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January 21, 2014 4:44 AM On Shutting Off Blog Comment Sections

By Keith Humphreys

A few months ago, the editors of Popular Science’s blog announced the following change in policy:

Comments can be bad for science. That’s why, here at PopularScience.com, we’re shutting them off.
It wasn’t a decision we made lightly…we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.

More recently, the bloggers at The Incidental Economist (TIE) largely followed suit:

All TIE admins are in agreement that we need a break from comment moderation. It’s a lot of work and the benefits relative to costs have dwindled. We’d rather use our time in other ways.

Andrew Sullivan makes his own case against comment sections here. Although I failed to find it when I googled just now, I am pretty sure that some of the bloggers at Outside The Beltway have publicly questioned the value of comment sections, though their site still has one.

I have been ambivalent about this issue for some time. At RBC, we have some absolutely terrific commenters (I saluted some of them here) who add tremendous value to the site for commenters and bloggers alike. At the same time, we also have accrued, it pains me to say, a bad reputation for our comments section being vitriolic and fact-challenged on some topics, most particularly drug policy but also some others (anything about guns usually gets ugly fast).

Can’t bloggers just closely monitor comment sections and separate wheat from chaff? Given unlimited time, yes. But even for the few people who make their living by blogging, time to do this is not unlimited. And for those of us who have demanding day jobs, it’s an awful lot to ask.

Last week, I had a twitter exchange with Austin Frakt about what TIE had done, in which he defined destructive comments as a collective action problem that he was tired of trying to solve. This resonated with me. I was also struck that when I emailed a group of our very best commenters and asked whether we should close off comments on drug policy posts, the modal response was that they didn’t care because they had been driven away from reading those comment sections.

I was sad to hear that and recognized that a negative feedback loop had developed: As a few commenters were abusive or intellectually dishonest or both, those initially more numerous commenters who were civil and substantive began dropping out of the conversation. These two trends reinforced each other until being abusive and non-substantive became more the norm (though some heroes and heroines soldier on, God bless you all).

I do not speak for RBC as a whole on this, but I have come to the conclusion personally that the TIE approach of making a lack of comment sections my default on future posts is the best one for me. There are significant costs to this decision because some excellent comments that would have been made will no longer grace our site. I hope those of you who have for so long contributed reasoned, respectful and data-based reactions, critiques and counter-arguments to my posts will continue to do so on those that remain open for comment.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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