Blogs & Comment

Should online reader comments be banned? — Larry MacDonald

You be nice!

(Photo: Gary John Norman/Getty)

(Photo: Gary John Norman/Getty)

Like many other topic areas, business has its controversies. Writers who speak their minds on them in this day and age of electronic media can expect to find some rather raucous feedback in the comments section of their online articles. Now there’s a backlash against the backlash, so to speak.

The wisdom of allowing reader comments is increasingly under fire, most recently thrown into relief with the announcement by Popular Science that it will no longer run comment sections. Other sites, like the Huffington Post, haven’t gone as far, but are imposing greater restrictions. In an effort to eliminate “trolls” and trash talk, the current events site no longer allows anonymous posts. Recent academic research finds that online comments have become a source of literary pollution that polarizes discussion and diverts attention away from the substance of the debate.

While some moderation may be warranted, doing away with comment sections is throwing the baby out with the bath water. The fact is, a lot of good content can be found in the comments sections. Reader input and discussion can bring to light additional points or correct factual and other errors in articles. Sometimes there is even wit and humour.

And I say this even though I have taken plenty of impolite flak for articles I have penned in recent years on why the housing bears were likely to be wrong about a Canadian housing crash.

Another benefit: the feedback provides incentives for authors to write better articles. They need to do their research and get their facts straight, or someone in the audience will speak up and expose their shoddy work. It’s one thing for an editor to catch a mistake prior to publication; it’s much more embarrassing for mistakes to be exposed in the public domain.

Essentially, online commentary is a resource that adds value to websites. It can help finance a website by increasing traffic and “stickiness” (how much time a reader spends on the site), which makes the potential for monetization greater. But of course, the degree of success depends on the site’s moderation policies; gutter talk has to be kept to a minimum.

Some publications, such as The Times newspaper in the U.K., have staff review comments before they go online. There is something to be said for whittling the commentary down to a more concise and civilized level. This approach seems to be the most certain way for the “wisdom of the crowd” to be crafted into something of value. However, many organizations claim the resources required for such screening are too onerous.

Still, if you believe a lively comments section can add value, then it could be that such organizations just aren’t trying hard enough.

Larry MacDonald is a former economist who manages his own portfolio and writes on investment topics. He is the author of several business books.