A Simple Suggestion for the Comments Section
The comments section has fundamentally changed the nature of writing and reading. In the past, a writer spent days, weeks, or even months researching, creating, and revising an article for print. If a reader felt compelled to respond, they could write a letter to the editor of the publication. This would mean sitting down, writing a letter, addressing the envelope, and dropping it in the mailbox. Then, the letters would be reviewed for merit (and coherence) and some would be selected for publication. By today’s standards, it was a long process. It required real investment from a reader and it definitely created barriers for people with less time, money, and access. And I’ve no doubt that editors favored some responses over others.
Today, writers still routinely spend weeks or months working on a piece. The big difference is that readers can now participate in the online comments section. This means anyone with internet access can immediately post their opinion or critique. And since the comments section doesn’t have the space limitations of a print newspaper or magazine, more people can contribute.
But this ease of access comes at a price. The moment a readers arrives at the online article, they can scroll to the bottom and write back — without ever reading the piece. See a headline you don’t like? In seconds, you can start typing a diatribe about all the writer’s failings as a journalist, professional, and human being. Any modern day writer has heard the phrase “don’t read the comments” or “don’t feed the trolls.” Abuse from strangers has become an expected part of the job.
Why Do We Bother?
Current technology makes communication much faster and simpler, but when it comes to complicated topics (or just basic human decency) faster and simpler is not always better.
So why do publications keep hosting comments sections?
Because comments are engagement, and engagement is the lifeblood of digital content. A comment (usually) shows investment. If someone decided to comment, they may share the piece with others, if only to publicize their own opinions. What’s more, if the commenter gets a reply from anyone, they will probably return to the page. More pageviews = more ad revenue. Publications are financially incentivized to keep the comments rolling.
Along with the publications’ thirst for engagement, readers feel entitled to say whatever they want. No longer is a piece of writing considered a finished object to be simply read and thought about. We’ve turned publishing into a conversation. But online, it’s impossible to know the intent of a commenter, much less weed out those with malicious intent.
Even if the writer doesn’t engage with a belligerent commenter, other readers often reply, leading to the kind of exchange that makes you wish an asteroid would come kill us all off like the dinosaurs.
So publications want engagement, readers want to say whatever they think, and us writers? We just want you to read the damn article. And if you must comment to tell us how wrong we are, make it a reasoned response that doesn’t involve death threats.
These days, all online publications have to reckon with the responsibilities and consequences of comments. Some sites have human moderators review the comments. Platforms are developing AI to identify abusive comments. Still others, like NPR and VICE have shut down comments entirely. Each publication’s readership is different, so the level of discourse in the comments can vary widely.
But among all the different approaches to the comments section, there is one simple tool that seems underutilized. And it could slow down the stream of uninformed, angry, and nonsensical comments. If a publication wants a more informed, reasoned, and civil discourse in their comments, a time minimum might do the trick.
Slow Your Roll
Online publications already know how long you spend on a page. This is one of the key metrics they track to determine page performance. A time minimum for comments would simply require the user to stay on the page for a designated period of time before they get the ability to respond.
The average adult reads at a rate of about 250 words per minute. That means four minutes for a 1,000 word article, but publications could finesse this number however they like. My instinct would be to base the time minimum on an above average but still reasonable rate — perhaps 350 or 400 words per minute. That means that someone who clicks on a 1,000 word article would have to be on the page for 2.5–3 minutes before they could comment.
The most obvious way a comment timer would help keep comments more civil is that it places a barrier before people who simply want to scream uninformed vitriol. Many people read a headline and decide what they think before the page can even load. Someone who hate-clicks on a headline might scroll directly to the bottom of the page to comment their fury. With a time minimum, they wouldn’t be able to do so.
The tool will be more effective if the user cannot begin typing until they have reached the time threshold. For instance, if an article has a 4 minute time minimum, someone could read the headline, scroll to the bottom, and spend that time typing their response, rather than reading the piece. Better yet, sites could simply make the comments section or plugin not appear until the threshold is reached.
There will inevitably be people who complain that they can read the article faster than the time minimum and claim this measure is unfair to them. Let’s say an actual speed reader, who can skim the article (with varying levels of comprehension) at 1,000 words per minute, comes across a 1,000 word article has a 3 minute minimum . The burden you have bestowed on them is to wait 2 minutes. That’s the big inconvenience. They will live.
Or they’ll leave.
But isn’t losing out on one or two impatient commenters worth preventing dozens of uninformed or needlessly hostile aggressors?
Quality Over Quantity
A comment time minimum would change the way people engage with online publications. There will almost certainly be fewer comments. But the ones that are weeded out weren’t contributing to the conversation in the first place.
There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way readers interact with writers. Gut opinions are not equal to hours of research. All-caps insults do not deserve the writer’s (or anyone’s) attention. And if you’re not going to read what I have written, I do not care what you have to say about my work.
And yes, I am well aware that any second now someone in the comments will tell me how wrong I am.