Thursday, August 18, 2016

NPR Website Drops Comment Sections

Via NPR:
"After much experimentation and discussion, we've concluded that the comment sections on stories are not providing a useful experience for the vast majority of our users. In order to prioritize and strengthen other ways of building community and engagement with our audience, we will discontinue story-page comments on on August 23."
 Although I'm a regular NPR consumer, I don't read or engage in NPR comment sections so I'm not sure what the commenting crowd was like. From the above-linked article, it seems like NPR noticed that only a tiny fraction of readers actually commented and that NPR is interested in using other platforms for community engagement, such as Facebook, Twitter, and other tools.

NPR Ombudsman Elizabeth Jenkins offered a bit more information, in a separate post, adding that the commenting system is relatively expensive for serving such a small percentage of users.  She also adds that the commenters are disproportionately male (~83%) and that comment sections are not "fostering constructive conversations" because of inappropriate behavior, harassment, and complaints about "censorship."


Anyway, NPR's account speaks to a key characteristic of online civility/commenting that I've echoed over the years: it takes actual resources to moderate comments. These resources include financial, human labor, and emotional resources.  People treating each other decently in online forums doesn't just "work itself out" on its own.  You build a forum and the harassers, trolls, and creepers will come.  Some Internet users have an entitlement mentality in which they believe that the intended purpose of a forum is irrelevant and the Internet exists for them to attack, derail, and assert other rituals of dominance just because they can.

As more and more companies do away with comment sections or re-evaluate their online engagement, at this point in the history of Internet it's difficult to think of any legitimate reason for a company to just throw up a comment section on their website without thinking through commenting guidelines and moderation policies/practices (And, to its credit, NPR had a host of rules, moderators, and FAQs, which can't be said for all large forums).

On a final note, it's too bad that a small minority (of predominately men) ruin comment sections for all within different online communities.  Comment sections on media sites can and do serve beneficial purposes, such as expanding upon, questioning, or legitimately critiquing articles, framing, and spin.

I wonder how much those who advocate "free speech/anything goes" forums think about that loss.

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