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.


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.


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.