Earlier this week, Re/code's Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher announced that the site was doing away with comments--the idea being that social media is now so prevalent that those who wish to air their views can contact writers and editors via Twitter and Facebook.
I'm not entirely sold on their reasoning, as I would hardly welcome being splattered with reader comments in a Twitter stream that I largely use for my personal pleasure, nor do I believe that 140 characters is enough to express complex ideas. And while Facebook is an option, I believe there's some value in comments appended directly to the article they address rather than abstracted on a Facebook page that others may never read.
Perhaps the honest explanation--though difficult to phrase politely--is this: "We see increasing noise and less signal as time goes on, and in order to separate the two, someone is spending a lot of time weeding out the cruft. We'd rather devote our resources to something else."
Much as I've embraced the value of online communities in the past, it's a view I increasingly appreciate.
Back in the day
As part of my job over the past couple of decades, I've assumed moderation duties for Macworld's forums and, now, commenting system. I've done so because I was raised in a time when tech forums were one of the prime ways to acquire information and share it with other like-minded individuals. People were generally polite, almost always helpful, and intolerant of those who abused their patience.
At the risk of invoking the "good old days," things have changed significantly since then. The idea of person-to-person interaction is now almost quaint. While there remain strong communities of users, they're often not the primary source of information for most people. Rather, we turn to company sites and data repositories to learn what we need. As for social interaction, well, that's why they call it social networking. We increasingly use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other services to hang out with our virtual friends.
What we say today
And that leaves what? Again, there remain some thriving communities--particularly those devoted to narrow interests. But when you turn to popular, general interest sites, things can get ugly in a hurry. Spend some time browsing YouTube comments and you see perhaps the worst example--barely literate, often cruel bile is peppered throughout the comments. And why? Because someone dared to share something they care about with other people.
Retreat to more civilized lands and you still face issues. In a world where you're either for 'em or agin 'em, everything becomes a political battle, even on "respected" news sites.
And then there's the other stuff that has nothing to do with opinions. I spend a fair amount of my moderating time creating filters to auto-delete comment spam. Much as I enjoy jousting with the denizens of Pakistan over "work from home" scams, I have better ways to spend my time.
Likewise, I'm not entirely sure that our readers need to suffer through your IPHONE SUX ANDROID RULEZ screeds, "must be a slow news day..." slight, the paragraph after paragraph of you trying to earn some value from your high school debate trophy, or the contention that you--and only you--know exactly what Steve Jobs would do today were he to still walk the earth. Sure, it's an opinion, but is it one that adds anything to the conversation? Far too often, no.
Then why do it?
And yet I maintain that forums and comments offer value. And I do because I think conversations between creator and consumer are important. Yes, maintaining civilized comment threads requires more work than it once did, but put in that work and you can end up with something that may be twice as good as the original--where readers offer a fresh perspective, propose different solutions, or debunk an argument without branding its author a Nazi.