Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Problem with Comments

The London Independent is the latest media organisation to take a crack at corralling its comments section. Instead of the usual stream of comments displayed one after another like a vitriolic virtual daisy chain, the Indy hopes that its new format, which involves voting yea or nay on the topic at hand, will help structure debate and lead to greater clarity.

Well. Good luck with that. Comments are the opposite sex of contemporary journalism – you can’t live with ‘em and you can’t live without ‘em. Contemporary journalism means online journalism, either in text or rich media. The other formats are already dead; it’s just a question of how quickly they either adapt to the new online reality or sink slowly beneath the waves.

Comments are seen as the key to online success. Success is measured in page views and popularity with the search engines, and comments drive both metrics. The more comments on a piece, the greater the engagement, the greater the eyeballs, the better the chance to charge for advertising appearing on the same page.

So far, so good. The only problem is that very few human beings have the time to trawl through the several hundred comments that a piece can generate.

For instance – Gary Younge has 440 comments at the time of writing on his piece in the Guardian on what he sees as the “most racially polarised US election ever.” It is significant that the Guardian has a “jump to comments” link beside Younge’s byline. It’s like they realise nobody expects any sort of enlightenment from Younge, whose prose can be a bit on the worthy-but-dull side. The Guardian Brain Trust realise that people don’t want to think things over and come to a balanced view as much as they want to get into the pit and start pelting each other with rotten fruit and vegetables.

News should be dull old stuff, really, but in the battle to stay alive media organisations are tempted to reverse the Prime Directive of news and journalism, which is that what is in the public interest is not necessarily what the public is interested in. This then sees media organisations deciding their front pages on what’s provocative rather than news-worthy.

There has always been this temptation in the media of course, but it was tempered by the many grey old bastions of probity that held the line. Now, even these are being slowly eroded.

Comments will not rule the roost forever. Google pretty much runs the world wide web right now, and early this year they took swift and devastating steps to destroy the SEO industry that sought to skew page rankings in the SEO industry’s clients’ favour. Google are unlikely not to have noticed that comments are not online engagement of the virtual town hall they would purport to be, but rather the screaming of so many bedlamites, each hoping to be heard above the din of the rest, and will surely turn their guns against comments just as they did the SEO industry.

What to do then? It is unlikely the London Independent’s initiative will work. Painting something pretty colours isn’t the same as a root and branch fix. However, there may be hope on the horizon, and from a most unexpected source.

Lord Tebbit of Chingford is an eighty-one former British cabinet minister. Older readers will remember him as Darth Vader to Margaret Thatcher’s Emperor Palpatine in the 1980s, the enforcer of Thatcherism. Tebbit now writes a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph, a column that is unique in its author’s replying to comments one week after they’ve been published.

This return to the old school is thrillingly revolutionary. In other media, authors either ignore the commenters or else engage in the discussion there and then, where engagement is possible. Instead, Tebbit lets them marinate for a week, and then turns over the rock to see what wriggles underneath.

There is something strangely devastating in the way Tebbit does it. This is an eighty-one year old man, remember, and a man who knows what it is to suffer after his wife was so cruelly injured in the Brighton bombing. Where commenting is done in heat, Tebbit responds in cold blood, and rather exposes the more over-the-top commenters for the blowhards and gasbags that they so often are. The fact he uses the commenters’ nicknames as if they were actual names adds to the fun. Consider this from August 27th:

“I am still trying to make sense of davidaslindsay's remarks which, as I read them, suggested that SWP supporters were switching to support Mr Cameron, but then nothing much that he writes makes sense to most of us I suspect. To be fair to Mr Cameron, he was supported by southcoasttrader and goldenboy, but sodit wrote a good piece on Thatcher's victories and questioning Cameron’s ability to match them.”

Well done, sodit. Dunce’s hat for davidaslindsay. Perhaps Tebbitism is the correct way to deal with comments – to let the storm blow out, and then re-enter the debate to see what progress can be made among the calmer heads there for the long haul.

Tebbit’s approach is unlikely to take off, but it’s hard not to admire the old man for his engagement at his age, and his old-world regard for the proprieties of debate. In the meantime, we can only hope that the next evolutionary leap in publishing will happen soon. There is only so much roaring to which one can bear to listen.

FOCAL SCOIR: Although an enthusiastic commenter myself, this blog has never had its comments turned on. I don’t have access to the blog for most of the day and am therefore unable to moderate. If someone is willing to pay me to do this then we can talk. Hey, Denis – give me a call, big man. You’ll have a few pound to spare when poor Trap gets run out of town.