News Sites Alienate Communities in Search for Online Dialogue in Alternate Formats

Online comment sections replaced with social media, traditional letters to the editor

By: Amanda Scott, Jan 1, 2019

It’s no secret that comment sections have become overrun with spam, bots, bullies and abuse. In the last several years, most news sites have removed their comment sections for these reasons. Many websites and news organizations still see the value of audience and user engagement, so they have instead elected for at least one of the several alternatives that have entered the online dialogue arena rather than completely cutting off their readers.

§ Social Media. Probably the most predominantly used alternative to a website’s comment section is the website’s social media platforms. Today, many news organizations or other websites are directing their users to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks to discuss and share.

When closed its comment section, the now former editor-in-chief Ben Frumin wrote, “Today, the smartest, most thoughtful, and most spirited conversations are being driven not by pseudonymous avatars in the comments sections of news sites, but by real people using their real names on the social web. It is no longer a core service of news sites to provide forums for these conversations. Instead, we provide the ideas, the fodder, the jumping off point, and readers take it to Facebook or Twitter or Reddit or any number of other places to continue the conversation.”

As users engage in the comment section and with the news organization, they become invested in the community they are part of but offloading a site’s users to social media fractures the established community.

§ Annotation. A handful of major sites have implemented an annotation commenting system which allows readers to comment on a specific aspect of a story in the margins. This feature is very similar to the margins of a book, where you would leave your insightful thoughts for future reference.

The issue an annotation system presents is that it requires users to read an article multiple times to have any type of meaningful dialogue with other community members, resulting in even less user engagement than when the site hosted comment sections.

§ “Letters” to the Editor. After nixing comment sections, many online publications and websites opted for more traditional forms of dialogue with their readers: “Letters” to the editor. Today’s letters to the editor have advanced to include a web-based “letters” to the editor form or as an email option. Many sites that have gone this route publish a digest of the best letters they receive.

When tech and science news site Motherboard removed their comment sections, the organization encouraged its readers to reach out via an online version of letters to the editor. Motherboard contributor Derek Mead wrote, “Comment sections inspire quick, potent remarks, which too easily veer into being useless or worse. Sending an email knowing that a human will actually see it tends to foster thought, which is what we want. … So instead of burying discussion in a comments section, we want to publish the best for all to see.”

This alternative relies on users to sit down and compose a thoughtful letter, hope it gets read in a somewhat timely manner, and then pray it’s chosen for all to read, thus restoring power to the publisher to decide what opinions, views and issues are shared. Consequently, sites are no closer to the engagement they would receive with an active online comments section and community.

Unfortunately, a major drawback for websites abandoning traditional online comments that reside below articles, and instead pursuing any of the methods listed above is that significant friction is introduced for users to engage with the content. This in turn leads the majority of the community to abandon any attempts to engage, which in turn leads to a fracturing of a website’s community which is counter to the website's original intentions.

Ultimately, in an effort to reduce moderation costs, sites may indirectly alienate their users and negatively impact their monetization models. The true irony is that sites which abandon the core principles of online comments, or the comments section altogether, in order to save money might lose more money than they save.