How Gresham’s Law explains why news sites are turning off comments

Re/Code is turning off comments. This comes after Reuters turned off comments, and many other sites have dialled back on allowing comments – Popular Science, the Chicago Sun-Times, and so on. Huffington Post stopped “anonymous” (actually pseudonymous) comments in August 2013.

Pew Research coincidentally has some new research out headlined “About 1 in 5 victims of online harassment say it happened in the comments section“.

It says:

While social media sites (66%) were the most common place noted for harassment, comments sections were named more frequently than online gaming sites (16%) and discussion sites like reddit (10%)… One respondent said, “Comment sections of news articles often contain some very racist, homophobic, sexist language.” Another noted that, on news sites, “people are brutal and seem to feel way too comfortable in their anonymity.”

Comments on newspaper sites are generally rubbish, aren’t they? Snarky, pointless, off-topic, flame-baiting… I think it’s because Gresham’s Law mostly applies.

Gresham’s Law is an economic tenet which is often stated as “bad money drives out good”. That isn’t a good way to put it, really. It’s better described (as in Wikipedia) through an example about money.

Minted

The US used to mint silver to make its nickels and dimes. But the rising price of silver made this expensive – so expensive that the silver in a nickel or dime would be worth more than 5c or 10c. So it began minting nickels and dimes with cheaper metals, bringing the “true” value of the coins below their face value. This preserves their usefulness as currency.

But some of the silver-bearing coins remained in circulation. What’s the logical response to this? If you’re someone with an eye for profit, you offer the equivalent face value of non-silver coins (or paper dollars) for those silver-bearing coins, and leave the rubbish coins to everyone else. In theory, you’ve just made an instant profit. Will you spend those coins as “coins”? Of course not.

What’s happened here is that high-value coins have been replaced with cheap, lower-value ones. People will keep the high-value coins out of circulation because they’re not being properly rewarded for spending them – what they get for spending them is less than the value they perceive in them. They can get better elsewhere.

Bitcoined

Gresham’s Law has more general application, though. In general, you can use it to mean that “people will opt for the cheaper way to get it done”. There’s an interesting economics paper around at the moment which looks at the economics of mining Bitcoin, and suggests that in the long run it will be mined by botnets because then you don’t have to pay for the electricity. You can dispute their reasoning (most profitable Bitcoin mining is done on ASIC rigs these days) but we’ve seen a version before – it’s much easier to hire a botnet to send a gazillion pieces of spam than to hire a server.

So now we come to comments on newspaper sites. I highlight these because they’re different from specialist forums where people with similar interests tend to gather. Newspaper sites get huge numbers of people passing by, though the number who comment is tiny (typically far less than 1% of those who view an article).

But a significant number of those commenters are persistent – and this is where the “bad” can drive out the “good”. There are determined people who just want to leave comments, and view the space below the line as “their” territory. They aren’t interested in adding quality, or bringing new information to the discussion. They just want to dominate.

For an example, look at the comments below this article by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes. There’s a couple of people in there who I can recognise as “regulars” from just having read two of AKH’ articles in the past 24 hours, and looking at the comments: “Owl;Net” and “William.Farrel”. It’s clear that they don’t really have any new information to bring; they’re just there to wind people up.

For people who might have useful experiences, or insight, to bring, the sight of comments and threads like those are a natural STOP sign. Why would you invest your time, knowledge and special insight adding a comment to a thread when you have idiots like that already busy (and commenting repeatedly, and repetitively)? Why would you want to be the 133rd commenter on a story, if you have an insight that you consider has a separate and unique value?

In the manner of someone choosing not to spend their silver-bearing coin, the smart people will tend to stay away from places like that. They might try it once or twice, but then discover that nothing special happens to their comment; it’s just left to twist in the morass of snakes. Deleting comments doesn’t help much; at worst it leaves a sort of potholed wasteland where you wonder quite how offensive the person was to merit the thunderbolt.

What’s been tried

There have been attempts to improve this situation: the Guardian has “staff picks” where particularly insightful or helpful comments get flagged for more visibility, and can be found through a special tab. At the Daily Mail, there’s up- and down-voting – though this doesn’t of course ensure that comments which are intelligent or knowledgeable will be rewarded.

In fact, there’s negative reward. If someone talks nonsense, you can rebut them with facts. Then what happens? Nothing. The person who talked nonsense is free to keep on talking nonsense. There’s no reputation harm for talking rubbish. (By the way, that exchange is a rare case of someone whose views have high externally perceived worth taking the time to rebut twaddle. He doesn’t do it very often 17 comments in more than two years.

For the knowledgeable person, this is negative reward – swapping silver coins for dud metal.

Problems like this are found in all sorts of places where you have unmoderated discussion, though I think that specialist forums probably avoid some of it simply because there’s a shared interest in the topic, rather than the conflict that you often see around topics on newspaper sites. (It’s also why the comments on what we can politely call fan sites will tend towards an echo chamber of approval or disapproval, depending on how the story above leads them.)

There’s the companion problem of pseudonymity causing people to simply find it easy to be rude – letting out their frustrations with everything else in flinging insults around – but that doesn’t fully explain why there are so infrequently any useful comments, especially on technology articles (which is what I see the most, of course).

But rationally, would you want to dump your useful insights into a place where you’ll get someone who has too much time on their hands just writing “LOL FANBOI OMG”, and whose remarks will get just as much prominence as yours? No. Perhaps that’s why less than 1% of people comment: all the other 99% tried it and discovered it was a waste of their time.

Et tu, Twitter?

Why doesn’t Twitter have the same problem? By contrast to the mess that is commenting on news sites, I generally find that people who interact with me on Twitter are interesting, helpful, polite, and offer links to stuff I didn’t know about. And they’re willing to correct me without making it necessary to hang an insult on them. Well, usually.

The difference with Twitter, I think, is that it’s a conversation: there’s always the chance that you can have a rational discussion, which seems often to be almost impossible in comments. If someone’s hell-bent on annoying and insulting you on Twitter, you can just ignore them or block them. If they’re hell-bent on the same in a comment thread, there’s not much you can do, especially since being rational and quoting facts brings no benefit. The proportion of people who’ve admitted they’re wrong on comment threads is as close to zero as you can get and still be a number. The number who’ve admitted being wrong on Twitter might not be high, but I’d bet it’s significantly higher.

Twitter has key two advantages: it’s live, and it streams past. You don’t get either of those feelings on comments threads. As Mic Wright once wrote, newspaper site comments are the radioactive waste of the internet:

At their worst, comments are like toxic waste buried under the foundations of an article and irradiating all rational debate with ignorance and aggression. And, like radiation, the effect of the internet commenting culture is spreading. The degradation of discourse online is mirrored in real-world dialogue. Adults who would balk at bullying in school playgrounds are happy to fling snide and often extremely aggressive comments around.

Kill them with a file

For general-purpose, general-readership sites, commenting is broken in its present form. The irony is that it used to work really well, back in the days of newsgroups and Usenet. Even though newsgroups were ostensibly free for anyone to post on, you could also configure your newsreader to ignore particular posters or topics or pieces of content in posts. (Usenet died because the spambots overran it in the end.) Slashdot had, and still has, its scoring system which you can use for filtering to choose what comments you see (score 5: damn good idea).

I often long for the days of killfiles; it would make the experience of finding the needles in the haystack far more pleasant, and less like finding needles in a slurry tank. Some people do have useful things to say; some people don’t. Yes, some people can write scripts that will make comments by particular people invisible, but those don’t work for the majority. We need something akin to killfiles, akin to Slashdot’s scoring system, to reclaim comments.

Although the logical extension is that if we treat the leaving of comments as being like “spending” (which it is – of the commenter’s attention and knowledge) then the only way to retrieve it from the inexorable creep of Gresham’s Law is to directly reward people for doing it well. Quite what form that “reward” needs to take isn’t obvious (you can come up with a few, I’m sure). But I think it would make a difference.

In the meantime, the comments are going off all over the internet, tiny bit by tiny bit. It calls to mind the death of the long tail of blogging which I wrote about in 2009. (I’m never sure that Tumblr’s quick grab-someone-else’s-content-and-+1 format is really “blogging”. Low friction tends to low value-added.)

Comments have their supporters – Mathew Ingram of Gigaom in particular (and he’s spent his time in the moderation trenches) – but there’s a clear trend away from them.

The radioactive nature, the abuse, the lack of broader engagement, and the fact that lots of the writers are actually on social media, not trawling those comments, all points towards Gresham’s Law taking its inexorable toll. Comments on news sites are broken. Until and unless there’s a fix, the number of established sites that drop them will keep growing.

30 thoughts on “How Gresham’s Law explains why news sites are turning off comments

  1. The big difference with Twitter is that there is an opt-in before you can see a person’s comments. Anyone that spouts rubbish or behaves in an unfriendly way soon gets unfollowed. Everything on Twitter is viewed through a personal filter. There is no equivalent on a comments section.

  2. Love your use of economics to describe something that is not an obviously economic subject. I think HuffPost’s decision to eliminate anonymity is a good step to eliminate some of the comments that are not constructive. Thanks for the good read!

  3. Charles,
    I mean this in the politest possible way.
    I usually enjoyed your articles in The Guardian, and I often enjoyed the comments beneath them. However, when you joined in btl you regularly made comments that were provocative, petty, sometimes rude and sometimes ill-informed.

    I didn’t mind this – atl and btl are very different places, and it’s good to see the writer join in. It’s a bit pot/kettle to complain about others behaving in a similar manner, though.

    • “you regularly made comments that were provocative, petty, sometimes rude and sometimes ill-informed.”

      Regularly?
      If we accept that premise, it just goes to prove my point; if not even the authors have an incentive to be nice, what hope for the rest.

  4. Interesting article. Alvert Hirschhorn’s model of Exit and Voice comes to mind: there’s no point in using Voice on a Comments feed because you get drowned out by trolls and people who disagree for reasons of “frame” (but are unaware of this). On Twitter the Block and Unfollow functions help people have a form of Exit, although as we’ve seen in some recent cases (cf Mary Beard) it’s still not enough.

  5. Gresham’s Law applies at fixed exchange rates, just as a nerdy clarification.

    But…

    The solution is surely to implement a proper reputation management system so that your comments are only visible provided that you maintain a certain reputation level. If you start posting tripe that no-one reads or comments on or “likes”, then it fades away.

  6. Great article, thanks. This partially explains why the comments on so many news sites are worthless, but I notice that the New York Times’ comment section remains interesting, intelligent, and mostly civil. I frequently read the comments, particularly on articles about controversial topics, and often learn interesting things, gain clarification on the nuances of particular viewpoints, etc. There have been a few occasions where reading the comments has actually restored my faith in human nature, when I’ve seen thoughtful, compassionate and insightful remarks about a person or situation that it would be easy to judge or despise. I don’t think the NYT allows anonymous comments, and maybe they’re moderated (but that would require so much staff time) – or maybe the intelligent commenters dominate because people know that it’s a worthwhile invesment of their time.

  7. This is all a bit confused. The “value” of a comment is entirely subjective and different for poster, target, observers with comments in play, lurkers, article writers, external linkers, and site operators. Gresham’s law originally was purely about the desire to hold pretty coins in reserve or use them only for prestigious transactions while using ugly ones for their ostensibly fungible purpose. The structure of that binary decision is nowhere near the fluid time and ego value of commentary labor that it should be related to this topic. So while I see the value in the article in its discussion of various websites’ decisions, the utility of comparing this to collecting money for storage seems negative.

    Whatever their publicly stated reasons, it’s pretty clear that websites have been degrading and eliminating their comment sections because they don’t want to spend their own money to have others’ shit smeared on their walls. The “Web 2.0” fad was naive, and could have learned from a couple of decades of BBSes and Usenet and Slashdot and Yahoo and 4chan. But they thought letting the public interact on their site was hip and drew traffic there instead of driving it to message boards. Too late they learned there are costs they didn’t envision because they weren’t hip themselves to the realities of open, anonymous “discussion.”

    Instead of Gresham’s law, you ought to have used Sturgeon’s law, and then discussed how these sites might have found a way to monetize commentary so that the 10% pays more than the 90% costs.

  8. Pingback: The slow death of comments on newspaper websites continues

  9. As a huge personal fan of comment sections I find this article dispiriting. Yes, there is a good deal of rough and tumble in comments sections, but far from being off-putting that is part and parcel of the experience and a key motivation for engagement. A comments section full of people agreeing with the opinion of the writer, or where the scope of disagreement is defined by the writer, might be desirable for the writer, but it renders the comments sterile for the reader. Opinion should be argued, debated, refined: some people will not agree with you, that is a strength not a weakness.

    ‘Trolling’ on UK news sites has risen sharply recently, and the Guardian, one of my particular favourites, has been heavily affected – so its interesting to see Charles Arthur’s view here. There are two clear reasons for the increase in heat. Firstly, large sections of the online political right have been rendered homeless by the Times’ paywall, and, whilst the Daily Telegraph’s paywall is yet to bite, comment has been severely limited on controversial subjects – this is driving traffic with a divergent viewpoint into the Guardian. Secondly, UK politics are fragmenting in an unprecedented way. A lot of the temperature rise has to do with the passionate online voices of the UKip faithful (any observer of comments pages can tell you that Chuka Umunna’s assertion that Kippers can’t send emails and don’t understand technology is horribly out of touch – these guys are damn loud). Inevitably, much of this new wave of online opinion is anathema to the Guardian’s editorial stance.

    Much to the Guardian’s credit, rather than back off commenting, it has – until now at least – allowed this newer, richer and more vibrant debate to take place: comment on the Guardian has never been so fascinating. In this case, one man’s ‘trolling’ is another’s political debate.
    Editorial brands that show they are afraid of their online audiences’ opinions by limiting or switching off comment are taking a regressive step, rolling back the digital clock. They are stepping back to the ‘we know best’ one way communication of print: the virtual equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying ‘la la la’ when someone disagrees with you. It risks appearing cowardly, aloof and out of touch to readers – you’ve gone Emily Thornberry and shown an implied contempt.

    There are better ways of policing comment: 1. have journalists actively engage – don’t permit mis-truths to go unchallenged. 2. Accept that not everyone will agree with you and permit dissent. 3. Use a public comments technology like DISQUS so you can see what people say elsewhere, and have your mods block/remove serial troublemakers – they are obvious. 4. Allow downvoting as well as upvoting so that it is self-evident when a reader’s opinion is controversial. 5. Allow users to see a ranked list by most votes so dominant opinion is clear.

    Trust your core readership to police the debate – give your readers a chance and they will fix the problem for you.

  10. Pingback: Gresham’s Law | jimmyfromshinagawa

  11. Charles, this is a fascinating article, here are some things you might want to consider further:

    I suggest you find value in Twitter precisely because it is primarily NOT a “conversation”, but a *broadcast*, plus you are in an atypical position. As a media person with a large social network, there is a substantial incentive to be “interesting, helpful, polite” to you. And you’re also happily not in the sort of media position where there’s status to be gained by publicly insulting you. Thus for your particular case, there are benefits to be had by someone to interact positively, and not a huge incentive to interact negatively with you. Further, your substantial social capital provides a disincentive to personally attack you. However, these conditions are not a general property of Twitter. Twitter works reasonably well for a certain narrow class of person who is high up the attention “power-law” curve. But it can be pretty miserable for anyone lower down. Any system where a bully can freely lie and smear against someone, to an audience of tens of thousands or more, where their target can’t even effectively *respond*, is problematic.

    Usenet only worked well because the original participant pool was basically all highly intelligent. It thus had a sort of critical mass to keep encouraging participation by quality writers. Yes, killfiles were a tool that helped maintain that critical mass against relatively small disruptions. But the moment the overall participant pool regressed to the mean – Eternal September – killfiles were overwhelmed. I’d say a similar regression to the mean process is driving down the quality of comments on web sites now.

    Isn’t this all just facets “in the small” of an overall problem that quality writing needs some sort of compensation to be sustainable? And that common idealistic replies – “attention”, “exposure”, “the joy and happiness of expressing oneself” – really don’t work very well in the real world?

    • Thanks, Seth – insightful as ever. To some extent though I think what you’re saying strengthens the “Gresham’s Law” metaphor; if my thoughts on a topic are more valuable (assume that for a moment as a premise) then I’m going to reserve them for places where I feel they get rewarded. For me, that is Twitter. For other people, it will be other places – perhaps Google+, or Facebook. The latter tends to reward people because they have a network of “friends”, who are thus less likely to be unkind or insulting to them. (By the way, I don’t think many people had much problem publicly insulting me in comments on the Guardian.)

      You ask “Isn’t this all just facets “in the small” of an overall problem that quality writing needs some sort of compensation to be sustainable?” And I think the answer is yes. We just haven’t found the compensation method in the comments sections of news organisations, which is why they’re being turned off – the reward for the organisations is lower than the risk/cost.

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  13. Hey Charles – great article (just getting to it now), and I love the analysis through Gresham’s Law.

    I have a team of people building a system (in beta now) to overcome exactly these issues – specifically, the preponderance of BS and trolling in comments sections. It relies on real ID, no censorship, line-by-line tagging of problems with facts, logic or civility, statistical analysis and user-controlled filters (to “tune out” the trolls). Has the nice side effect of fact-checking all news on the internet in real time.

    Would love to talk to you about it, if you’re interested. You’ve got my email in the form.

    Thanks again for the great article!

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  21. As someone who receives around 150 e-mails per day, I thought of the solution years ago.
    People need to pay for what they use.
    What?
    What about “Freedom of Speech” I hear you ask?
    I’m not talking about the 70pence or similar for around 65pages of content, but perhaps 2p to post a comment and/or send an e-mail.
    Insufficient for someone with a point to make, to post a lengthy and meaningful commentary, but sufficient perhaps to reduce flippant, abusive and repetitive posting.

    No-one with a business to run would be sending out 5,000 emails per day if the returns didn’t justify maintaining that database entry, and trolls would quickly lose interest in posting widely inflammatory remarks if their costs rose in line with their output.

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