Does comment quality indicate content quality?

Posted on 2011-07-10 08:30

If the quality of the conversation that takes place in the comments to stories you find on the web are any measure of the quality of the content to which they are attached, I would advise you not to read stories posted on CNN or FOX News. Both of these sites serve as outlets for the most sensational and controversial topics of the day and both provide a forum for their readers to provide feedback on the content. CNN's SoundOFF section allows for the reporting of abusive comments, but thats about it. FOXNews uses Disqus, a much more robust solution, while an outsourced one, and set up so that the comments are not as obviously attached to the story (you have to click "comments" at the bottom of the story). I'm not sure if either of them understand how negatively poor comment quality reflects on the content itself and tarnishes the image of the content provider. In fact, I'm not so sure they know anything more about it than some idiot marketing guy saying "hey, other sites provide a comment feature we have to do it also".

Every time I read a story on one of these sites I eventually make it down to the comment section (right below some strategically placed ADs) and inevitably run into racist, bigoted, ignorant, or off topic comments made by folks who seem to have nothing better to do all day than to continually troll (post nasty and rude comments to get a reaction) so the most recent comments are always the worst ones. Trolling isn't anything new on the internet, but to have it happen on a news site suggests that these organizations may give as little thought about their content as they do about the comment feed. Hapless Joe Q Public stumbling upon these threads are shocked "How could anyone say that!?" and find themselves compelled to respond, with the result that the comment feed quickly becomes a morass of quibbling. I've touched on my problems with commenting in the past, but the news site commenting problem stems from the anonymity (which many posters "so richly deserve") with which users can post comments, and the lack of official or even community moderation of comments. There are many ways this problem could be solved while still providing an open forum, but it seems that neither CNN nor FOX are very interested in doing anything serious about it, though to be fair FOX's use of Disqus is a step in the right direction.

They might take a clue from Slashdot which for years has had a nice commenting system where users build up a "karma" (a reputation) and are provided with "moderation points" to use to promote or punish comments, and includes a "friend, fan, or foe" system so that folks whose comments you usually like get "modded up" automatically. The recent addition there of a comment filter slider is brilliant. Your personal preferences for comments can modify a comment rating as well. If you like certain things (interesting or funny comments, for example) you can set a preference for those and comments rated (by the community) as having that characteristic get a higher rating. The comments shown on slashdot then are the result of an algorithm which you define taking into consideration your personal preferences, your friends and enemies, and a system of comment moderation which presents comments to reviewers randomly (and disallows moderation on comments if you have commented on that particular story).

I understand that news organizations want eyeballs on their site and so want the social commenting to be happening on their own site (and not on Facebook). They don't want to be legally responsible for the comments of some racist idiot and they don't want to spend any time editing them either but when the comments section reads like it belongs on Myspace, it makes readers wonder who the target audience of the content may be. Those of us who would rather have a more considered conversation, or at least remain on topic will go elsewhere.