Comments Suck, Communities Rule

The Meghan Daum opinion piece in the LA Times last week — Online’s ‘nasty effect’ — got the internal debate going again at TI World Headquarters. Newser’s headline covering this piece was: Science Proves It: Online Comments Suck, which is clearly how some people feel about their encounters with the angry-nonsense troll-threads hanging off the bottom of YouTube videos.

But the study that sources Daum’s piece really only says that commenters have their opinion of the parent article clearly impacted by the other comments in the thread. If the commenters are negative, they are much more likely to give negative feedback.

That’s news?

I think comments are awesome, and far from sucking, they provide some of the coolest content on the planet. Slashdot and Stack Overflow have some essential content for technical types. The famous ‘Askers vs. Guessers’ meme was born out of a comment thread. Some of the strongest ideas on the AVC blog come from the comments, where some seriously interesting people hang out.

That’s the key. A conversation that includes interesting people. And in my experience that happens mainly in a community.

I think you can tell you’re in a community when you see a few things. A community is:

  1. Intentional — somebody has a vision for the kind of conversation that can take place.
  2. Moderated — some communities have a clear leader, some delegate moderation to a couple people, some have fancy voting mechanisms to float the best content to the top.
  3. Connected — a community takes time to develop, has a bunch of interconnections between the commenters, and even a bit of a pecking order emerges where commenters are clearly domain experts and they clash or collaborate with other experts.
  4. Persistent — the best communities are around for a long long time. Think The WELL. These things are essential way for people to connect and are a major part of people’s lives.

So when you’re on CBS News reading about diletante diplomat Dennis Rodman at the Vatican promoting an Irish gambling site (no, not the one that died yesterday..) I think it’s pretty obvious that the inevitable 3rd-grade flame war about race and religion that erupts in the unattended “commenting area” below the article has practically nothing to do with conversation or community.

It does have a lot to do with CBS News providing a pretty disgusting venue for hate-porn. And yes, whatever you want to call that mob non-community, it sucks.

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