Let’s make comments earn their front page status

Note: I can’t claim full credit for this idea. It’s based on a similar brainstorm by my friend Chris Thursten. My version is just simpler and more drastic.

Recently I’ve read a number of articles on internet comments. Notably this one by Ed Smith on Medium. The message is simple: comments are terrible, they’re being used to bully and harass writers, something must be done. All these articles are confident that something will be done, that creators will eventually wrest the power back from the comment section but, other than Ed’s suggestion that comments should occasionally be closed, no-one seems to have much of an idea how we should go about it. I do.

The idea is simple. Having your words appear below the article is a privilege, not a right, so let’s force people to earn that right. Let’s make sure every single comment requires someone to click ‘approve’ before it shows up. Instead of only exceptionally bad comments being deleted, only especially good ones will appear at all.

Okay, so it’s not a revolutionary idea. In fact it’s so mind bogglingly mundane that most websites could switch over with a few tiny tweaks at the back end. But what makes it different is the change in attitude. I do not suggest that we laboriously scan every comment and allow any that do not cross that uncertain line between anger and abuse. I propose we allow only exceptional comments to ever be made visible. Those comments that manage to skirt the edges of the rules while still being rude and abrasive will not be approved, attempts to derail the discussion will not be approved, useless cries of ‘first’ will not be approved, incorrect information will not be approved. Even simple compliments like ‘good article!’ or comments that repeat something someone else has already said will not make it through, as they do not add anything to the discussion.

The result is a radical change in the dynamic between writers and readers. No longer will we feel powerless, scanning the comments regularly and wondering if we are within our rights to delete a particularly nasty one. Sure writers and moderators (often the same people) will still see any abusive comments they receive, but instead of being forced to take action against the bullies, they can simply ignore them and move on. Their tormenters will receive no ban and no notice of deletion, no confirmation that their efforts elicited any response at all. Instead they will be reduced to the level of power exerted by everyday hatemail, shouting into the void, uncertain if anyone even heard them.

Right now the comment threads that give moderators the most work are the worst ones. Deleting a bad comment or administering a ban takes far more work than simply enjoying a good one. This simple change switches that around completely. Under the new system the comments you spend the most time on are the ones you are approving. The threads that take the most work also provide the most joy, the most interest and the most introspection. Particularly hostile and awful threads are scrolled past in boredom, bad comments are identified and ignored within the first few sentences. Don’t have time to moderate? The result is simply less comments, not a cesspool of anger and hate.

It is hard to predict the effect this change would have on commenter behaviour. Certainly there are those that would object to a system, typically they are the people who rant angrily about freedom of speech while having no idea what it actually means. Thankfully their comments are usually not worth approving anyway. If I might take a guess, I feel that those whose comments never appear on the page will eventually tire and stop posting of their own free will, while others will be inspired to ‘earn’ their way into the discussion by attempting to be as insightful and thoughtful as possible. This could even be incentivised by awarding the very best of commenters with favoured status, reverting them to the old fashioned ‘opt out’ system.

This isn’t cure all. It still allows anyone viewing a site to send you their abuse. But it does mean that this action is no longer public, that they can’t gang up, or see the result of their handiwork. Moreover this abuse does not seem to be the normal state of affairs, any readers passing through are treated to only the very best of comments to set the tone. I also realise that this isn’t for everyone. Some websites value a nebulous interpretation of ‘freedom of speech’ so highly as to consider a hostile community worth the sacrifice. But for others I present a workable solution, and one less drastic and risky than turning off the comments completely. I can’t guarantee it will work, but I think it might, and I’d take that over the current state of affairs every day.