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What’s the point of turning the net into a giant lavatory wall?

Noel Edmonds Internet Troll Hunter
Troll Hunter: Noel Edmonds. Photo: Getty Images

When I give someone a book as a present, I don’t hand them a marker pen so they can scrawl “DID YOU GET PAID FOR THIS?” on the final page. So when did we get the idea that allowing comments on articles was a Good Thing?

The anti-comment backlash has been gathering pace for a while now. Every so often, a writer puts their head above the parapet to say that, actually, they don’t really enjoy every facet of their life, career and appearance being raked over directly underneath an article they’ve spent time crafting. Or that they feel slightly miffed that a drive-by “YOUR SHIT” or “FIRSSSST” gets almost equal prominence with their original work.

A few places have already taken the step of removing comments: one of them is the satirical Daily Mash website. “One of our well-worn catchphrases is: 'I have no interest in your worthless, ill-informed opinion. And we’re not kidding,'” the Mash’s editor, Neil Rafferty, told me. “What you don’t want is to write a piece of comedy and immediately below it, have lots of people trying to be funnier than you. It’s a tiresome experience and it detracts from the actual article. It was banned fairly early on; we tried it for two weeks and it was hellish.”

Generally, however, writers who complain about comments are deemed to be lily-livered. In public, legions of stompy-boots gladiatorial bloggers laugh at their weakness. In private, other writers tell them just to ignore what’s written under their articles. I think at this point it’s safe to say there are two types of writer: those who worry about their comments, and those who don’t read them.

So why have them at all? The usual reason is that they promote audience engagement, and allow readers to “have their say”. But I find that people with something considered and interesting to offer have plenty of ways to get in touch: they can @ me on Twitter or write an email for a start. I’m also happy to host responses here on my blog (for example this and this).

The idea that disabling comments is returning to a model where journalists told the audience things, and the audience mutely accepted what was slopped out, is nonsense. Even the most generous estimates reckon only 1 per cent of readers leave a comment. So banning them doesn’t stop people having their say: it stops one in a hundred people creating an aura of authentic grassroots reaction.

What does abound in comment sections, of course, is abuse: racism, sexism, homophobia. In the wake of stories about “internet trolls” targeting Louise Mensch, Noel Edmonds and Fabrice Muamba, there has been a great deal of agonising over why the people involved don’t know what they’re doing is wrong. There’s a glaringly simple answer: they look around, see an internet reduced to a Giant Lavatory Wall, and decide to get in on the act themselves. Their misfortune is to target celebrities, and to get caught. There are thousands of others out there who abuse the powerless, and stay anonymous for ever. Anonymity encourages irresponsibility, and “one-up-manship” sees threads degenerate into name-calling quicker than you can say Godwin’s Law.

Until this point, however, I’d naively assumed that comments were part of the deal: they encouraged clicks, which made money, which paid for loafers like me to eat swan and dictate the occasional blog from my chaise longue between puffs on a silver cigarette holder. Then I read this piece by Joel Johnson at Animal New York (which, incidentally, deals with points I won’t go into now, such as the fact that the occasional good comment thread makes us dramatically over-estimate the worth of all the rest).

He writes:

Comments are likely a cost-of-doing-business for most content sites, not a revenue generator. This has been somewhat known for years for any high-volume site that is forced to require human content moderation–humans cost money, whether they are hand-moderating content, shepherding conversation, or building automated tools to allow user-moderated content.

Moreover, the most active commenters are given a sense of entitlement by the deference they’ve been given by media experts and all-internet-is-good-internet cheerleaders over the years, leading to authors who live in perpetual fear of shaming by the very people who are supposedly their most ardent fans. We somehow fooled ourselves into thinking we owed random people the right to comment on our work literally on our work, that this was somehow an integral part of the commons. 

One of the most active cheerleaders of commenting is the Guardian, which employs a dozen or so moderators, plus another dozen “community co-ordinators” who monitor Facebook, Twitter, Tumblrs and so on (the paper doesn't give out an exact number). Assuming these people are on a modest £20,000 each, that’s nearly half a million pounds a year spent on making sure that the “community” – 1 per cent of readers – is well-served. It’s a sizeable outlay, and therefore it needs a sizeable justification. Sometimes it might be: specialist blogs, for example, do get engaged and informative comments threads (I’m thinking, for example, of the Jack of Kent thread on “David Rose”). But for generalist publications it’s harder to make the case.

Anyway, by way of irony, I’ve decided to leave comments open on this post. Have at it. Alternatively, write a thoughtful, considered comment and put your real name next to it, to prove me wrong.