Today was a very special day. Today I handed in my master thesis in Digital Culture. I’ve been researching comments on news articles, trying to determine what is the difference between commenting on news articles on a newspapers comment section and its Facebook page. And by the end of it, I ended up creating a website where i present the research, as well as a creative work illustrating the difference between comments on the two platforms, called Comments and Platforms.
Now, after reading and researching comments for what seems like forever, I am left with a new outlook on commenting. I used to think, as many others, that comment sections were vile and horrible places, filled with racism and sexism. But this has not been my experience while researching them. I have read many comments over the past year, and read a lot about them, and I have rarely seen what I would call uncivil behavior. Now, it may be that I’ve been lucky: that the newspaper I have been studying has very civil readers (doubtful), or that its moderators are quick and effective at deleting what may be a swarm of derogatory comments. The latter is more likely, though if that was commonplace I would expect to see signs of it: weird “gaps” in a communication, like replies to comments that aren’t there.
What I have found among the thousands of comments I have read is mostly positive or neutral. There are certainly quite a few idiots writing comments on news stories, but there are also some genuinely informative comments that have shed new light on a story. And of course, there are those comments that are just entertaining to read. And even if 80-90% of the comments are pretty much useless, isn’t that also true for media in general? I’m sure that most of us scroll by most of the content presented to us on Facebook, news sites, YouTube, Spotify or wherever, only being interested in a fraction of it.
I have come to believe that comments, and the comment sections they are written in, can be quite valuable. The world wide web gives everyone a voice. But comment sections gives everyone a voice – and an audience of as much as millions of potential readers. And journalists have reported that comments have positively impacted their work in several ways, including providing enhanced critical reflection and new story leads (Graham and Wrigth 2015).
But there is a problem. Even if I haven’t seen much of it myself, uncivil behavior in comment sections do exist. And anonymity is often blamed for this – wrongly, according to my own research. So many news sites began to use a Facebook plugin to power their comment sections – requiring commenters to user their Facebook profile. And worse: it means that it’s becoming more and more common for a Facebook account to be reqired for participation in public debates.
Some news sites have decided to close their comment sections in favor of using their Facebook pages to engage with readers. This was the reason for my own research. I think it’s important to know what such a move to Facebook is doing to the democratic quality of commenting. What I found was that there is more conversations, debates, questions, arguments and informative comments on a newspaper’s comment section that its Facebook page. Comments on Facebook are shorter, more reactive, and rarely fuel discussions.
So the quality of commenting is much lower on Facebook than a newspapers comment section. But what does improve on Facebook is the spreadability of an article because of the higher number of interactions through commenting, likes and reactions – all of which are automatically shared and spread to other people. The cynical side of me is tempted to think that this is the real reason for some news sites to shift their focus to Facebook.
In the end, the question is what do we wan’t with comment sections. Do we want them to be a place for public debate? Do we want them to be a safe space? Or do we want them to be removed because they’re not really good for anything? Personally, I’m in favor of keeping and trying to improve those platforms that facilitate public debate. And what I have found is that comment sections, even with their shortcomings, are better at facilitating public debate than commenting on articles on Facebook.
Graham, Todd, and Scott Wright. 2015. ‘A Tale of Two Stories from “Below the Line”: Comment Fields at the Guardian’. The International Journal of Press/Politics 20, no. 3: 317-338. DOI: 10.1177/1940161215581926