Source: xkcd

At SXSW (the annual massive digital/interactive festival in Austin, TX), Gawker founder Nick Denton complained about the dire state of online commenting. Now the Gawker empire is built on the blogification (to make up a word) of news, creating a more intimate and reader-focused platform for delivering news, rumors, and gossip. It’s supposed to be about engaging with people. That’s why it was pretty brutal to hear Denton bite the hand that feeds him with this quote:

“The idea of capturing the intelligence of the readership — that’s a joke.”

Ouch. I can’t imagine how viciously online commenters would tear apart someone for mocking their collective intelligence like that. Hey, readers of this article, why don’t you show me?

Even though Denton comes off as more than a little pompous, he does kind of have a point. Have you ever tried to read the comments on YouTube? Yikes. Denton says that for every two thoughtful comments, there are eight that are just off-topic or toxic. I’d say he’s overlooked at least another ten comments in that same ratio that aren’t off-topic per se, they just contribute nothing at all to the conversation, like “first!”, “lolololol,” “omg sooooooo weird,” and “thumbs up if u agree.”

And it’s not like the comments you see on CNN, The Huffington Post, ESPN, or 90% of the other sites out there are much better. Meaningful comments are usually buried underneath petty bickering, offensive insanity, and recycled internet memes.

Still, hearing Denton say that feels a little hypocritical. His empire is built on harnessing collective contributions. Calling it a “joke” feels cynical and dismissive to the spirit of his business, even if he’s right.

What Denton means, or at least what he should have said, is that we need to figure out a better way to manage comments. Allowing the readers to contribute is essential to the spirit of the Internet. Taking that away is just going to make a site less attractive. But there has to be a better way to reward good comments and punish bad ones, right? Sure, lots of places use “likes” or “thumbs up, thumbs down” to boost good comments, but from my observation, people usually just vote for something that’s funny, even if it’s not particularly insightful. Lots of places also hand power over to an editor to manage the comments, but that’s time-consuming and irritating for the editor, as well as granting him or her power that’s easily abused.

The ideal system needs to be both curated and open to the public. It’s probably not possible to get those two things in perfect balance, but that’s no reason to be dismissive of commenting in general. Besides, there’s no rule that says you have to read or post in the comments. And I think most people who scroll all the way to the bottom of the page know what they’re getting into.