Listener Feedback: Killing the Comments
Your comments on our decision to remove the comments from Skeptoid episode transcript pages.
by Brian Dunning
January 19, 2016
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Any project that runs for more than a few years is destined to undergo some changes, and one of those happened to the Skeptoid website recently. After 9 years (!!) of public comments on the web transcript pages for Skeptoid podcast episodes, I made a big move. In late 2015, I deleted all the comment areas, on every transcript page, and there will be no more. As expected, this generated an avalanche of censorship charges, and wholesale disillusionment that I am "not open to criticism". Today we're going to listen to what you had to say about this move.
But first, I'll summarize the main reason given in the Skeptoid blog post that explained this decision. Mainly, it was to improve the quality of the site as a resource. I work hard and do a lot of research for the average 1,750 words of each episode. But on some pages, we had as many as 200,000 words of conspiracy mongering, anti-Semitism, repetitive arguments that went nowhere, or flagrant pseudoscience presented alongside. Such a web page is a terrible resource. Let those authors put that content on their own websites, rather than graffiti-ing Skeptoid with them; and the result is that Skeptoid pages are now the clean, concise, pro-science resources they were intended to be. Like a book.
Other resource websites like Popular Science, Snopes, Wikipedia, The Verge, The Daily Beast, Reuters, and the Chicago Sun-Times are also comment-free. Besides the need to maximize the quality of the content, most of these sites point to the fact that readers share articles on their social media, and let the discussion take place there. That serves everyone's purpose. It lets the commenters have better discussion with people they know, and it spreads word of the article to readers on social media sites who wouldn't have found out about them otherwise.
There is also at least one piece of solid science supporting the idea of killing comments. Research published in 2013 in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication described what it called "The Nasty Effect": when website readers were exposed to articles with negative comments, their impression of the original article was also more negative, compared to readers seeing the same article without the negative comments. "A fractious minority," noted Popular Science, "wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story."
OK, so onto to your comments. First, let's get one great big category out of the way, those who consider this move to be a suppression of their freedom. Here's one from H. Smith:
So mute everyone because a few nuts post about some wild conspiracy theory. Maybe we could just toss the right to free speech? ...Once you get no feedback you are preaching and dictating.
I believe that the ability to comment is paramount for a free society, unfortunately the current populace is too uneducated to enjoy it.
Don't confuse your right to comment on things with some wished-for requirement that others publish and promote your comments at their own expense. Society is free for me too; I have no obligation to publish your harmful misinformation and lend it my credibility. This is not a sign that we are crumbling into totalitarianism. IdPnSD said:
Yes, it is very difficult to accept and maintain democracy. There was a time when only one man knew the truth and he was Galileo. And he was jailed for telling the truth... There is no truth in the mainstream. Less than 1% knows the truth.
The Church may have had the ability to silence Galileo, but I have neither the ability, the authority, nor any particular desire to silence you. A change on my website does not imprison you, burn you at the stake, force you to take poison, or prevent you from trumpeting your 1% status.
A lot of people thought the decision was made out of fear of dissenting ideas, people such as Stephen:
The attepmt [sic] to control those who disagree with you is called: Neophobia... An abnormal and persistent fear of anything new.
And this, from Jeb:
I knew you would not post my comment. The truth is dangerous to the Powers That Be. You guys are full of (it). It stinks real bad but at least y’all get the bills paid huh?
Although I'm flattered you'd regard me as the Power That Be, no, Skeptoid has never quite paid the bills. But I am hopeful that making it a resource for something other than comments like yours might help nudge it in that direction.
As hard as it might be for more grounded people to believe, some of the site commenters genuinely believe — or at least appear to believe — that I am a government agent paid to spread misinformation; whatever it is that goes against their particular sacred cow. Kev wrote in:
I notice that my comment of more than 5 days ago was not posted. In that comment I referred to you saying something along the lines of absurd conspiracy theories of 9-11. I pointed out that most Americans do not believe the main stream [sic] narrative about 9-11. I also said that many respected scientists and engineers do not buy it either. I also said that for this reason I will not be following your blog any further. You only proved me to be correct and you being a shill and or disinfo agent by not posting my comment... You write and discuss only what is politically correct or at least what is not frowned upon by main stream [sic] media which was bought and paid for by the power elite many years ago. I am sure you sleep well at night. I would not be able to personally…
That "power elite" and their heavy checkbook again...
But let's hear from some of the more reasoned arguments against dumping the comments. Here's one from Phil:
Big mistake — the whole point of Skeptoid was that it was itself open to challenge — I have seen some dreadful rubbish in its main articles — Sorry but everyone makes mistakes. The comments sections allowed these flaws to be discussed... That is how people learn. It is bad to discourage that process.
While the comments are gone, the mechanism to provide feedback and corrections is absolutely still there. Listeners to the show know that I put out periodic episodes consisting of nothing but corrections, and that process will continue. Reviewing unresearched rants and debates in the comments section was never a part of that process.
Dutch sent in a comment that sounds like he believes the comments section provided one of the core components of each episode's content: the arguments in favor of the paranormal or pseudoscientific version of the belief under examination:
I have to say I’m very disappointed by this decision... The comments offer a good place to view common objections to a subject and how best to rebut them. I think this is a major mistake for the community.
I can't think of a single Skeptoid episode where I've given only the science-based arguments but not the pseudoscience or pseudohistory counter-arguments. I go to great pains in every episode to lay out the claims on both sides, then give the science-based perspective on each. People who spam comment sections with pseudoscience, however, do not. They smear only their unresearched beliefs onto the page, they generally don't give reputable references, and they usually say whatever they like with no accountability. I argue that my comment-free version is far less biased, and far more open minded.
That’s sad. Comments are what turns simple content into a feeling of community. It’s a chance for dialogue and I’ve read many-a-great comment here on skeptoid. Would moderated comments, without crazy rants be better? Yes, they would be!
I think everyone agrees that crazy rants are undesirable, but the bulk of the offending content is simply misinformation, which is just as harmful to Skeptoid's utility as a resource. Merlo continued:
A man and a donkey are smarter than a man alone, so skeptoid turning into “one guy and his opinion with all other voices silent” will be a huge step back.
Well, this show has always been one person with no other voices, though it's never been an opinion show. A lot of the web commenters seem to want Skeptoid to be something it's not. It's not an online debate forum, it's a one-way audio program. As for the suggestion to add a donkey, I'll give it due consideration.
From the "And your little dog, too" department comes this bravely typed salvo from WiNoJoE:
Bad, cowardly decision. Comments are one of the best feature of sites, and I don’t don’t [sic] read those that don’t have them. Bye bye skeptoid.com!
PS — your podcasts have been boring as hell lately too.
I think I remember that chapter in Dale Carnegie's book: To influence people, hurl as many personal insults as you can squeeze into two sentences.
However, most of the feedback was positive, so I don't want to give the impression that I've alienated a large chunk of my listeners. Diane said:
Thank you. I agree that some of the garbage posted under the guise of intelligent discourse does indeed detract from the real research you present.
...This decision will strengthen the cohesiveness and clarity of your sharing of mainstream scientific consensus about a very wide range of topics.
And from Wilko:
Great idea. I think all websites should do this. It is in my benefit because I spend way too much time on the comments.
Good decision, excellent reasoning. And, as always, trollish dissenters aren’t reading what they are responding to.
And in the tradition of ending our feedback episodes on a memorable note, here was listener MBDK's expression of support:
...If I want to read/debate the fringe phantoms, there are PLENTY of other venues to do it in.
But then a few comments further down, site visitor Bill cautioned another commenter (and from my years of experience, I'm confident Bill was perfectly serious with this):
Don’t waste your time with people like MBDK. He or she is probably an intelligence operative working in a basement wing at CIA or NSA and gets paid to attack people who contradict the Official Government version of events on website postings.
I know I've said it before, but if reporting mainstream science is something the CIA and NSA are paying for, here I am. I've got my ATM card in one hand, all I need is your check in the other. I guess they don't consider over 9 years of content as valuable to the maintenance of the Illuminati's status quo as personal attacks in Internet comment threads. Oh well, at least I have that as a fallback career.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Listener Feedback: Killing the Comments." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
19 Jan 2016. Web.
18 Jan 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4502>
References & Further Reading
Anderson, A., Brossard, D., Scheufele, D., Xenos, M., Ladwig, P. "The Nasty Effect: Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies." Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 19 Feb. 2013, Volume 19, Issue 3: 373-387.
BBC. "Is it the beginning of the end for online comments?" BBS Trending. British Broadcasting Corporation, 19 Aug. 2015. Web. 1 Jan. 2016. <http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-33963436>
Dunning, B. "No More Comments at Skeptoid.com." Skeptoid Blog. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 16 Nov. 2015. Web. 1 Jan. 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/blog/2015/11/16/no-more-comments/>
Ellis, J. "What happened after 7 news sites got rid of reader comments." Audience & Social. NiemanLab, 16 Sep. 2015. Web. 1 Jan. 2016. <http://www.niemanlab.org/2015/09/what-happened-after-7-news-sites-got-rid-of-reader-comments/>
Finley, K. "A Brief History of the End of Comments." Business. Wired, 8 Oct. 2015. Web. 1 Jan. 2016. <http://www.wired.com/2015/10/brief-history-of-the-demise-of-the-comments-timeline/>
Gross, D. "Online comments are being phased out." CNN.com. Cable News Network, 21 Nov. 2014. Web. 1 Jan. 2016. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/21/tech/web/online-comment-sections/>
LaBarre, S. "Why Were Shutting Off Our Comments." Science. Popular Science, 24 Sep. 2013. Web. 1 Jan. 2016. <http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-09/why-were-shutting-our-comments>
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