Comments are Bad Business for Online Media

I’m in an interesting position. I’m currently in the process of overhauling this whole ANIMAL thing, from the basics of our site content, to building out plans to expand in the future, how to make money, etc. We’re taking a real stab at turning this little blog into a big ol’ thing. (Blessedly, I am surrounded by ultra-competent people who excel at disciplines I do not.)

One of the sort of generic checkboxes I’ve been asked to tick as the new Managing Editor–or at least think about moving forward–is “building community.” There was a time a few years ago on the early-blog-era internet “community” basically meant cultivating a healthy cadre of regular commenters, the better to have a sort of virtual street team to share your stories with friends via email or IM or–in decreasingly rare cases for a couple of years–their own blogs. Social media in all its incarnations, from Facebook to Tumblr, has largely obviated that part of comments: most people on the internet are sharing content just fine.

That leaves to comments two reasons for being: to add to, by addition or criticism, the content that is posted to a web site; concordantly, increase the traffic and engagement of an audience. People want to read good comments, goes the theory, which increases their involvement on the site, which leads to more traffic, which leads to more ad impressions, which leads to a one-billion dollar sale to Facebook.

Excuse me. For a second I thought I worked in the part of the internet that makes money.

But in conversations I’ve had with peers in the internet publishing world lately, as well as a resurgence of chatter about comments both online and in schmoozy-cocktail-space, I’m starting to come to a conclusion: comments are more trouble than they are literally, financially worth.

Most comments are terrible. Out of any given 100 comments, say, perhaps one or two will actually provoke discussion or elucidate another’s argument. This is including a large helping of spam, mindless me-too or right-on kudos posts, or the sort of drive-by internet hate that comes with the territory.

The occasional brilliant comment maintains the illusion of the worth of comments in general. This is the trap in which Gawker’s Nick Denton is currently gnawing his leg: every once in a while on the internet, for reasons largely outside of individual author control, you get a crazy good comments thread that is full of information, often outshining the post that provoked it. Denton’s spent probably several hundred thousand dollars building the new “Pow Wow” comments system for Gawker, but last I saw it was still hamstrung by Nick’s attempt to make it achieve two diametrically opposed goals at once: encourage amazing comments, while still allowing anyone to post with no heavy-handed comment moderation. I don’t think you can have both high quality comments and lots of comments: there just aren’t enough intelligent, civil people on the internet with the time to do free work for you out of the kindness of their heart. Or the smart, engaged people with the time aren’t the ones who have the information that would add real value to a thread.

Comments don’t make any money. This, to me, is the most damning of all: 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. This is perhaps my most controversial personally held belief about comments, but only so to the people who are so insecure they take personal offense at being they haven’t earned the respect to be listened to more than a basic, stranger-level civility. This was the previous culmination of my thinking, which accounting for personal vitriol that occluded my argument, I still fully endorse.

Comments are a dinner party. If I’ve invited you to have a seat at my table, at least have the courtesy to not call me an idiot for serving you food slightly different than you preferred or flinging the china at my dog because that isn’t even the right color of dog anyway, duh.

But here’s the new thing: I’ve had two separate discussions with friends who run mid-sized internet properties–we’re talking high hundreds of thousands to millions of unique users a month–and they’ve both recently completed heavy analysis on their traffic and come to the somewhat shocking conclusion that the people who actually read comments are a small fraction of one percent of their entire readership.

I’m not talking about people who comment, which is an even smaller percentage. I’m talking about people who read comments, the supposed traffic-and-revenue generating nebulous “community” that supports nascent internet media publications and make all that engineering and moderator staffing worthwhile. Less than a percent. And if you measure the number of people who actually scroll to the end of a post and read all the comments, it’s even less.

If it were up to me solely–or more accurately, if I thought it made sense for us to do it during a site relaunch and I was willing to go to the mat for it–I’d remove comments from our site entirely. I’m not largely because nobody else here has the experience I’ve had with building internet brands and they have a hard time believe that I–a card-carrying member of the belief that most people are decent and good and patient and worth listening to and learning from–also think that internet comments are a dead-end for real conversation and learning online. Plus, I’ve got other things to handle trying to relaunch than rebooting the way the internet does comments. (Although I’ve thoughts.)

Still, I believe I’m right, and I think it’s important to start the discussion. And my theory is very easy to disprove: just run your own analysis on your traffic and determine exactly how many people are scrolling down the page to read comments. Then figure out how much you’re spending to maintain comment communities that are civil, vibrant, and not an embarassment sitting just below your own work. I bet once you run all the numbers, you’d discover you’d be saving money simply by not having comments at all. (You’d probably save a bundle on therapy for authors alone.)

I look forward to hearing your responses and thoughts wherever you post them. Except here.