In these, the high days of the Internet, a number of blogs have made public statements for why they are turning off their comments sections. In 2013, Popular Science decided to shut off their comments. "Comments can be bad for science," they said.
Citing a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Dominique Brossard, they observed that comments can skew readers' perceptions of a story undesirably.
A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again.
As a result, Popular Science has encouraged readers to interact with them on other channels like Facebook and Twitter where public discussion is the main feature of such sites.
What we've found lately is that the tone of our comments (and some of our commenters) is getting a little too aggressive and negative - a change that feels like it started with GamerGate and has steadily gotten worse ever since. It's hard for us to do our best work in that environment, and it's even harder for our staff to hang out with our audience and build the relationships that led to us having a great community in the first place.
Even in the past year, social networks like Twitter and Reddit have taken steps to curb harassment on their sites. As Jessica Valenti, columnist for The Guardian writes of her experience, comment sections, which are supposed to represent a forum of discussion that promotes free speech and challenge to authority, often do the opposite. When women and other minorities are abused by rabid, anonymous commenters on the site, traditional structures are reinforced.
My own exhaustion with comments these days has less to do with explicit harassment - which, at places like the Guardian, is swiftly taken care of. (Thank you, moderators!) Rather, it's the never-ending stream of derision that women, people of color and other marginalized communities endure; the constant insistence that you or what you write is stupid or that your platform is undeserved. Yes, I'm sure straight, white, male writers get this kind of response too - but it's not nearly as often and not nearly as nasty.
There are two main reasons why I'd like to suggest caution. 1. The evidence for the poison effect of uncivil comments isn't nearly as damning as their quotes suggest, and 2. There is a lot of potential good in comment sections and removing them ignores those possibilities and sends some fairly negative messages about science communication.
Her post includes a study where she rounds up all comments in the health section of the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail and discards all uncivil comments. In observing what was left, she found many of value.
The question, then, may be one of scale. Newswire service Reuters turned off its comments last year, and maybe more news sites, where journalistic fact is prime, may follow suit. Are there forums online where commenting is more appropriate than others? Leave your thoughts in the comments.