I think we all realized comment sections were doomed when even the extreme measure of attaching the right to comment to a Facebook account didn't help to civilize things. It was thought that what allowed people to be awful on the internet was the anonymity. Speech was cleaved from consequence, but if you make them comment via Facebook, the trolls would have to use their real names. That would make them think twice, right?
Well, if you've been in the comment section of basically any article on the Huffington Post or Buzzfeed, the continuous stream of inanity, attached to people's real names and photos even, seems to prove that basically nothing will get people to stop being dumb and/or terrible people on the web.
A demonstration, via Rooster Teeth. (NSFW language)
I bring this all up because the BBC has a new BBC Trending article, "Is it the beginning of the end for online comments?," explores the recent announcement from the Daily Dot that they were closing their site to comments. The piece gets comments (heh) from reps of the Daily Dot and Autostraddle (a lesbian-focused news and culture site) who harbor opposing views of the "comments or not" issue. Basically, the Daily Dot is agin' 'em, and Autostraddle is 'fer 'em. The reasons why are very illuminating.
While the Daily Dot is a more of a general-interest site, Autostraddle was created with a specific audience in mind, and this makes a huge difference in the nature of their comment sections. We all like to joke that comment sections are all hell holes, but when you tap into a specific niche, you can get an audience that is less prone to idiocy and trolling. Hence the rep from the Daily Dot's is ambivalent to comments, while the person from Autostraddle asserts that their comment section functions as a safe place for people looking to connect. (They both note the real scourge is those who comment without actually reading the article.)
The thing is, despite the general consensus, not all comment sections are bad. I think the nature of the website, as well as its size and audience, all factor in to the quality of a comments section. The AV Club, which centers on an intellectual-leaning examination of pop culture, has a comment section filled with surprisingly witty jokes and very affable commenters, with the biggest problem being the abundance of spam comments. The Mary Sue, a feminist pop-culture website, has comments in a similar vein.
What keeps these sties from being overwhelmed with idiocy in their comments is that the websites themselves aren't overwhelming. They have a specific draw that brings in a desired audience and keeps the riff-raff disinterested. (Notice that when a Mary Sue article gains more widespread attention that the comment section of that article tends to, let's say, deteriorate.)
Even in generally good comment sections, a short leash may still be necessary at times. For example, in addition to being a Content Hacker here on Social Media Today, I am also the moderator for The Energy Collective website, a job that often involves approving and deleting comments. I love the TEC commenters because the website tends to attract very smart people who are very articulate in their views, but also comfortable listening and responding to those who disagree. However, even good comment sections have problems.
For we at TEC wrestled with the dilemma of what to do about comments that could be categorized as 'climate change denial.' We honestly wanted to be completely in favor of open, free discussion, but every single time a comment skeptical of climate change was published, the discussion became derailed at best, and sunk into ugly vitriol at worst. Even supposedly "reasonable" objections to the prevailing view of climate change would light an article's comment section on fire. And we noticed a trend of climate skeptic comments appearing in articles that had nothing to do with climate change. Other commenters were getting discouraged. We decided to stop publishing comments with denial in them, and the conversations on TEC returned to their previously high quality.
I don't really have any deep conclusions to make outside of the fact that the smaller the website and more specific the audience, the easier it is to police and filter out the dreck. There's something to be said about creating something that successfully appeals to a mass audience, but we must remember that any mass audience will have a share of idiots who want to do dumb things like comment before they've even read the article.