Web Site Comments – Useful or Just for Trolls?

There has been some controversy lately over comments on web sites. Far too often comments are toxic, bitter, uninformed, and irrelevant. Some popular bloggers such as Seth Godin simply turn the comment function off. Popular Science has just announced they are shutting off comments because they felt that “trolls and spambots” in their comments have overwhelmed intellectual debate. Some people have been critical of Popular Science’s decision.

At the same time, YouTube is about to make some changes to try to float the most relevant comments to the top, and push the nasty stuff to the bottom. This Washington Post article discusses both the YouTube and Popular Science developments.

Slaw seems to attract high quality comments. Simon tells me he simply trashes the very few toxic comments that Slaw receives.

What do readers think? It is easy for sites that don’t get large numbers of comments to moderate and simply trash the nasty stuff. For sites that by their nature attract large amounts of comments, do those comments add anything? Are comments something worth keeping and trying to manage, or is it better just to not bother and shut the feature off?



  1. Some method of rating the comments is definitely helpful, but I don’t know how hard it is to set up such a system. Certainly I use the rating system for the New York Times or the Atlantic, and slash/dot has its own system – but it can bury relevant comments too, and the threading is hard to follow for those not familiar with it. For blogs with serious content, the good comments can often shed more light on the topic, so it would be a shame not to have them. For sites that get thousands of comments rather than hundreds (or dozens, or handfuls), it may be more effort than it is worth to figure out a way to filter them.

  2. First, from the perspective of a user, I value the comments on niche sites (like Slaw) which don’t in general attract trolls. I simply don’t have the time or inclination to trawl through comment sections on popular sites which are filled with attention seekers. I don’t find any comment ranking method I’ve come across very useful (the reverse in fact as my expectation is to read in date order). Google can do what it likes on YouTube, I’m not fussed: have you ever read a YouTube comment that adds anything? And, sad to say, I don’t anymore trust Goog not to do evil.

    As the admin of a few niche WordPress legal websites I find Akismet deals with most blatant spam effectively, and trolls are not an issue. What I’m left to deal with are firstly commenters who will jump through the hoops and leave a comment because they are being paid 2 cents to link to sites selling designer handbags/viagra/some Chinese stuff I can’t read/you name it. It only takes a sec to place them in the spam folder. Second, but most troubling for me, are the marketers who place seemingly relevant comments but are primarily just doing it to promote their products/services. Sorry, but they go in the spam folder too.

  3. Like Nick, I value comments on specialized sites like SLAW. I have found Disqus to be an excellent comment moderation too, with low overhead and high return.

  4. David Collier-Brown

    Some sites with cohesive communities have little trouble with trolls, as they can’t easily “get traction” and start flamefests. Slaw and the (late, lamented) Groklaw fit that model.

    Others have disparate communities, and have used self-moderation and meta-moderation of the moderators to mitigate the problem of trolling and general bad behaviour. Slashdot is a fairly successful example, but still needs some work.


  5. I’ve always thought of comments, especially on news sites, as just a way to attract readers, and thus clicks, and thus ad money. A reader comments on an article, another commenter disagrees, so the first reader goes back, and it becomes a dialogue of sorts that, inevitably, will quickly degenerate into the nastiness and irrelevancies that Popular Science is concerned about. But I have impression it’s the multiple visits that count for the site, not the opportunity for readers to share their opinions.

    The Buffalo News experimented with not allowing anonymous comments, requiring a reader’s name and hometown similar to letters-to-the-editor, but it looks like that’s been abandoned as they now use Disqus to manage comments. And the Buffalo News attracts enough nastiness to have its own Tumblr page.

  6. Susan Anderson Behn

    For a site like SLAW, comments are an interesting and vital part of the dialogue created.
    The dialogue around the articles, columns and short notes, and the editorial hand that rarely shows, give SLAW its character…. I rarely follow the comments in less specialized zines, but do read this one virtually every day, and contribute every once in awhile.

  7. Here is an interesting note about calming people’s responses on a blog: a ‘Respect’ button, instead of just ‘Like’…

    Use a “Respect” Button in Comment Sections. “Like” is a common button on news websites. You can “like” news organizations, articles, and others’ thoughts in comment sections. The use of the word “like,” however, may exacerbate partisan reactions to news and comments. The word asks people to think in terms of agreeing or disagreeing, approving or disapproving.

    But not all words inspire the same reaction. Indeed, several organizations have incorporated other buttons onto their sites. The Tampa Bay Times has “Important,” Civic Commons “Informative,” and Huffington Post “Bored,” to name but a few.

    We tested a new word: “Respect.” Perhaps asking people to “Respect” others’ comments will lead to different behaviors in a comment section compared to “Like,” or another frequently used word, “Recommend.”

    The results were encouraging. From a democratic angle, “Respect” led people to click on more comments expressing different political viewpoints. From a business angle, “Respect” resulted in more clicks overall, particularly for some topics. We encourage news organizations to consider using this new button.

    The article makes other suggestions to the same end.

  8. I recently completed a thesis on the British experience with law firm library outsourcing. This is a recent development about which very little was known. I found the comments on law librarian blogs such as SLAW very useful in gauging law librarian interest in this topic and also the level of knowledge about it within the profession. These comments from around the common law world persuaded me that my research would be worthwhile. I still follow this topic closely and always find the comments as interesting as the post.