Can web publishers tame comments?

September 25, 2013, 5:57 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Ever since they began allowing readers to comment, websites have been wrestling with a major conundrum: Commenters are often terrible, but they also increase traffic — at least theoretically. And with ad revenues increasingly difficult to generate, anything that boosts traffic is hard to let go of. And so, the terribleness remains. Several sites, though, are taking different approaches to the problem, from eliminating comments altogether to actually elevating them to the level of professionally produced content.

The latter approach, by Gawker, doesn’t intuitively seem like a recipe for success if the idea is to make websites less depressing places to visit, but it might actually work. Sadly for those of us who, in the early days of the popular Internet, believed that we were on the threshold of a new era of high-minded dialectical conversation, many comments sections — particularly on well-trafficked sites — are sewers. On those sites — which include YouTube (GOOG) and some of the country’s biggest news organizations — when comments aren’t hateful, they’re disruptive. When they’re not disruptive, they’re boring, pointless, or off-topic. Every so often a commenter will have something useful to say, but on too many sites, a worthy comment is so rare as to be de facto nonexistent, lost in an ocean of bile and bad grammar.

There are sites where the comments aren’t so bad, and indeed are often as worthy as the content itself. Usually, those are smaller sites that have a narrow focus, like, just for one example, the tech-news site Ars Technica. As always, bad comments appear there, but they’re in the minority, and most users at least stay on topic and often add to discussions started by the site’s articles. But for most sites with large readerships, drawing people in from all over the place — including what we might call “drive-by trolls” — comments are worse than useless.

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Gawker’s approach, a project called Kinja, is designed to keep the better commenters on the site rather than taking discussion of Gawker’s articles to more controlled environments like Facebook (FB) and Twitter, as has been increasingly happening as people flee the open Internet, where the worst actors too often set the pace. Under the scheme, which Gawker founder Nick Denton has been working on for about a year, readers vote on the comments, and the most popular rise to the top and are featured on Gawker’s various homepages, alongside staff-written articles. That might seem dangerously close to essentially exploiting free labor — sites from the Huffington Post to Bleacher Report have been lambasted for doing so — but the idea is to separate out the best from the worst, pushing the worst down by raising up the best. Users get their own homepages, over which they are in charge — even having the ability to write their own headlines on Gawker posts. It helps that, comparatively speaking, Gawker’s comments are generally (and perhaps surprisingly) not all that bad in the first place.

Meanwhile, YouTube — the poster site of horrifying Internet comments — is addressing the problem by tying user accounts to their Google+ profiles and changing the way comments are displayed. Currently, comments appear in reverse chronological order, which means the chances are good that the first comment you see under a given video will be horrifying or idiotic. According to the YouTube blog post introducing the changes, “recent does not necessarily mean relevant.” The example given is if Justin Timberlake were to comment under a video of his (unlikely as that might be), it would be buried over time. No longer. The new system will highlight “conversations that matter to you.”

Maybe, though tying comments to Google+ profiles won’t necessarily help much. Google+ profiles can still be anonymous, and in any case, the lack of anonymity doesn’t necessarily improve comments much: As sites that have required people to comment using their Facebook profiles have learned, lots of people are glad to be mean or disruptive under their real names. The changes, according to YouTube, will also include pushing up comments that more people will care to read. As it rolls out over the next few months, the system will emphasize “posts at the top of the list from the video’s creator, popular personalities, engaged discussions about the video, and people in your Google+ Circles.” People who manage video channels (some of whom have loudly complained about the problem) will get more tools for moderating comments. That will no doubt help at least a little.

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The question for many sites might come down to: What is the utility of comments? Usually, that utility is marginal at best.

That’s the conclusion Popular Science came to this week, when it decided to do away with comments altogether. Over the protestations of people who — despite all evidence to the contrary — still believe that giving everyone with an Internet account “a voice” is somehow an unalloyed good, the magazine declared that, even though the site attracts a good number of thoughtful comments, those are overwhelmed by the trolls. Suzanne LaBarre, the online content director of, cited research (of course!) finding that Internet comments tend to skew the perceptions of readers, often leading them to conclusions that are precisely the opposite of what an article author has argued based on research and reportage. Science-oriented sites seem to be particularly popular targets for anti-intellectual types, such as climate-change deniers, who often don’t have anything to back up their declarations, or who cite faulty or cherry-picked research. In cases like that, some readers come away believing that the comments are just as valid as the article under which they were posted (or even more so if they were inclined in that direction to begin with.)

LaBarre confronted this problem with refreshing directness: The “politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics,” she wrote. “Comments can be bad for science,” was her conclusion. Indeed, the random utterances of random people are pretty much the antithesis of the scientific (and the journalistic) enterprise.

For all the strained efforts to make comments work online, the onus might ultimately be on the rest of us. Getting everybody on board might seem like a gargantuan task, but the more people who decide to just say no to comments, the less valuable they’ll be to web publishers. Maybe we should all take the advice of the Don’t Read Comments Twitter feed: “Don’t do it! Don’t give in. There are people who love you. Don’t throw your life away by reading internet comments.”