↬ Online comments “predictable and repetitive”

The Toronto Star, now known worldwide for its front page claiming that Toronto’s mayor Rob Ford was filmed while smoking crack, has closed comments on articles linked to this story. The paper’s public editor explains the move :

The past practice has been a source of ongoing complaint by many who’ve been telling me they want more opportunity to comment on all the news and information published on thestar.com.

At the same time, other longtime Star readers have been distressed about what they regard as offensive reader comments being published, even with a system of pre-publication comment moderation.


“It’s hard to have a reasonable conversation when people are yelling at each other.”

Successful, mostly personal tech blogs have gone through the debate about online comments mainly concerned about control of the content of a website. This is a sensible point of view that I share.

However, it’s easy to lose sight of another argument : newspapers’ websites comments sections are often not that interesting. This is the crux of The Star’s argument : the cost of hosting and policing the comments about the Ford story (especially around legal issues) is not worth the benefit of the public conversation (and the ad revenue, apparently).

(Sidenote : In no way am I saying that all websites have similarly poor comments. There are some truly great communities out there, even on newspapers websites, where the posts may look incomplete if taken in isolation. However, I feel that the pertinence of comments is sometimes inversely correlated with the size of the audience.)

The same calculation applies to the reader. It may sound condescending, but one might close a similar letter a little more bluntly: “Perhaps your time will be put to better use if you either take an hour writing a proper response (either emailed or self-published) to this story or read more of these article we proudly publish”.

(Actually, this might be a good thing to put in place of the comment box in one’s blog engine. I’ll think about this.)

Scratch that; it’s not condescending. It’s merely applying a little more forcefully one conception of what Mr. Mann’s Time and Attention talk was about. In a way, truly caring about media, readers and stories sometimes means making this kind of call.