As a kid, whenever I'd get some BMX or car magazine in the mail, I'd always dive in first to the letters to the editor. The interplay between readers sharing their opinion on stories and editors responding in italics always made the rest of the mag feel more real—as if real, normal people actually produced and read the thing. I wrote letters—actual letters!—every now and then, hoping to get them published myself.
I don't know if any ever did. I do know that when I started reading everything online, comments sections felt empowering: I could share anything I wanted, and know that it'd pop up next to the story for all eyes to see. Then somewhere along the way, inundated by throwaway jokes and flip, empty commentary, it all seemed pointless. What's the point of writing out a detailed thought when it's sandwiched by cursory garbage?
We at Motherboard have decided to turn off our comments section, a decision we've debated for a year or more. What finally turned the tide was our belief that killing comments and focusing on other avenues of communication will foster smarter, more valuable discussion and criticism of our work.
What percentage of comments on any site are valuable enough to be published on their own? One percent? Less? Based on the disparity in quality between emails we get and the average state of comments here and all over the web, I think the problem is a matter of the medium.
We all highly value solid discussion of our reporting and opinions, because it's a crucial way we get better
Comment sections inspire quick, potent remarks, which too easily veer into being useless or worse. Sending an email knowing that a human will actually see it tends to foster thought, which is what we want. So in addition to encouraging that you reach out to our reporters via email or social media, you can now also share your thoughts with editors via firstname.lastname@example.org. Once a week or thereabouts we'll publish a digest of the most insightful letters we get.
[On this week's podcast, Motherboard's Derek Mead, Jason Koebler, Brian Merchant, and Alex Pasternack go in depth about why we ended our comment section.]
The argument for comments has long been that a well-moderated section lowers the barrier to entry for readers to share their thoughts, positive or otherwise. In a vacuum, that sounds like a dream, but the key there is "well-moderated." Good comment sections exist, and social media can be just as abrasive an alternative. But for a growing site like ours, I think that our readers are best served by dedicating our resources to doing more reporting than attempting to police a comments section in the hopes of marginally increasing the number of useful comments.
That doesn't offer any real value to other readers of the site, and we'd all wager that the scorched Earth nature of comments sections just stifles real conversation. Everyone at Motherboard highly values solid discussion of our reporting and opinions, because it's a crucial way we get better. We're still human and praise always feels great, but criticism is necessary for the strength of our publication. So instead of burying discussion in a comments section, we want to publish the best for all to see.
In the end, we just want to hear from you. This is the internet, after all, and all of us are available via Twitter, Facebook, email, a variety of encrypted chat programs and PGP, LinkedIn, physical mail, and carrier drone. Hell, I could even give you a call if you ask.