Last Wednesday (23rd of May, 2018, to be specific), a Manhattan federal judge deemed President Trump’s move to block some of his critics on the social platform Twitter to be unconstitutional, a violation of the First Amendment that protect among other things, the freedom of speech. It has been referred to as a landmark ruling, as it establishes precedent on how social media accounts of politicians and other elected public officials are going to be looked at in the future. While this ruling is of little concern to the general public, it does underscore one particular detail about the modern world that should’ve been obvious by now, the need for having a platform for feedback. That feedback could be in the form of Twitter replies, Instagram comments or the point of this discussion, website comments.
I know what you’re going to say, website comments are 70% spam, 29% trolling and 1% meaningful discussion and while that stereotype is true to a certain extent, with the advancement in web development and the variety of spam filters available for WordPress, sifting through all of that junk shouldn’t be much of a problem anymore. You still have to actively moderate for trolls and other unsavory characters but it is still quite a small price to pay when weighed against the benefits of a comment section, of which there are several:
- Engagement is more powerful than likes
A ‘like’ is seeing a cute guy/girl walking down the street, stares at them for like 5 seconds and promptly forgot about it for the rest of your life. Actual engagement is standing in line behind the same person at a coffee shop; tell them the greatest joke in the world (decaf) and proceeded to spend the rest of the afternoon debating which is better, cold brew coffee or nitro coffee. As a barometer for how taken your audience are, engagement (like comments or shares) is much more representative than just likes. Engagement takes much more effort than just clicking on the like button, ergo those who engage are more likely to put their money where their mouth is and actually buy into the product or service you are selling.
- It’s a platform to build a community
Have you ever watched the American sitcom Friends, in which the characters of the show regularly hang out in the same cafe for like, a decade? That is what your comment section could be. If you think I’m being hyperbolic, there’s a true story of how two regular commenters from the early days of The AV Club (a pop-culture website specializing in reviews and analysis on music, film and television) ended up meeting each other, fall in love and got married, which sounds like a plot for the remake of the late 90s Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romantic hit You’ve Got Mail if not for the fact that this actually happened. The great thing about having a comment section is you don’t precisely know how it’s going to turn out. Yes, it can just as easily devolve into simple name-calling and mud-slinging but with the right approach to moderation and participation from the site authors; it can act as a foundation for a regular community to build around your brand.
- It’s an opportunity to interact and acknowledge your audience
Have you ever seen a TED Talk before? I’m generally not a fan of those things, as is my stance on educational or motivational speech as TED Talk’s format of unidirectional communications seems to be little more than indoctrination, leaving no room for critical conversation. A comment section allows for exactly that, for site authors to interact and converse with their audience, sometimes in a fun way. For example, the music blog Stereogum regularly interact with their audience, with weekly and yearly roundups of the best comments from that period and a lot of their regulars are pretty familiar with both each other and the staff. It’s obviously impractical for site authors to reply to every comment directed their way but gestures and acknowledgements such as these can be helpful in establishing your brand and the people in it.
- It’s place for in-depth discussions
Admittedly, the last few years haven’t been great for comment sections in general. As populist movements grow across the world, opinions and messages that were usually left to the fringes of discussion began appearing more and more in mainstream discussion. This fact bled over to comment section everywhere, as incendiary discussion usually only left to the farther reaches of the internet bled to the more mainstream publications, which lead to the closing of comment sections in some mainstream websites, like with The Atlantic.
While it’s true that even with the removal of a comment section discussion can still take place across social media, this shift creates a distance between the content and the discussion platform, which severely inhibits the process, not to mention that restrictions on social platforms like the character limit on Twitter leaves little room for nuance. Using Stereogum again as an example, they’ve posted their thoughts on an album from the British synthpop band Chvrches (yes, that is how the band’s name is spelled) that came out on the 25th. If you scroll down further into the comment section, you’ll see that there are more than 100 comments in there and some are a couple of paragraphs long. A comment section allows for an in-depth discussion on the subject, things that a social media platform just isn’t capable of.
Meaningful internet discussion sounds very much like an oxymoron right now but with proper moderation, it is definitely an achievable goal but what if you simply don’t have the resource to police the unruly existence that is the internet to facilitate such discussion? There is actually an ongoing project in web development that aims to answer that dilemma. The Coral Project, a collective borne out of members from The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Mozilla Foundation aims to tackle this problem with a set of software that primarily helps with community management, one of which is Talk, a free and open-source commenting platform that has already seen use in sites like IGN and The Wall Street Journal.
Building a comment section to foster a community and as a place for meaningful discussion won’t be cheap but the opportunity in having two regulars find love through your very own comment section is priceless. Ultimately, it is up to you whether to use a comment section or not but with the tools available to help in this situation and the benefits I’ve listed above, it’d be a shame to not at least give it a shot. After all, you can simply close it down if you feel that this is simply isn’t working for you.