I've heard comment sections compared to "sewers", and that sounds rather literally correct. Most of them are logistically required, but consistently disgusting, subterranean conduits for what is, technically speaking, waste. NotThe Atlantic, of course. We have the Internet's best commenters. But, you know, other people's websites.
If you have ever visited YouTube, you cannot pretend to not know what I'm talking about.
So this got me thinking: Popular Science has officially shut off its comment section, pointing to research showing that disagreeable comments hurt the reading experience. Or, at least, the reading comprehension. One study out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that mean comments under an article about nanotechnology "polarized readers," taking attention away from the story and warping the audience's grasp of the article. Another study found that even simple disagreements between commenters "impacted readers' perception of science," wrote Suzanne LaBarre, PopSci's online content director.
Like a narrow Supreme Court opinion, PopSci's defense was case-specific, without presuming to tell other sites they should follow along. Comments "erode the popular consensus" on scientifically validated topics, LaBarre wrote, such as climate change and evolution. It's perfectly legal to wonder aloud on your Facebook page whether dinosaur bones are real or placed there by a spiritual entity to test our faith. But it's not quite the discussion a site like PopSci wants to cultivate under a column by a world-renowned paleontologist. "The cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories within a website devoted to championing science," LaBarre wrote eloquently.
I read the news on Twitter—which itself acts like a metastasized comment section, often for better and often for worse—where other writers and editors bemoaned the quality of their comment sections and wondered if they should pull a PopSci and leave their articles unadorned by reader feedback. Around the Web, some major sites are moving in opposite directions*. Medium is totally clean. Sites like The New Republic hide their comment sections under a click.Quartz debuted without comments and has added subtle paragraph-by-paragraph annotations.