There’s plenty of debate about the value of comments sections with online publishers. The Toronto Star is the most recent major Canadian newspaper to disable the comments section of their online news stories beginning December 16th after the CBC, the Sun, and many US media organizations have done the same thing since as early as 2012.

But what do readers say about the comments section?

I interviewed some young women – readers of feminist online publications such as Bitch Media, Feministing and Jezebel – for my Masters thesis about their experiences with the sites and content and here’s what I learned. Many of the young women I spoke with talked about how much they value the comments section, but also admitted that they didn’t feel the need to participate by commenting themselves, either because there was enough commentary on the issue already in the comments section around the article, or because they feel they did not know enough about the issue to comment themselves. (Most of those I interviewed explained they were relatively new to feminist critiques and perspectives, so this makes sense that they were hesitant to provide comments themselves).

Some of them explained that for them, half of the article is in the comments section already. Although, the Jezebel community is quick to provide corrections to factual or grammatical errors that may be present in the article, the readers I interviewed also explain that they enjoy reading through the additional perspectives provided by the commentators in the comments section. Although these readers glossed over the grammatical and editing corrections, the alternative perspectives in the comments sections, often hidden in the depths of the comments section, were helpful to these readers to unpack complex and intersectional issues that the articles often lacked.

One of the readers expressed to me: “what I really like is to be able to read the articles and then to cross-reference that with the comment section … the comments sections are usually not the most nicest place. But I find here they have a very good, actually good community where people will say funny things or they will correct things in the article or they will say ‘let’s look at it from a racial issue instead’ in addition to a feminist lens, and I guess I can say that I feel like that helps me think more critically.” Exposure to texts from multiple feminist perspectives invites readers to define feminism for themselves and to decide which theories and experiences are particularly resonant.

Similarly, in 2013, Atlantic writer, Ta-Nahisi Coates wrote, acknowledging the role of the commentators in the comments section who correct his errors and provide alternate perspectives. But writers and staff are finding it more and more difficult to sift through the comments, many of which are the result of online trolls or spambots. At times, it can feel like this for many in charge of sifting through the comment sections:

Jezebel, for instance, pleaded for their parent site, Gawker, to do something about horrid violent rape gifs that were constantly showing up in Jezebel comments. All of Gawker Media’s sites now use a comments platform, Kinja, in which commentators are required to register for an account and the comments are first vetted before being published to the website. Not a perfect solution, but also not a realistic option for many online publishers who lack the funding, time and staff to moderate all of the comments.

The closing of the comments section completely by Toronto Star and other media organizations have stated that the disabling of comments section is not an attempt at turning away readers. They encourage readers to continue the dialogue and discussion about news stories and articles over social media (Facebook, Twitter). I can see the benefits of doing so, such as hoping that people will be accountable for their comments if they are attached to real names and their Facebook profiles that friends and family can potentially see and leaving the grunt work of dealing with online instance of harassment and hate speech to social media companies to deal with.

But I can also think of a few reasons in which removing comments sections completely and transitioning online conversations attached to the news stories to social media platforms which should be considered from some readers’ point of view:

  1. Platforms such as Twitter with their 140-character limit make it difficult for conversation and debating to take place;
  2. Not everyone has a social media account or wants to open one to engage in online discussions around news publishing;
  3. Moving communities of conversation to social media platforms may also move potential revenues from advertisers away from the publishing site and towards Facebook and Twitter who already heavily profit from advertising.

Engaging with the public is part of a democratic informational era yet the comments section seems to be a double-edge sword for many large and smaller media organizations. On the one hand, they’re trying to reach a potential global audience, yet on the other, they’re also limiting the ways in which their readers engage with the content. We shouldn’t always think of the comments section as being full of online trolls, because sometimes, may be hidden further down the page, there is a small semblance of discussion, dialogue and learning that take place that could be impactful on some readers. Are we tossing out some of that gold with all the dirt in the comments section? As readers, what have been your experiences with comments sections?