November 21, 2014 Last Updated 12:27 pm

Re/code’s decision to end reader comments sure to have the digital-first police up in arms

Tech website founded by AllThingsD veterans Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg decide reader discussions are best left to social media websites rather than on

I will try my best to ignore the posts that are sure appear soon on some media/tech websites following the decision by Re/code to eliminate reader comments. Re/code, the site created by AllThingsD vets Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, told reader today that the have decided to close down commenting on Re/code stories, and leave the conversations to social media sites like Twitter,  Facebook and LinkedIn.

The decision is no longer a unique one, as quite a number of websites have decided that enough is enough: comments were simply getting out of hand.

The decision last September by Popular Science was the tip of the iceberg, apparently. The website for the Bonnier magazine found it no longer had comment threads that added to and enhanced the subjects of its articles.

“It wasn’t a decision we made lightly,” wrote Suzanne LaBarre, the magazine’s online content director. “As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.”

“Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself,” LaBarre said.

All one needs to think about is “global warming” and you can imagine what would follow in the comment threads.

But the digital-first police will not be placated. For many of them, and there is no reason to point them out by name, there is only one way to do things, damn it.

But online comments are a serious problem. Even websites like The New York Times, which dedicates resources to comment moderating, turns off comments on stories quite quickly so that the team can move on to newer stories. The result is that many reader find that by the time they get to a story they can no longer submit a comment. Other newspaper websites, like that of The Washington Post, moderate their comments with so light a touch that their comments threads are impossible to navigate through, and only end up depressing the reader with the quality of the conversation. But this light touch drives up web traffic.

Comment threads are increasingly difficult to manage thanks to the fact that comment spammers come from everywhere. TNM receives dozens of spam comments each day, but by now so many IP addresses have been banned (hundreds of them) that most days there are no comments to manage. Additionally, many commenters that are not trying to sell you Oakley knockoffs nonetheless treat the subject of politics or tech like they would their local football team: “these guys are my guys, and I’ll be damned if I admit that so-and-so is making a good point about whatever.”


One knows what to expect on Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo or Red State, and so commenting is a group experience, with points of view constantly reinforced. But news sites that are at least attempting to be nonpartisan are finding it hard to moderate comments by competing factions. Even iOS versus Android is no longer a subject where one can expect civil discourse.

The editors of Re/code were wise not to blame their readers for the decision to shutoff comments, instead saying that comments belong on social media sites. I disagree with that, they should be on the main website, the issue is can they be?

“We thought about this decision long and hard, since we do value reader opinion,” Swisher and Mossberg wrote. “But we concluded that, as social media has continued its robust growth, the bulk of discussion of our stories is increasingly taking place there, making onsite comments less and less used and less and less useful.”

Nicely put, but I think they are being a bit less than honest. The web traffic that a strong comments section brings a website is a good revenue stream that no publisher willingly surrenders. But I do believe Swisher and Mossberg thought long and hard about their decision, and I trust their judgement concerning this.

Obviously, I could only wish that TNM had the same issues with reader comment moderating that many other websites have. It is a sad fact that publishing pros are not the liveliest comments. But I also recognize that the best publishing industry conversations are taking place Twitter and LinkedIn, not on trade publication websites. So, it may be that that I am wrong and Swisher and Mossberg really do believe what they wrote about social media websites being the best place for conversations… maybe.

Later: John Gruber writes on Daring Fireball: “A blog without comments?” (Daring Fireball does not allow comments, either, of course.)

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