Vice is the latest online publication to scrap its comments section.

In a statement announcing the news, Jonathan Smith, Editor in Chief of Vice Media, explained how comments are ‘prone to anarchy’ where the “loudest, most offensive, and stupidest opinions get pushed to the top and the more reasoned responses drowned out in the noise”.

Unsurprisingly, Vice isn’t the only platform to take this stance. Others like USA Today, the Verge and Recode have all chosen to remove their comments sections entirely.

So, why have these sites had enough? And how will this affect online forums in future?

Here’s a bit of insight into the story.

Removing the burden

For Vice and many other platforms, the burden of monitoring the comments section has overtaken any benefit. 

First introduced to drive interaction and collaboration from readers, many comments sections have veered away from organic conversation into sheer chaos. Back in 2012, the founder of Gawker Media, Nick Denton, stated that 80% of reader comments on his sites were either irrelevant or toxic.

Since then the situation appears to have worsened, with many more publications switching off comments out of frustration over anti-social behaviour and harrassment of writers.

On the other hand, there are those that persevere. The Times strictly monitors all comments, only allowing them to be published if they are on-topic and not abusive (although it says that moderation is still the ‘subjective’ responsibility of staff).

Similarly, the Guardian – a publication that maintains that “in so many cases journalism is enriched by responses from its readers” - monitors comments based on a list of community guidelines.

Interestingly, last year the Guardian undertook a study to discover the extent of the abuse that occurs below the line. While it found that just 2% of overall comments are blocked (based on analysis on comments left since 2006), out of the most-abused writers, the majority were both women and/or black.

It is clear that even on the strictest of sites, comments are not merely argumentative or irrelevant, but largely marred by bigotry. As a result, the Guardian concludes that, as anti-social behaviour is neither natural or inevitable, it is a cultural problem that we must collectively work to solve. 

So what can media organisations do to make online conversations constructive and more inclusive?

Making the switch to social

While publications like the Guardian are improving safeguards, as well as cutting down on the places where comments are open, others are using social media as an alternative. 

So what are the advantages of this shift?

A natural transition

Many publications are now finding that readers naturally choose to leave feedback on Facebook and Twitter rather than anywhere else, meaning that turning off the comments section has no real impact.

With audiences already using these platforms to discuss topical events and current affairs, it also makes sense for brands to infiltrate these spaces where users are already active and engaged.

Self-moderation

While Twitter has an ongoing problem with trolls, spaces like Facebook are more likely to be self-moderated by users, simply because they are commenting as their real selves.

Unlike comments sections, where anonymous posts and pseudonyms are common practice, Facebook helps foster a sense of community - especially among loyal and regular readers.

Greater engagement

Publications that have turned off comments sections have reported seeing higher engagement on social media.

This is mainly because users who might not go out of their way to leave a comment below the line feel more comfortable and inclined to do so on social - not to mention the fact that Facebook and Twitter are more aligned to mobile use. 

Curated discussions

On social media, online publications are able to encourage the right kinds of discussion due to greater control over the medium.

For example, if there is a particular article that has the potential to be inflammatory, it might not choose to promote it - or only post it on a platform that is suited to the conversation or audience.

With dedicated teams already monitoring social media, it is also a matter of using resources in the right way. 

Nikki Gilliland

Published 6 January, 2017 by Nikki Gilliland @ Econsultancy

Nikki is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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