NPR Story
3:45 pm
Thu September 26, 2013

Popular Science Disables Online Comments

Originally published on Thu September 26, 2013 5:03 pm

The magazine Popular Science is turning off its user comments, citing a study from the University of Wisconsin that shows readers exposed to rude or insulting comments reported a skewed view of the information they read in the article.

Popular Science says this is particularly bad for scientific information, because the comments suggest that there is debate around information that the scientific community considers fact.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic joins Here & Now to consider whether the decision to disable online comments was a good one, and what it means for the future of online journalism and a reader’s ability to respond.

Guest

Copyright 2013 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW.

The website for Popular Science magazine is turning is turning off its comments. Popular Science says a study from the University of Wisconsin shows that readers who were exposed to rude or insulting comments reported a skewed view of the information in the article they had just read. Popular Science says this is particularly bad for scientific information because people can be convinced that there is debate around topics that the scientific community feels are settled.

So what does this mean for the future of online journalism and a reader's ability to respond? Derek Thompson is business editor at The Atlantic, and he joins us now from Argot Studios in New York. Derek, what do you make of this because this is not the first publication to do something like this.

DEREK THOMPSON: Right, exactly. And just like you said, so Popular Science essentially decided that they weren't the kind of site that was improved by comments, and this makes a lot of sense for a site like Popular Science. Some things are up for debate: deficit policy, tax policy, the role of a good parent. But evolution, the existence of dinosaurs, these aren't issues you want being decided in the comments section.

And, you know, you look around the Web, and I've heard comments sections compared to sewers, and that strikes me as correct in a literal way. I mean, like sewers, they're public utilities that often served as disgusting, underground conduits for, you know, what you might call waste. And some sites are absolutely helped by comments. I think The Atlantic site is immeasurably improved by our smart comments.

But you go to a place like YouTube where the comments section is just this cesspool of deliberate idiocy. And the mix of caps lock and lower case and misspellings make every comment looked like a ransom note written by a 7-year-old. It's just an utter disaster. And so, some comments are good and some comments are horrible. And in that way, it's a lot like the entire Internet itself.

HOBSON: You know, we should just give people a sense. On our website today, we've got a comment about the health care law and Condor75 makes this comment, then Anita writes, not true, then Condor75 says, what's not true? Are you telling me my premium did not go up? Do you need proof?

So that's just a little sampling. But what about the idea of taking away anonymous comments as Huffington Post has done?

THOMPSON: Right. I mean, this is a midway measure, right? You have some sites that have absolutely no comments like, say, Medium, and then you have sites with totally unregulated comments sections. And so Huffington Post is saying, all right. We want to have a comments section. We don't have enough attention, enough energy, enough manpower to manicure it, to make sure that it's absolutely perfect, that it always adds to the article. We'll do a midway step, which is to take away anonymous comments and hope that by giving people a name and attaching comments to their actual person that it'll keep people from saying stupid things. But, you know, some people just are going to mouth off even if their actual name is appearing next to the comment. And it won't necessarily help the piece.

There can be, you know, valuable disagreement over some issues, over debatable issues. But there are other issues that either are not improved by debate or where the debate sort of takes away from the important work that the paid journalist has done in creating this column. And that's essentially what Popular Science decided, was that they were seeing in their comments sections something that was detracting from the good work of world-renowned scientists.

HOBSON: Do you think this is going to change online journalism if others follow the lead here of Popular Science?

THOMPSON: Right. I mean, I think there's a lot of diversity, right? You have some, you know, wonderfully trafficked websites that have no comments. You have some wonderfully trafficked websites that have thousands and thousands of comments, like The Huffington Post. And then you have the situations like Reddit and Gawker, which allows sort of up-voted comments that can compete with articles by paid people on Gawker and their new Pinterest site.

So I think people are experimenting. And, you know, the Internet is growing up. And as it becomes the most important way for people to read news and get information and as it supplants all their legacy brands, people will figure out exactly how to incorporate readers into this experience.

HOBSON: Derek Thompson, business editor at The Atlantic. Thanks so much as always.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

HOBSON: And you can let us know your thoughts in the comments section at hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program