insight and opinion. Sharing Facebook comments in-line with the articles on Stripes.com may not always raise the level of debate. But even if it does so only sometimes, it’s worth it.

Tell me what you think — write to me at naegele.tobias@stripes.com.

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