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Don't read the comments?

Should news sites provide platforms for reader interaction?

“Don’t read the comments.”

“Don’t read the comments.”

If you spend any time online, either as a creator of content or a consumer of it, you’ve heard this phrase. Maybe you’ve used it yourself.

It’s become something of a mantra, repeated over and over again. Don’t read the comments, don’t read the comments, don’t read the comments.

• • •

It wasn’t always this way. Remember the halcyon days of, I don’t know, 2004? Back when comment sections were regarded as a democratizing utopia where ideas could be freely exchanged without the gatekeeping of ‘lame-stream media’? Particularly on blogs — then a fledgling medium — comments were crucial to building audiences and communities.

Then comment sections got too big, too unwieldy and too hard to maintain. If comment sections are like gardens, then moderators are their gardeners. And hate-filled comments are the weeds — prickly, to put it mildly, and prolific. A comment section is only ever as good as its moderation.

Moderation requires resources, and resources are increasingly scarce. So, it should come as no surprise that 2015 saw the beginning of the end of online comments, to paraphrase one BBC headline.

Seems the question in 2015 isn’t ‘should we read the comments?’ It’s ‘should we have the comments?’

At the Toronto Star, 2016 will be "the year of the reader." It will not, however be the year of the commenter.

The Star is the latest media outlet to shutter its comment section. Instead, the paper will "be working to foster more insightful commentary from our readers and engage with you in a more meaningful way," says editor Michael Cooke.

That means curating reader feedback from a variety of sources, including social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram as well as letters and emails to the editor.

Many other media outlets — such as Vice’s Motherboard, Re/code, The Mic, Popular Science — have moved in a similar direction this year. Many newcomers on the scene — including women-focused sites such as Broadly (also a Vice property), Bustle and The Establishment — have never had comment sections. They’re ushering in a post-comment era, perhaps.

• • •

The same rationales for abandoning comment sections are echoed every time a publisher makes the call to shut ’er down. Moderation takes resources that would be better spent elsewhere. Social media has rendered comment sections obsolete.

Maybe.

But I’m not convinced that shutting down comments entirely actually elevates the discussion. And it certainly doesn’t eliminate trolling and harassment so much as diverts it to social media, where people are less equipped to deal with it.

Example: If someone attacks me personally in the comment section below this article, Free Press moderators will swiftly remove it because it violates our commenting guidelines. But those moderators do not moderate my email. They do not moderate my Twitter or Facebook feeds. Eliminating comment sections may shield readers from hate — which is a very good thing — but it doesn’t do much to protect writers, many of whom are targets for harassment. Thick skin only goes so far.

• • •

In November, the CBC made the decision to temporary suspend commenting on stories about indigenous people. Too much racism. Too much hate. Too much ignorance. Sit with that for a moment: these stories were getting overwhelmed with hate.

CBC isn’t ditching comments entirely, however. It’s looking at putting better infrastructure in place.

The Free Press comment section isn’t exactly a paean to tolerance and harmony either. A few years ago, we limited our comments to subscribers, which helped cut down some of the noise. Still, I wade into them cautiously.

But there’s good stuff in there, too. We, too, curate comments for our print pages — many of them are incisive (and funny).

Reader engagement is vital to what we do. Commenters who abuse their platform are why we can’t have nice things.

• • •

We curate our own social media feeds. Generally speaking, we follow and friend like-minded people. If you disagree with someone about something — and don’t have the desire to engage — you can block, unfollow or mute.

Comment sections serve as a reminder that not everyone thinks the same way you do. That the world is populated by people who you may not only disagree with, but by people whose ideas and opinions you may find reprehensible. How do we confront and challenge dissenting ideas and opinions — and sharpen our own — if we’re never exposed to them? Echo chambers may be comfortable, but they don’t further discourse.

• • •

I always read the comments (surprise!).

I’m not anti-comment section. I’m pro discussion and disagreement, so long as it’s respectful. Expressing a dissenting opinion is not "trolling." I don’t love being called out publicly for missing something or getting something wrong — but it’s on me to avoid that by doing my best to get things right. As a columnist, I challenge people. I fully expect to be challenged in return. Sometimes I engage. Sometimes I just listen.

I believe we’d do well to treat our online interactions the same way we treat out offline interactions. Helpful questions to ask yourself before commenting: Do I know what I am talking about, or do I need to learn more about it? Do I really need to weigh in on this subject? Am I contributing to the conversation or am I derailing it? Am I too upset to deal with this right now?

Comment sections can be hostile, wholly unproductive spaces — YouTube comments, anyone?

But they don’t have to be. We should invest in these online spaces rather than dump them.

The Winnipeg Free Press invites you to share your opinion on this story in a letter to the editor. A selection of letters to the editor are published daily.

To submit a letter:
• fill out the form on this page, or
• email letters@freepress.mb.ca, or
• mail Letters to the Editor, 1355 Mountain Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R2X 3B6.

Letters must include the writer’s full name, address, and a daytime phone number. Letters are edited for length and clarity.

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