Why Popular Science Killed Their Comments And The Huffington Post Should Too

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If the comments following this post or any others were gone, how much of a difference would that make?

Last week, Popular Science shut off the comments on their website. In an article titled, Why We’re Shutting Off Our Comments, online content director, Suzanna LaBarre stated: "Comments can be bad for science. That’s why, here at PopularScience.com, we’re shutting them off. 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."

You would think that there must be technology to moderate these bad comments and fix it. You would be wrong.

This past week was also the ten year anniversary of my blog, Six Pixels of Separation. With close to four thousand blog posts over the past decade, the daily publishing schedule – along with my commitments at Twist Image – sometimes makes it very time-challenging to sift through, filter and moderate the immense amount of spam, linkbait and more nefarious types of comments that the blogging platform doesn’t trap and winds up being published to the world. Combined, it’s a overwhelming amount of work to sanitize. I can’t imagine what the volume must be like at Popular Science or at the Huffington Post.

A few bad apples can spoil the barrel.

Prior to the mass popularization of social media, there was an interesting functionality for blogs called the trackback. You have to frame the world back then: there was no Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc… If someone wanted to really expand on something that was written in a blog post, you could write your own blog post about it, and the blogging platform would almost-magically leave a comment-like link on the original post that inspired your writing. This would inform the original blog post that you have added to the discourse in another location. The spirit of the trackback was to allow those who wanted to expand upon a concept – in longer form – to not annoy the flow of the blog post and comments. The power of the trackback was that it created a link on the more popular blog sites back to someone else’s blog. Back in a world when search engine optimization ruled the world (some might argue that it still does), this reciprocated link was coveted because of how Google‘s page ranking system highly valued these links (especially when it came from what the search algorithm deemed a credible source). Within no time, those trying to game the system created bots and engines of automation to create a myriad of automated trackbacks. The vast majority of this became so spammy, that it rendered the value of trackbacks useless. In fact, it’s hard to find any online publishers who even know or care about trackbacks today.

The blog comments of today are becoming the trackbacks of yesteryear.

Whether we like it or not, the great discourse and online conversations are being clouded and polluted with spammy comments. If you have ever blogged, you will note how difficult it can sometimes be to sort the wheat from the chaff. These nefarious groups seeking free links have become quite sophisticated. There are instances when human beings are actually generating real comments, but applying a spammy or paid link within their personal profile. All of this takes a tremendous amount of time to parse and rectify.

Are there any solutions?

In fact, there are solutions, but no technology to truly deliver on it (yet). It requires online publishers to allow the conversation to be anywhere and everywhere. Instead of having people comment directly on the blog, why not enable them to leave their own thoughts wherever their social graph is most active? Loved something that you read here? Why not tweet your comment? Post it to Facebook? Expand upon it in Medium? Write a follow-up on LinkedIn? Or whatever? Once this is done, you simply add the source link (or the blog post that got you all excited to comment on and share) and what appears after a blog post is a hybrid of curated comments and discourse from across the Web. Readers can then see not only these comments, but the platforms they were created on and the profiles of those who created it. If someone wants to add to the discourse, they simply do so on their own social networks and link it back to the source as well. Of course, this is still a problematic solution. There is nothing stopping the spammers from creating fake profiles. Still, it is a way to increase the distribution of content, while inviting people to add in the arenas that make them most comfortable and increasing the likelihood that others might see this content in new and interesting ways.

Publishers can, ultimately, wash their hands clean.   

In world where anyone can have a thought and publish it in text, images, audio and video… instantly and for free to the world in a plethora of different channels and platforms, doesn’t it feel somewhat archaic that our best option is to give individuals the platform to speak? Instead, shouldn’t we be letting them choose their own platforms to share their opinions and what they’re reading to those that matter most? If you like something that someone writes, why not create your feedback within your own ecosystem, share it with your social graph and let the two disparate publishing platforms enable the free-flowing power of ideas to spread?

Popular Science and the Huffington Post can turn off the comments…

…because that will never stop the power of comments. Comments are – and should – be everywhere. That is the true social nature of digital media in 2013. We all, as individuals, can comment, share and curate anything. Now, they don’t need to be on someone’s else’s channel. They can be on our own. Perhaps, this way, we’ll begin a new phase of discovering different types of bright minds as we traipse down newer rabbit holes of content with depth.

Just imagine the possibilities of a world where the comments become a new gateway to new thinking in different channels.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:


  1. Livefyre is the answer. You only allow people to sign in with social accounts, so there’s accountability right away, and you ban users that are repeat offenders.
    Decisions like the one by Popular Science don’t achieve anything – there’s still a wider conversation away from the blog they have zero control over. On the blog, the owner has control – for me, Popular Science took the easy way out.

  2. Danny – I agree. Popular Science went around the problem instead of solving it.
    There’s a reason why engagement drops when blogs switch over to Facebook comments. It’s just too much work for the spammers to create fake profiles and there are no great tools to automate the process. This isn’t to say it does’t happen, but I certainly think it cuts down on the crap.
    I also wonder about the idea of comment ranking. Should the comments that stimulate the most conversation be pushed to the top while the nonsensical link-stuffed comments drop to the bottom and out of sight? Then again, the crazy people who deny proven science are likely to generate a lot of discussion – and not the kind Popular Science is looking for.

  3. This is the publishing mentality. The I have the knowledge and you don’t, so I’ll tell you mentality. Command and Control. Needless to say when you tell people something as if you know something and they don’t, they often come back with “F you comments”.
    The other mentality is the conversation. That “I think this” is only the starter – others then chip in with their pieces of the jigsaw, until together you build a better picture – and one everyone agrees on.
    Telling ignores how people learn. Only a quarter of people learn from listening or reading. An equal number do so by putting forward their ideas and fitting them together with other views until they reach a new reality. Yet more do so by doing – active involvement in a discussion and deciding which side they support and why.
    The old mentality gave us newspapers. The new one the internet. And as fewer “I know best pieces” appear on the net, so the quality of the debate rises too.

  4. I think it’s a mistake for Popular Science to turn off comments. Yes, trolls are annoying but I really enjoy reading comments with substance. Sometimes, the comments are the most informative part of the article.

  5. I disagree.
    I think turning off comments is a wise move. I sent an email asking Yahoo to turn off comments or empower users to toggle comments off on the client side.
    I can’t remember a time when I’ve looked at Yahoo comments after a news story and it didn’t collapse into the nastiest racist, homophobic, rantings that went on for pages and pages. And the few thoughtful people are either ignored or they’re ridiculed for being stupid.
    What’s the result? People who can add something to the conversation stay out, and the nasty people bicker and taunt each other endlessly.
    On sites where there are massive numbers of comments it’s hard to go in and weed out spam and repeat offenders. You’d have to develop, maintain and monitor such a mechanism. And when hings start getting nasty, where do you draw the line and CONSISTENTLY draw the line? Consistency is a messy issue in areas where people can get banned: “why me and not the person who said, ______?”
    LiveFyre is an interesting idea but it doesn’t eliminate the problem. I wish there was a viable solution but for now, Yahoo!, Huffington Post and other entities should just turn off comments until there’s a real way to monitor.
    Smaller and medium-sized sites have decent comments sections. Also, sites that have a narrow focus do well. But these general websites … ? GEEZ! Turn off the comments.

  6. Cassandra, it’s an interesting idea to rank comments as inspiring conversation but that can be measure by the troll who inspires a lot of people to chime in and call him am idiot.
    A. Someone thoughtful who evokes 1 reply.
    B. A troll who evokes 50 replies.
    The troll wins.
    I don’t like the concept of turning off comments but what’s a viable solution that doesn’t require hiring a team of people to read and delete posts as part of their job?

  7. It’s true. Ranking comments would have many of the same issues as ranking search results for example. And why it might be easy to weed out the spammers, it’s lot more complicated to deal with trolls.
    I like the idea of opting in to seeing comments. I basically never read the comment section in news articles, but I often do read the comment sections in blog posts.

  8. Merging social streams to create a universal comment platform.
    Genius idea.
    We need to make this happen.
    One thing that gets on my nerves is using 20 different accounts to comment on 20 different websites, not to mention having two different ways to comment on the same website. Many websites have Disqus comments and Facebook comments sections on the same page which gives it a zero chance of developing a proper conversation thread and even harder to keep track of the conversation.
    Holding peoples social graph hostage will be great for quality control too.

  9. Livefyre is hugely effective at stopping spam and trolls, especially when using the Social Sign In option. As Cassandra mentions, even basic Facebook Comments see a drop off in interaction because of the extra steps needed to comment. Will a dedicated troll still get through? Yes – but that dedication puts a lot off. And, as mentioned, banning the user completely is an additional option to control what’s being said.

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