August 10, 2020

Against Comments

Comment sections are ubiquitous. They’re attached to many news sites and blogs and are provided as a “must have” feature by publishing platforms. I’d like to consider the impact of that default decision.

Speed at which you must reply

Comment sections on articles are time-sensitive. If the comments are ordered by date they’re nearly always ordered with the oldest first. Other sites allow comment voting, but the effect of that will be overwhelmed by the first-mover effect (older comments will have more votes by virtue of having had more time to receive votes). Combined with the fact that most readers will never reach the bottom of any sufficiently long comment thread you find yourself in a position where, if you want your comment to be read, you have little time to deliberate. Speed also trumps deliberateness for replies to top-level comments.

The majority of comments are data but not information

If we define information as data that is surprising, then comment sections hold little information. In part because comments are time sensitive they trend toward banal. They’ll be filled with the same aphorisms, hot-takes, and memes as every other comment section. This makes them a quasi-Skinner box where you are left digging through mediocrity (or worse) for the occasional bright spot.

We add comments because it’s habit

Not all things that bring some value are worth having. We tend to accept that any technology that brings any value is a net positive without doing a cost-benefit analysis. I think the following quote sums it up quite nicely:

If I was painting a picture of a site we were gonna have, and then at the end I said, ‘Oh, by the way, at the bottom of all our articles we’re going to prominently let any pseudonymous avatar do and say whatever they want with no moderation’ — if there was no convention of Internet commenting, if it wasn’t this thing that was accepted, you would think that was a crazy idea,

-Ben Frumin

© Eric Biven 2020