Illustration of a blue background, red lips and a yellow X on top of the lips as if silencing them.

By Federica Cherubini

Popular ScienceBloomberg BusinessReutersMicThe Week, re/code, The Verge, and now The Daily Dot. What do they have in common? They all decided to kill their online comment sections. What seemed a light trend a few months ago is now growing into a more consistent wave.

Among the reasons to close down comments are the difficulty in keeping the conversation civil and polite, the amount of time and resources to allocate to the moderation, and, most of all, the belief that conversations have moved elsewhere from the usual comment thread below the article on news publications’ sites. They are now happening off site, notably within other established communities (for example directly on Reddit) and on social media.

I am certainly not the first one to reflect on it (listen to this interview with Poynter’s Katie Hawkins-Gaar), I’m just asking a few additional questions on communities, their nature and their rules.

Is this the recognition that the comments below the article are no longer able to serve a need, that is — by contrast — better served elsewhere? Publications dropping the onsite approach are, for the most part, not denying the value of conversations with their readers but rather acknowledging that the conversation is happening on other platforms.
Does this mean that news organizations haven’t been able to create and animate a real community in their own spaces?

“The concepts of community and authenticity are at the core of everything we do: We don’t just report on Reddit, and Tumblr; we’re active participants, putting in as much as we’re reporting out. That’s what’s distinguished us from every other new media site. But that sense of community has largely stayed in those communities”, writes The Daily Dot.

Why has the conversation moved somewhere else? Why are these places better at hosting the interactions with readers? Does it depend on the very nature of the communities they represent? What makes a healthy community?

“We’re encouraged by the interactions we have daily with our readers on Twitter and Facebook — the vast majority of which have been positive — but commenting systems take thoughtful moderation and constant development to provide a platform for every voice in the community that supports it to be truly heard”, continues The Daily Dot.

Is the level of the conversation really of higher quality on social media?
Is it that comments below the article are outdated and broken or do we only need a better tool? Julia Haslanger has recently highlighted a research by the Engaging News Project that shows that when reporters participate in the discussions in the comment thread, the quality of the conversation improves. The same conclusions were reached by a research on online comment moderation I worked on for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers in 2013. Is this the magic formula then?

But that is expensive and time consuming, so is it probably just easier for news organizations to ratify that conversations have moved elsewhere because they are not (legally and actively) responsible there? To truly engage with readers and play an active part in the community is a challenge for news organisations and undoubtedly adds an additional layer of responsibility to their job but it’s a role they should not be abdicating.

This was first published in our Medium publication. 

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