Four Ways to Improve the Culture of Commenting
Comments Weather indicators - an interesting concept.
In my Riff for this past weekend’s magazine, I write about the history of online comments and how they came to often take such an off-putting form. Here are some things we could adopt to help build a better commenting environment:
User-driven moderating: Create more robust systems of user moderation and teach people how you want them to participate online by training and rewarding them. The best argument for this comes from economics, specifically the work of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom, who showed that commonly held resources (like fishing grounds or groundwater) are more sustainably managed by communities of users, instead of by government agencies or the marketplace.
I often find that the problem with comments isn’t that they’re offensive or off-topic; it’s that they’ve distracted me with irrelevant information or told me what I already knew. (Yes, some people don’t like Obama.) I wish I could flag a comment or even a whole thread as a waste of time for other readers. The tragedy of the comments is a tragedy of the commons, because the unreplenishable resource that has been overexploited when comment threads go awry is the finite amount of attention that we have to spend reading. Any individual commenter is simply doing what the system encourages him to do; in aggregate, however, all of these decisions eat away at the attention.
“You have time to create something beautiful. You have time to read the comments sections. You do not have time to read both,” Shane Liesegang tweeted (@avoidcomments). I’m not comfortable with eschewing comments altogether, because I assume that the expertise that finds its way into bylined articles in the newspaper is a small subset of the expertise that exists in the world. If the comments section enables a larger amount of the expertise to reach a wider audience, then I’m all for it.