To keep or ditch the comments?

While some sites maintain a discussion on the page, others outsource it to social media

When millennial-targeted media company Mic ditched its comments section in mid-December, it was the latest in a string of similar announcements. The day before, The Week announced that it would forego comments in the new year, while the tech news site Re/code redesigned without comments in November. Slightly earlier, Pacific Standard and The Huffington Post both eliminated comments.

When Popular Science did it first, in September 2013, the internet response was mostly negative or incredulous. But it’s becoming increasingly commonplace as more discussion gets outsourced to Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other parts of the social Web.

And many of the sites that are keeping their comments sections are distancing the reader from the sprawling debate traditionally housed underneath the article. Politico requires users to click to view their comments. The Atlantic only shows the section after a long jump from the article text. During a site redesign last February, the Los Angeles Times shifted its comments section to the side, forcing readers to seek out, and click on, comments in order to see them.

There has been plenty of discussion about how social media referrals generate traffic, but little consideration about whether pushing user interaction off-site might have a downside.

As sites move towards measuring their audience by their overall attention span on a page and away from calculating by the click, time-on-site is becoming increasingly important. According to the analytics company Chartbeat, comments are included in calculations of time spent on-page.

Still, it’s becoming more common, and more acceptable to readers, to see outlets ditching their comments. And for most sites, eliminating the section won’t result in an overall hit on engagement, though it may deter a select group. “Very few visitors spend time in comment sections, but those that do tend to spend massive amounts of time there,” Josh Schwartz, chief data scientist at Chartbeat, wrote in an email.

Re/code made a similar observation when announcing it was dropping comments. The decline in use since the site’s 2007 launch was “making onsite comments less and less used and less and less useful,” according to the announcement. “We were not trying to lead a crusade,” co-founder Walt Mossberg told me. “The readers were already ahead of us, and we just followed them.”

Mic’s editors saw a similar decline in use, which they chalked up to their young readership. “If you look at the average age of a news site commenter, my guess is [it] would be a retired person,” says Chris Altchek, Mic’s CEO and co-founder.

As social networks become the standard for discussion, successful commenting sections are offering something more than the drop-down text box from which they originated. Gawker invested highly in its Kinja platform, which allows readers to curate conversation—essentially moderating themselves. It’s been so successful at creating a culture of discussion that the site has found some of its writers in the comments.

The New York Times takes the opposite approach. Comments only appear after approval by a moderator, except for “verified commenters.” The comments can be sorted in several ways, including a series of “editors’ picks” that offer a diverse range of views intelligently stated. In other words, an edited selection similar to what social media users create when they curate their own feeds. The problem is, not everyone has an army of moderators or the resources to hire such a team.

When sites choose to outsource comments to social media rather than innovate their functionality, they’re also outsourcing responsibility for moderating for defamatory, harassing, or otherwise adversarial posters—a group that social sites are increasingly having to address. Earlier this month, Twitter rolled out new tools to respond to harassment by making it easier to flag users and block them. But the system isn’t foolproof, or even close to it.

“The people that are targeting our writers are fluent across platforms,” says Altchek. “We see them come across the comments, then we remove them from there and they go to Twitter, we report them there and they get the person’s email and write really nasty emails. It’s pretty platform agnostic.”

By the time Amanda Hess wrote her cover story on digital harassment of female journalists in the Pacific Standard last January, the magazine had already nixed its comments, and instead designated a special online forum to encourage readers to share stories.

The comments it generated weren’t any less vitriolic because they were outsourced to Twitter, but as Pacific Standard Web editor Nicholas Jackson has argued, vitriolic commenters become easier to chronicle when they’re endowed with a social media profile.

“They belong on personal blogs, or on Twitter or Tumblr or Reddit, where individuals build a full, searchable body of work and can be judged accordingly,” he wrote.

Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis.