On Tuesday, Suzanne LaBarre, the online content director of Popular Science, made a decision that was probably envied by many others in online journalism: "Comments can be bad for science. That's why, here at PopularScience.com, we're shutting them off," she began, in a post I'm calling The LaBarre Manifesto.
It wasn't a decision we made lightly. As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, 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.
She makes the appropriate demurrals, noting that Popular Science isn't the only site that "attracts vexing commentators" and that it also has many "delightful, thought-provoking commenters."
But she worries about the power of what she calls a fractious minority that can skew a reader's perception of a story. Here she refers us to a study by the University of Wisconsin professor Dominique Brossard, who found in a study that readers can be influenced by online comment just as much as they are by the story itself. She came to the conclusion that "the less civil the accompanying comments, the more risk readers attributed to the research described in the news story."
LaBarre, perhaps leaning on a single study more than she should, writes:
If you carry out those results to their logical end–commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the "off" switch.
I think we understand. The LaBarre Manifesto chooses its words carefully. Despite the disabling of the comment function, LaBarre's manifesto is drawing comment from elsewhere. Alex Hern at theguardian.com suggests that LaBarre has gone too far, and that there might ways to fix comments instead of killing them. He notes that YouTube, The Huffington Post, Gawker, and others are trying to make comments better.
Google, he reports, is developing tools to rank comments on YouTube according to how relevant they might be. HuffPo is asking users to verify their identity. Gawker and BoingBoing have devised separate platforms for comments.
At the Tracker, we get far more spam comments than real comments, and I can easily see how dusting these things off the shelves could be overwhelming if we had anywhere near the number of comments that larger news outlets receive.
The useful comments that we receive often point us to other sources we were not familiar with, enlightening not only us, but our readers. I wouldn't want to lose that.
On the other hand, as LaBarre notes, there are other ways to share that information–email, Twitter, Facebook, and so on. I get more tips from email than I do from comments.
I wouldn't want to drop comments here. The volume of comments is easy to manage, and most of the comments are valuable additions to the conversation. On the other hand, I wouldn't want trolls and bots to drain us of energy and resources that are better used creating new posts.
Still, I applaud LaBarre for taking a bold step to try to improve discourse at Popular Science. We're all feeling our way, and she has given us all something to think about.