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A Welcome Shift in Reader Comment Strategy

Opening up articles on news websites to comments from readers has always been a double-edged sword. Yes, it promotes engagement and helps editors identify what kinds of stories their audiences (and therefore their advertisers) are most interested in reading. But it can also open up a weird underworld of nasty, anonymous, and unhelpful conversation that has, over time, made some people avoid participating altogether. For these reasons and others, some news organizations are doing away with online comments, as detailed in this article by Nieman Lab.
Commenting on news sites made much more sense before social media came onto the scene and quickly grew in popularity, and its benefits with regard to sharing news are untouchable. (Can’t say the same about online comments.)
The reality is that I have never posted a comment on a news outlet’s website, and can’t foresee an instance where I would. I do read comments—solely for the entertainment value, though I realize that’s not at all what they’re intended for. Instead, I share stories and my own thoughts about news stories via social media. While it’s never been a conscious decision on my part, reflecting on it now, I think I have chosen to engage in this way because it feels safer—and is often friendlier. Online comment sections are like the Wild West. Discussions can tend to be more mean-spirited than useful. I want to have conversations within known social and professional circles. I value the opinions of the people I follow on Twitter (even when they differ from my own) and I know where to find them.
Commenting directly on a news outlet site is a little like commenting into a black hole. I have no idea at all who’s hearing me—and because it’s often anonymous, I have no context for people’s opinions. Sure, there are benefits to engaging with new people and expanding our horizons, but social media does that organically, with the added benefit of a least some level of comfort within our set and friends and followers.
It’s worth reading the Nieman Lab article and hearing directly from editors about how shutting off (or reducing) online comments has impacted their operations. In the meantime, here’s what I like best about this shift in reader comment strategy:
1) It removes anonymity to a large extent. If you have a great, positive contribution to make on a topic, I want to know who you are. And if you don’t, I don’t want you to be able to hide behind a screen name. Trolls are far less troublesome on social media because it’s harder to remain anonymous and get away with it. And let’s face it, it takes a lot less effort to post a comment online anonymously than to create fake social media accounts in order to remain unknown.
2) It allows the media to get back to their real jobs—reporting the news! Not moderating comments. In time where resources are scarce and news moves more quickly than ever before, this is critical.
3) It broadens the audience generally and opens the discussion to a wider circle of influencers. Rather than being limited to just regular readers of a certain news outlet, sharing articles and comments on social media exponentially increases exposure for your opinions and ideas, and invites a much larger cross-section of people into the conversation instantly.
4) It has the potential to attract more high-profile participants. Take the Melinda Gates example from the Nieman article, or think about Barack Obama’s use of social media generally. Highly influential people are much more likely to use social media to comment on news events, than to log on to the comment section of a newspaper article. Tweets and Facebook posts themselves are also more likely to make news than a comment posted directly to a news site.
The bottom line is that social media is not only current, it’s the future too. And while I may come to miss the online commenter banter that seems to play out at it’s most outrageous when tagged to the end of a news article, the more valuable discussions are already happening elsewhere.