A major website is shutting down. But another website has done something more radical: it’s shutting down its comments section.
As for the overall shutdown, this happens all the time: sites go up, sites go bust, sites go away. Digital imprints remain somewhere in the online ether, but the daily interactions between writer and reader no longer exist.
The site that’s closing, Gawker, made news because it was about news. Or newsgathering. Or snarky coverage of several industries: entertainment, Silicon Valley, publishing, politics.
Should you care? Probably not, even if you happen to like surfing around for gossipy tidbits about public or semi-public figures. The site wasn’t exactly a media darling, but it was a media phenomenon – written about by people in media who were perhaps a bit envious of its success and also of its no-holds-barred way of unveiling the hypocrisy of so many business executives. It was also known for its witty comments section. It was a lively forum for discussion.
But the real internet news isn’t the demise of Gawker (other sites, one hopes, will come along that will cast a suspicious eye on the wheeling and dealing of the media, Silicon Valley and local politics). The real news is that NPR is shutting down its own comments section.
For someone like me and my colleagues, who use websites to engage with readers, this really matters: We encourage comments.
Now, I understand why NPR is doing this. It wasn’t getting enough comments. In an announcement, NPR said, “After much experimentation and discussion, we’ve concluded that the comment sections on NPR.org stories are not providing a useful experience for the vast majority of our users… far less than 1% of that audience is commenting, and the number of regular comment participants is even smaller.”
NPR says it uses other social-media outlets, such as Facebook, for comments. But it must also have been work to ensure that the comments section, however small, was well-policed. People can be awful online.
The internet unleashes the worst in a lot of people – if you want to see how petty, racist, intolerant and often just plain stupid many of us can be, look at the comments sections on YouTube, or scroll through Twitter and see what they say about women, about people of color (about women of color), about athletes. Your faith in humanity will be sorely tested.
The problem isn’t really comments themselves. The problem is anonymous or pseudonymous comments. When people hide behind a mask, they often unleash their baser selves. But when they are forced to show themselves, they’re more likely to be civil (even if they continue to think vile thoughts). But civility is more likely to lead to change than is unrepentant outrage and bile.
Our sites for our clients encourage engagement, but we don’t want to engage with unknowns: we want to know who are readers are, who our clients’ commenters are. This is the way to real dialogue. When you respect the other person, and you say who you are, you can actually create something valuable.[rps]