Before we get too far, let me outline what I think qualifies as a useful comment. It's something on topic, that expands on what's explained in the article and doesn't just parrot it. If I write a column about hiding cameras in Ray Romano's bedroom, a good comment might involve sharing your own tips for scraping the silver off the back of a mirror, or sharing your favorite profile of Romano when he's changing (mine's rear three quarters). And if you can be creative when doing it or even make people laugh, all the better.
Everybody LovesHow One Nut Is Much BiggerThan The Other, Ray
So, with a good comment defined, let's look at all the ways this ideal is ignored, and itemize some of the ass nuggets routinely posted in its place.
#6: Anyone Can Comment
Obviously this is also the main appeal of comments; that everyone has a voice. To comment on a Cracked article you don't need a M.Sc in Applied Comedic Sciences - a 6 year educational odyssey which few people complete, largely thanks to the Slapstick requirement's 30% mortality rate. Airing the opinions of not just the experts, but also the great unwashed is widely thought to be a good thing, especially amongst people who have never actually met the great unwashed.
But, it turns out that a great benchmark for whether someone is worth listening to or not is whether they've convinced an editor and publisher and spell-checker that their ideas aren't dribbling birdshit. If someone hasn't broached those barriers, it's entirely likely that they're not worth listening to. The only way to tell if a comment is stool or not is to read it, making finding useful comments in a comments thread a bit like hunting for a needle in an outhouse. If there's one thing I know about readers on the Internet, it's that they don't have a lot of patience wading through crap to find the good stuff. This is the land of tl;dr, and expecting someone to shovel through three hundred misspelled racial slurs to read a good point about Ray Romano's balls is expecting a lot.
Like that they swap places every 28 days.
#5: And a Lot of Them Are Spammers
If you've spent any significant time on the Internet, you'll know what it's like reading spam. Your eyes just glide right off it, identifying and ignoring it faster than conscious thought. Small amounts of spam is easy to ignore; it's when it flares up that it becomes a problem, lowering the signal to noise ratio and scaring away legitimate users. Cracked's comments sections used to be nearly unreadable, dominated by ads for discount Nike shoes and meeting Tall Women.
CLICK NOW FOR REAL LIBERTY UPSKIRTZ!
This has been less and less of an issue as spam filters get better. But will that last, or our spam-amnesty's days are numbered? Surely there's an elite team of spam-programmers somewhere, draped in Gucci handbags and tall women, frantically working to defeat this.
#4: Anonymity Breeds Dicks
When cloaked by the anonymity still present on most commenting systems, people tend to act more antisocial then they might otherwise, their facelessness removing all of the negative implications of their actions. Directing dark, scatological threats towards a local weatherman is cause for arrest when done in person. On the internet, it's almost mundane; there's dozen of Tumblrs about it, I'm sure.
It's this anonymity where a lot of the really nasty stuff comes from. Harassment, racial slurs, mocking crime victims; imagine saying something that would cause someone to punch you in the throat, and it's a pretty safe bet that right now, someone is saying it on the Internet, their throat's going dangerously unpunched.
"I dare you to post your address young man, because I will come to you, and I will break you."
#3: The System, Gamed
On sites where comments are rated by users, the userbase will inevitably come up with a complicated game of grabass for manipulating said system. Look at the current system on Youtube, where about half the comments basically state: "Thumbs up if you liked this ..." Getting people watching a Whitesnake video to applaud how much Whitesnake rules is the cheapest type of populism; morons trying to collect thumbs-up from anonymous strangers like they mean something. There is no hole in your life small enough to be filled in by Youtube praise.
The more comment-prone among you will note that Cracked has recently implement a similar system, and I am mildly worried the same kind of nonsense will happen here (mildly being the most damn I can give about comments). Please, respected trolls, ass-breathers, and self-fiddlers: Do not talk about the comments system on the comments system. Those are not good comments. Talk about how much you love us, how much you hate us, or how specifically you want to cup Ray Romano's dangly bits.
"Up, down, and all around, please."
#2: Discussion Hijacking
One problem all comments systems have is that an early commenter can immediately steer the conversation off the rails. A comment like:
"I hate Chris Bucholz because he gives me gas pain."
...can cause almost every other commenter to respond with their own feelings about why that's irrelevant, or why that guy's a homosexual, or itemizing other GI tract complaints that my writing and/or presence can provoke. Any chance of a useful discussion is soon washed away on a sea of homemade flatulence remedies.
You see this type of thing happen a lot when an early commenter touches on a contentious subject, like Israel, immigration, or David Spade.
I've seen people almost come to blows arguing about whether David Spade should be allowed to be married.
#1: Even the Acceptable Comments Aren't Very Good
Even amongst the comments which aren't insulting or inflammatory or punch-threats, few are of any significant value, using the metric I established above, e.g. hilarious, insightful, or a link to nude pics. Think about how many comments are one of the following:
"I liked this."
"I hated this."
"I didn't understand this."
Obviously as an author, my opinion on feedback might be different than yours. Due to dangerously high levels of self-esteem, my doctors do often recommend regular doses of people yelling at me how much I suck. But as a reader, is there a ton of value in this? Seeing other people's opinions about whether a piece was good or not? Do you like seeing others agree with you about how much I suck?
Actually, listening to people agree with you is basically mankind's favorite hobby. Ok. We'll mark that up as a Kudos in the Comments column.
The So-Called Experts' Solutions
A few solutions have already been developed around the Internet for dealing with these issues. All of them have some problems though, which I'll snipe at safely from my chair of Not-having-to-do-anything-about-it.
Comes with zero power or responsibility, wheels.
There are a few variations of this system, the simplest of which is "Doing Nothing At All." In this system it's hoped that the community polices itself, using basic shunning techniques to discourage idiots from assing the place up. These systems work pretty well for smaller sites and communities, where users can get to know one another, trolls haven't found the place yet, and new users don't fly in faster than they can learn the customs of the community. For a larger site where the commenters are unlikely to know one another, no-one has a reputation to be damaged by a bad comment. Trying to shun someone who never comes back is all but impossible, and with no active deletion, the poop-drifts can easily start to pile up.
In a just world, the man who invented yelling 'First!' would live at the bottom of this, but not for long, because he couldn't breathe.
This solution often requires commenters to login using their Facebook accounts, forcing them to post using their real name. These systems do produce less obvious trolling and hate speech than anonymous systems, but they also have less total comments. Obviously many of the comments not getting posted are of limited value, but it's not too hard to come up with interesting comments that people would justifiably want to post anonymously. A racy joke perhaps, or an insightful confession about a restraining order involving waterfowl. The end results are comment threads which are a bit tepid, as if everything was a response in a job interview.
Your resume looks very impressive, but I think what we really want to know is what is your opinion on fighting children?
Possibly the most effective solution allows still-anonymous comments that are moderated, deleted, or approved by actual human moderators. This allows for the unpredictable energy of anonymous comments, but limits the large-scale asshattery they often provoke. The biggest downside of course being cost. Community moderators could be used for free, but those only seem to show up when there's a community, e.g. on smaller single-issue sites or in forums. For a large website like a newspaper, or a site like Cracked with its audience of misanthropes and international super-criminals, the comments sections are too big and hectic to develop the needed sense of community or collective ownership.
This leaves paid, staffed moderator positions. Which certainly work, but you know that gesture you make where you rub your first two fingers together against your thumb? Or that one where you turn your pockets out and make a mopey face? Or that one you make with hands clasped, kneeling next to an angry pimp, while you sobbingly proclaim that you didn't know she was a prostitute?
"Get out of here you lousy Internet site, 'fore I break your legs!"
A lot of sites simply can't afford that. And should they? On an article which draws several hundred thousands of readers, we're likely to get a comments thread with a few hundred commenters. Notwithstanding the fact that we really love the little morons, how much should we spend to improve the experience for a few hundred people, when we could use the same resources to research pictures of men in terrifying cow costumes?
It cost us $2800 to find and publish this picture, but we'll make three times that when the dairy industry pays us to take it down.