What’s great about the internet is that there’s space for everyone. All views get an airing, even if it’s only in the comments below the line. This person thinks that Kanye is today’s Mozart: a minority opinion, perhaps, but one now proudly spoken. The voiceless have been given a voice.
Or perhaps not quite in this case, because this is my friend from California, trolling. He’s taking part in the “Daily Mail game”, in which competitors join in conversations in the comments under Mail articles and try to score as many downvotes (as awarded by fellow commenters) as possible for their remarks. As we can see, this one has scored a splendid 176 red negative votes, and, obviously a natural (“Honestly, we need closer ties with Europe!”), he’s already close to 5,000 down-arrows overall.
And this, perhaps, is a hint as to why the tide appears to be turning against comments on new stories. In April 2014, the Chicago Sun-Times suspended reader comments on its site, and, as Wired recounts, over the intervening period almost a dozen notable news outlets have done something similar. In most cases, they have done it quietly, or partially, or temporarily, sometimes under the guise of technological upgrades to create “new commenting experiences”.
But now, since the start of the year, the Daily Telegraph has not only relaunched its website without a comments feature, but made it a point of public policy (“readers can continue to comment on and share articles through Telegraph Facebook pages, or via Twitter, in the usual way”). And, most strikingly of all, the Guardian – the paper that embraces the dictum of its most famous editor that “Comment is Free” – has announced a scaling back of its below-the-line facility that will see comments disabled automatically on race, immigration or Islam stories unless there are sufficient resources to provide the high level of moderation such subjects always require.
Comments under news stories have always created problems for their hosts: the lurking threat of libel or false rumour, the disingenuous astroturfing, the hate speech, the wandering off topic, the flippant bad taste over disasters. The rise of online engagement has led to the rise of what the Guardian’s former editor, Alan Rusbridger, has described as an entirely “new breed” of journalist – moderators – whose entire job is to control the risks commenters create. But until now, news organisations have stuck with them nonetheless, because of the one huge benefit they provide: audience.
People who just read a story click on it once. But if they comment on a story, they become involved. If someone replies to their comment, they click again to read and reply. If someone else comments, perhaps they reply to that. They check back in to see how the debate is progressing, or if the author has joined in, or how many recommendations their original comment has earned. Every time counts as a click, a visit; clicks and visits add up to an audience. And audience is what you use to sell digital advertising.
As print sales have declined and the internet has risen, newspapers’ strategy for survival has depended on this kind of audience – especially the loyal, core audience that comes back time and again. As hardcopy circulation declined and less money came in from print adverts, the reasoning went, digital readership would grow, and more money would come in from internet adverts. And digital readership did grow, smoothly – in the Tribune’s case, from 6 million to 7 million to 8 million a day. In fact, it’s still growing. But, as of last summer, the other half of the equation has failed: newspapers’ digital ad revenues have just collapsed.
The reasons for this are complex: some leading advertising figures are beginning to suspect that digital advertising is simply not being viewed, thanks to ad blockers, and are reluctant to spend. Many are turning towards the vast, data-rich, targetable audience that big social media sites can provide and away from newspapers’ much smaller, much more opaque readerships. (According to one set of statistics, the digital ad market grew by 30% year on year – but all but 1 percentage point of that went to Google and Facebook.) The future for newspapers was already looking tricky even while online revenues were going up. But, whatever the reasons, the unthinkable has now happened: there is now no growth in either print advertising or digital advertising.
Obviously, the consequences of this, if it continues, will be manifold, and the decisions to be taken difficult. But one conclusion seems inescapable: that the link between audience and revenue has been broken. And if that’s the case, then the risks papers run by publishing online comments suddenly seem much less worthwhile than they did before. Now a growing downside has to be managed – numbers of comments are still rising – while the upside has stagnated. And so one of the first things to happen in this new, underfunded future may be an extension of a trend that’s already becoming apparent: that comments will simply be turned off.*
*Not here though – comments are very much open, as always