Are comments dead, or have media outlets just given up on them?

October 5, 2015, 10:45 PM UTC
Photograph by Hachephotography/Getty Images/Flickr RF

Every few weeks, it seems, another media outlet kills off its reader comments, saying they are filled with trolls and spam and/or they are too much effort to maintain. This week it’s Vice’s tech site Motherboard, which claims that it has replaced comments with something better — namely, a selection of emailed letters to the editor, which editor-in-chief Derek Mead says will be published once a week “or thereabouts.”

Motherboard joins a growing group of sites that have shut down their reader comment sections over the past year or so, including The Verge, Re/code, Mic, The Week, USA Today and Popular Science just to name a few. But are media outlets being too hasty in giving up on this outlet for reader feedback? I think they are.

The note from Mead hits all the usual highlights about why comments are bad, and why sites like Motherboard have decided to get rid of them: 1) They are filled with “garbage” from trolls, and that in turn keeps others from commenting; 2) Moderation would take resources that could be better spent on “real” journalism; 3) Commenters are a small proportion of readers, and therefore not worth bothering with; 4) Social media like Twitter and Facebook exist, and therefore no one needs comments.

“When I started reading everything online, comments sections felt empowering: I could share anything I wanted, and know that it’d pop up next to the story for all eyes to see. Then somewhere along the way, inundated by throwaway jokes and flip, empty commentary, it all seemed pointless. What’s the point of writing out a detailed thought when it’s sandwiched by cursory garbage?”

All of the things Mead and others say about comments are true, to some extent. They are filled with trolls and spam and abusive behavior — and I’m well aware that as a white male heterosexual who usually writes about relatively boring and uncontroversial topics, I am spared the kind of abuse that women, transgender and non-white writers are routinely subjected to. But I still feel as though getting rid of comments entirely is a “throw the baby out with the bathwater” kind of response to the problem.

There’s no question that good comments take a lot of work, as veteran blogger Anil Dash pointed out in a perceptive essay some time ago. Working on elements of online community such as comment sections is a little like gardening, in the sense that it takes constant vigilance to keep weeds from choking the life out of everything. But if you care about your readers — beyond just seeing them as eyeballs who consume your content and hopefully click on your ads — isn’t it worth making that effort? Why force them to use some other site or network?

This is a solvable problem, as Jessamyn West pointed out in a recent Medium post. The Washington Post, the New York Times and several other outlets are working on a project called The Coral Project, which is trying to rethink not just comments but reader interaction of all kinds, and come up with tools that media outlets can use.

There are also a number of sites that are trying to fix reader comments without having to get rid of them altogether, and without having to return to the “letters to the editor” format so beloved by traditional print media. Quartz and Medium have both experimented with comments that are tied to specific points in an article — Medium calls them “notes,” and allows the writer to approve them before they appear, and Quartz calls them “annotations.” So far, they seem relatively free of spam and abuse.

De Correspondent, a crowdfunded news site based in The Netherlands, takes one of the most comprehensive approaches to comments I have ever seen: It considers its readers — who are paying members of the subscription site — to be partners in its news-gathering efforts. Writers seek out opinions from their readers, and hold regular live events in which readers can meet and talk about topics with those writers. “Reader experts” also write articles for De Correspondent on topics they know a lot about.

It’s interesting that sites like Motherboard and Re/code and others say they can’t afford to commit the resources required to maintain a comment section, and yet De Correspondent — which is only two years old, and smaller than any of the U.S. sites who have ditched comments — feels it is worth the investment, and is seeing a return as well, both in terms of traffic, loyalty and valuable content. Sites as disparate as Gawker and The Atlantic have even hired writers from their comment sections.

As for the usual response that reader comments aren’t necessary because people can always talk about a site’s content on Twitter and Facebook, this is perhaps the biggest risk of all in getting rid of a comment section or some other form of community: It effectively hands that relationship with readers — and all of the power that is wrapped up within it — over to proprietary platforms. In the end, they are the ones who will form a community around your content and get the benefit, not you.

In a recent presentation, New York Times community editor Bassey Etim said: “We have to treat comments as content. We can’t cede the social world to large companies.” News organizations, he said, need to make building community around news more of a priority. That might be easy for the NYT to say, since it has a dedicated team of moderators to handle comments. But isn’t that the kind of goal we should be striving for, rather than just delivering our readers to third-party platforms or ignoring them altogether?

You can follow Mathew Ingram on Twitter at @mathewi, and read all of his posts here or via his RSS feed. And please subscribe to Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the business of technology.

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