If you ever want to see the worst people in the world, just scroll down to the bottom of stories on CNN.com or Yahoo News. No matter what the subject of the article, the anonymous trolls will be there, spewing hate, racism, right- and left-wing political crazy talk, and the worst grammar and spelling on the Internet.
I was reading a story on CNN.com yesterday, in fact, about a 93-year-old WWII veteran who recreated his parachute jump in Normandy. A heartwarming, wonderful story, it only took a few comments before the hatred and trolling to begin. And it never ended; some 630 comments later, it's still so very ugly and unnecessary.
Of course, we’ve had comments on OnMilwaukee.com since about 2001; we call them "Talkbacks," and for some reason, our readers – minus a few – seem to be far more civil than the readers of the newspaper down the street at JSOnline. Even though we moderate our comments, we let most of the silly stuff slide. For the 87,439 posted, we’ve only declined 2,414 comments, mostly because they are libelous, profane, repetitive or wildly off topic.
Some publications have buried their readers’ comments, moving them off the page of the content. I get that – they don’t want the nonsense to tarnish otherwise good journalism; however, hiding the comments slightly is sort of a half-measure. I say either keep them or get rid of them.
Then, of course, there are the Facebook comments. Some of us publishers hoped that by using its system, which at least somewhat forces people to use their real identities, it would add a sense of civility to the discussion. We, for example, include FB comments alongside our internal system.
The result, unfortunately, has been similarly terrible stuff – and we lose the opportunity to really moderate those comments. And the business reality is that Facebook has deeply cut into our comment numbers. Before Zuck and Twitter, popular stories would get upwards of 100 comments; now those comments are being posted directly on Facebook and other social media tools. Their traffic comes from our traffic – but that ship has already sailed, and there’s no use complaining about it now.
Which makes me wonder if readers comments are doing more harm than good in 2014. Years ago, we said that they helped make media a conversation, not just a sermon. But if the vast majority are just furious, frothing whack jobs and mouth breathers, pounding on their keyboards, picking fights and throwing bombs, how is that helping?
Unfortunately, it may not really matter, since the holy grail is still the almighty page impression. Even though here, we’ve moved past that metric in some respects, that’s basically how all of us free, advertiser-supported Web sites make the lion's share of our revenue. Even if we hate the comments and the commenters, they generate a ton of free and easy traffic. Getting rid of them only hurts ourselves, even if it makes the reader experience more pleasant.
So, for us, for now, I guess we’ll keep them, because the OnMilwaukee.com readers aren’t yet like the other commenters I read on the Internet. Hopefully they never will be. But if they start trending in that direction, we might get have to rid of comments all together. Or think of something else.
Irony aside in this question, what do you think of readers comments? Should they stay or should they go?
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.