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Why Are Online Comments So Toxic?

Posted by Patrick Groome on Jul 9, 2015 10:06:59 AM

3 minute read

Why Are Online Comments so Toxic?

There’s an interesting trend in online communities at the moment: more and more sites are choosing to shut down the comment sections on their sites. The Verge is the latest to shut down comments, saying that:

“...the tone of our comments (and some of our commenters) is getting a little too aggressive and negative “

and noting that

“(The Verge is) ...still dedicated to community, so our forums will remain open”

Last year, science website Popsci.com did the same, stating a fear of:

“a fractious minority (that) wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story”

YouTube phenom Pewdiepie did the same, for much the same reasons: user toxicity had just become too much to deal with. Are comments just doomed? What is it about that format that brings out the worst in people?

Don’t Read the Comments

Everyone has read this mantra by now. It even has its own Twitter page. It’s now accepted that contributing to the comments on any site is the wrong call. Why is that? People don’t say “don’t read the forum”, or “don’t go on the YouTube channel”. Comments have the worst reputation of any social media platform, but for many businesses they’re still the core of their community efforts.

Behaviour can be a problem in any community, but comments have it particularly rough. Comment discussions are easy to engage in and have a relatively short tail. That low barrier to entry is part of the selling point of comments. Larger comment platforms even offer universal logins that allow members to flit from one comment community to another. It’s a great idea, but a double edged swords. Comments are the ultimate “easy come, easy go” approach to community.

Comment posters are prone to drive-by posting, and drive-by posting doesn’t engender a sense of community. A comment poster looks in, posts what they’re thinking and then peaces out. At best, they come back later to read the replies to what they said and respond. This solipsistic approach leads to a lack of community culture. No community culture means no motivation to behave well due to social perception. If you have no context for the behaviour of the people you’re talking to, it’s easy to dismiss them. “Some random person disagrees with me? Well he’s probably a bigot/idiot”. Up and down votes can make it worse.

“Who cares how many people think I’m a jerk, I got five upvotes”

“200 downvotes? There sure are a lot of bigots/idiots around here”.

Comments Aren’t Designed to be the Focus of Your Community

It’s difficult to use comments as the basis for a community, but they can be great as a satellite to your community. Use them as part of a larger community effort, and try to encourage great commenters to interact with the rest of your community. If your members don’t feel like their contributions are a part of something larger, they’re not going to attribute any importance to those contributions. They’ll continue to shout at clouds.

The Verge made a canny move in keeping their forums online. They understand that it’s the focal point of their community. Temporarily shutting down comments won’t kill their community, people will come back. Easy come, easy go. Shutting down their forum would leave their community hamstrung, cause a massive user revolt and make headlines that are much more damaging. The reaction to shutting down comments was “Oh. Makes sense.” They know that the real community work is happening elsewhere, where a real sense of participation works to reduce toxic behaviour.

How to Get the Most Out of Comments

  • Provide a more substantial alternative to your comments, and make sure members can find it. Make sure your community forum is clearly highlighted, so that members know where to go for more substantial conversation.
  • Use comments as an attraction method for your core community, not as a core community in itself.
  • Engage members in the comments, and try to get them to perform other actions in your community. The more they feel like part of a community, the better behaviour will be and the less moderation you’ll need.
  • Be personally active in your comments, to prevent your members from feeling like drive-bys. Toxic behaviour can be a sign of disengagement, so ensure that members know they’re dealing with human beings.

Topics: Community, News

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