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Discussion over - lets destroy the comments thread to save the right to reply



When was the last time you had a really good discussion in the comments section of a website? A properly engaged debate or a frank exchange of views that properly bounced an idea around like the talking stick at a management training retreat?

Commenting is broken. What was intended as a home for free expression and debate has been squatted by belligerent contrarians and trolls. But can it be saved? Is the principle of a right to reply important enough to keep and is there a better way?

points of view

The idea of offering a forum for readers to comment on an article or a blog post seems to flow naturally from the newspaper letters page and the notion at the heart of the early web - that there should be no barrier to anyone who wants to publish their thoughts.

This is, on the face of it, an excellent principle. One that acknowledges the power that a public platform can have for a writer, and one which allows readers the chance to show support or offer opposing views. Peer review, of a sort.

Sadly, actually reading the average comments page drains this idealism like a bullet through a tin of soup. The writer Sophie Heawood coined the phrase "The bottom-half of the Internet." in a piece about the sleepy-eyed, "Say It's Over" hitmaker, Dappy from N-Dubz. It was, she said, "That place where all the angry comments go."

Newspaper or news blog comments could be a chance for readers to engage with the news or, at least, a publication's take on that news. Instead, commenters seem to occupy four broad groups - those who agree with what is being said and just popped on to say so, those who strongly disagree and want the world to know, those who have thought of a seriously very funny joke and those who cannot believe that a newspaper of record would think they needed to know about Justin Bieber.

Anger abounds, but irrelevancy and offensiveness are not far behind. From The Telegraph's leader column to YouTube clips of cats trying to negotiate polished floor tiles, the odd insightful comment struggles to be seen among layers of sedimentary stupidity, bile and willful misunderstanding.

CommentsOne side effect of this is that fewer and fewer writers bother to engage with their commenters. The bad vibes radiating from the bottom half of the 'net mean that many columnists, bloggers and reviewers take a fire-and-forget approach to their writing. Hardly surprising when you read through the comments on pieces by prominent writers and have to wade through threats, name-calling and just seething anger to find an actual discussion worth having but no less discouraging for all that. If you know the one person guaranteed not to be reading your response is the person you are responding to, it barely seems worth the bother.

Sometimes comments sections turn into forums for bullying behaviour, racist spurtings or just an endless churn of negative opinion from people you suspect don't really care about the issue at hand or have even bothered to read the article they are commenting on but rather just enjoy the sound of their own voice. Several sites are beginning to realise this and disable commenting altogether. This doesn't mean that they aren't willing to engage - just that they refuse to provide an arena for bloody fights that they are then required to mop clean. Readers are still free to respond, but they can do it by mail, via Twitter or even better by publishing a blog of their own.

There is still discussion to be had, if you know where to look. Many writers and bloggers are perfectly happy to chat on Twitter, Google or Facebook, or even email. The right to reply is important and one of the great things about the open web is that it can give a voice to those who don't happen to be employed by a national newspaper or run a successful blog but who nevertheless have something important to contribute. As long as we keep the current model of internet comments these voices are going to be drowned out. Unless we fix commenting, a vital part of the web is going to wither and die and while it may seem good to see the back of the trolls, in the end we will be the poorer for it.

How then can we save commenting? One option would be to just pass the buck - and maybe give Twitter a new business model in the process. To save the global village, it has become necessary to destroy it.

Take down the comments sections. Close the millions of semi-anonymous accounts that make comment threads into little walled gardens where people can troll or spout unseen. Make people interact out in the open and turn commenting into the kind of public discussion that could make a difference.

right to reply

Rather than keep comments as an internal thing, tied directly to posts, the real discussion could take place out in the real(ish) world of Twitter. Sites like Storify have shown how tweets can be grouped together to form a saved conversation so it should be possible to group conversation threads together at the foot of an Op Ed too. Twitter could make an API to facilitate comment threads and perhaps charge a small fee for use on a commercial site. If Twitter doesn't want to know, another social network will do. Maybe we could finally put those Google accounts to good use?

It would still be possible to make anonymous or temporary logins, but the slightly more difficult and time consuming process ought to discourage the more casual trolls. Tying comments to an online identity - even a pretend one - may help to introduce an element of reputation management but will also make it possible to see the various subjects and sites that a commenter chooses to engage with. Commenters will have known histories and you could tell if the seemingly reasonable person you are engaging with on the subject of UK politics has form for going ape crazy at the first mention of the Euro.

Comment threads would become outward-facing, inviting contribution from the net at large and helping to break down the cliques and infighting that can make site comments such a chore. Now that page hits are king, what editor would turn down the chance to bring more potential eyeballs into a discussion?

Yes, there would be trolls. Twitter has more than its share of idiots, pranksters and the clinically insensible but those people can be blocked or muted and the discussion can continue. Comments may be worth saving, but only if we make them so.

Stuart HoughtonStuart Houghton is a former UK Associate Editor of Kotaku.com and has been writing about technology, games and geeks for over a decade and using technology, playing games and being a geek for much longer. He is also part of the IT team for a major UK charity.

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Go to comments


September 30, 2012, 11:47 pm

Is this justification for your own comments engine being so unforgiveably and comprehensively broken, especially for a tech focused site, and for the apparent lack of any progress in fixing it?


October 1, 2012, 12:54 am

I wondered the same thing. This site used to have plety of high-quality comments; now there are very very few.

Why? Well it's hard to have any kind of discussion when it takes up to 12 hours for your comment to appear. Given the posts I've made in the past why haven't I been auto-approved? Or have all posts auto-approved and add a 'report abuse' facility.

Also for some reason Firefox doesn't remember the password to login; I can't think of another site that has that issue. Why not cookie the login anyway?

The comments seem to be handled by a slow and unreliable plugin; I'd say it's worth finding a better way. You've already lost most of the vibrant community that was here, and in losing that you've lost one of the things that made this site so valuable. I want to see questions and comments from various people, including existing owners of what's being reviewd. I don't want to rely solely on the reviewer; that's not how the net works anymore. Without the community this site will fade away.

I think there've been several comment-bait articles on here lately, perhaps trying to revive the community. You need to fix the comment system first.

Matt GB

October 1, 2012, 1:19 am

I suppose a lot of us are a bit lazy we read your articles and reviews and then it's on to the next one.

Only If we have a strong reaction to something we read do we normally comment.

Martin Daler

October 1, 2012, 1:47 am

"When was the last time you had a really good discussion in the comments section of a website?"

Maybe I have rose-tinted memories, but I'm sure that prior to the site redesign there used to be decent, focussed discussions right here at TR. Often product features/benefits were clarified between posters, and generally there were a healthy number/quality of posts.

Nowadays it is such a painful process to actually make a comment, and you don't get the feeling anybody much cares since there is seldom a reply, doubtless for the same cause.


October 1, 2012, 5:33 am

Chrome also seems to forget the logins too in my experience. I also don't see why there can't be an integrated login box rather then the complicated spinning wheel and then popup window approach?

Back before the redesign the moderation of comments didn't seem to prevent discussion, and there was a lot of decent debate (which Martin has pointed out below) which sadly seems to have been lost with the redesigned system.

adam taylor

October 1, 2012, 10:45 am

I agree with Martin I used to find the discussion section just as informative as the article itself.


October 1, 2012, 12:42 pm

Amazingly, it appears that for once my login has persisted between sessions. But I don't see a "reply" button on others' comments. Maybe some changes are being implemented...? Oh no, scratch that, just got an error "We are unable to add your comment. Are you logged in?"

Anyway, @Matt GB - I agree that laziness is an issue, particularly when it is such a rigmarole to log in and comments take so long to be approved, which has a chilling effect on debate. If the login persisted and it was just a case of dashing out a few lines and hitting submit, I'd engage with a lot more articles, and I'm sure I'm not alone.

I'm strongly in favour of auto-approval for established posters, with advance moderation only for new posters. Admins could always revoke approval after the fact.


October 1, 2012, 1:46 pm

Sorry guys, thought I'd already responded (irony not lost here). We're actively looking to replace the comments system but it will probably be another month or so before it's rolled out.


October 1, 2012, 7:31 pm

Can't we just roll it back and 'relaunch' the old site and we'll all promise not to say any more about how badly this site has degenerated in terms of quality & ease of use since being 'improved'. Or is that comment just 'trolling'?

Ironically, from behind my nom-de-plume, I think that anonymity is the enemy of a decent debate. People need to be more open in taking ownership of their own comments.


October 2, 2012, 2:26 pm

Its good to hear that the comments are getting updated, I have to admit, I have never made many comments on this site, I prefer the photographyblog way of doing it.

Also I don't know why people are so negative about the new site, yes I also preferred the old one, but it's not that bad, I still think its presented better than a lot of the other technology sites.


October 2, 2012, 2:32 pm

Apologies for being contrarian but the problem isn't that commenting is "broken" at all. It's that the media stick up comments sections and then fail to police them.

Once people realise that trollish or aggressive comments will be deleted they go elsewhere. The Guardian is a good example of how it can be done.


October 2, 2012, 3:21 pm

I couldn't agree more! I couldn't help but smile at the irony while reading the article. Please expedite the improvements to the TR comments section (hell, why not have a proper Forum section?)!

While you're at it (I know this is a bit OT, but without a Forum, where else can I post general comments?), please try & speed up the whole website in general! I've gotten into the habit of clicking on a link, opening another website in another tab, & then going back to TR in a few minutes once the page I want has loaded! It does bring back a bit of nostalgia for the days of 14.4k dialup modems (CompuServe, anyone?), but it's not very 21st century!


October 2, 2012, 4:15 pm

Could not agree more. Bugblatter sums it up perfectly:

"You've already lost most of the vibrant community that was here, and in losing that you've lost one of the things that made this site so valuable."

Before the redesign I half used to come here for the articles and half for the comments. The entire TR community, in my opinion, has been destroyed and the utter inability to fix your massively broken comments section has only compounded the issue.

Before the redesign I would say that the community on here was the complete opposite to what this feature is setting out: with informed and respectful debates occurring on a large majority of the articles or reviews.


October 2, 2012, 4:17 pm

I've only commented on a couple of articles (with a previous username linked to an old email account I no longer use) and most were removed because they did not agree with the TR view. If you have a comments section then do not just remove any and all comments that do not agree with your own ideas or there is no point even having a comments section at all.

Hans Gruber

October 3, 2012, 4:10 am

Tried to post a comment last night but it failed to upload - just hung on the loading message. That's happened before actually. Kind of puts you off posting.

Anyone nostalgic for the old site can always visit the way back machine: http://web.archive.org/web/201...

Ah, glory days! :D


October 3, 2012, 5:13 am

I used to have accounts with my real name. It just doesn't make sense: in real life, a discussion stays between the people present, and time tends to help the discourse fade into oblivion.

Not so with the internet, where everyone with a grudge can dig up anything you ever said, in any sort of context, on any website. To have all of that following you around forever "black on white", even as a reasonable intelligent and thoughtful person, just isn't fair.

And that's not counting privacy issues such as freaks (especially if you'd be famous one way or another), employers or automated bots building profiles based on your real name.

Anonymity is a right. We should just learn to (and build systems that) attach less importance to anonymous comments rather than tamper with that right. You will never be able to stop abuse of that right, as most actions on the internet – up to a certain point, and for better or for worse – are without consequence.


October 3, 2012, 1:51 pm

Very clever, Stuart. I see what you've done. You agree that the TR redesign and comments section is broken, and you feel bad for your readers. You also feel bad that the promised fixes are taking so long. So you have penned a piece purely intended to provoke the readership into bleating about the issue. If pressure from within does nothing, maybe pressure from without will?

I doff my hat to you. I truly do!


October 3, 2012, 1:52 pm

Whilst we're on that subject, did you know that TR is the only website which I feel I have to use AdBlocker on. That's ironic too!


October 3, 2012, 1:54 pm

I recently wanted to comment on an article on Techcrunch, and realised I could only do so by logging in using Facebook. I think there's a kind of solution there, because you can only post using your real Facebook name. There is no anonymity, no screen-name, unless you can be bothered to create a fake FB identity, and who can be bothered with that?

Having said that, the lack of anonymity ultimately discouraged me from commenting at all. I don't want to put my real identity out there on the web for everyone to search, abuse and troll!

Hamish Campbell

October 4, 2012, 1:23 pm

I'm sorry, but I simply do not believe that your posts have been deleted due to the fact you held a different view than TR staff.

I have seen countless posts here which are in disagreemnt, or openly and agressively attacking TR opinions/quality/web site design/proof reading.

Tony Walker

October 5, 2012, 10:05 am

Firstly, Firefox usage of the comments section seems to be borked. I'm on 15.0.1 and three seperate installations across 2 PCs don't present the "sign in" bit of the page, either under the article or on the separate "read all comments" page. I'm posting this with Chrome.

Secondly. Oh the irony! TR has repeatedly stuffed the user experience of the site and has ignored those of us posting in these very comments. Look back at my postings.

The actual usability of the site is in tatters. Using IE6 at work (enforced) the amount of flash/JS ads slows the PC to a crawl. Similarly, I tried earlier today to read the site on my iPad over Wi-Fi and something was refreshing the page every 10-15 seconds. I only continue to read the site as I read the site primarily on my main PC running Adblock - if the ads were static I wouldn't've blocked them!

TR. Try and retain what remains of your following by actually listening to them. As it stands, if an equivalent and more user-friendly site was started, I would be off like a shot

Arctic Fox

October 6, 2012, 11:41 am

I think that it is rather ironic that a site that uses pre-modding should publish an article like this. The fact of the matter is that a large number of sites use "response to complaint"/"something Mod spots" modding on cost-saving grounds. They want the ad-revenue that a comments section (hopefully) generates but they don't want the "posting-lag" and/or the costs that flow from pre-modding. It is entirely up to the sites themselves, if they mod posts before publishing them they can restrict very considerably what the trolls and various other nasty saddos succeed in uploading. I also see no reason that I should be forced to use FarceBook in order to be able to take part in a debate. I have no problem whatsoever with my posts being pre-modded - it is after all the publisher's site not mine and I do not consider it a violation of some constitutional right of mine if, for example, TR do not wish to publish something I have written.

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