You may have noticed that the articles on Culture Ramp lack a feature common to most websites: the comment field. The opportunity to leave comments directly on the page was discontinued several weeks ago. As of yesterday, the form was replaced with a link to the contact page.
To some, this may seem like a betrayal — if not of Culture Ramp readers specifically, then of the spirit of the internet. The leveling effect of the Web is practically doctrinal at this point, and any element of design which might seem to privilege one point of view over others can generally count on a hostile reception.
Nor am I entirely immune to that point of view. Precisely because the Web still seems like the sort of place where every soapbox should provide equal (if not greater) time to the diversity of opinions it provokes, the decision to remove comments was one I hesitated over.
Lately, though, the traditional comment field has begun to look like a vestige of an earlier era of online publishing. It rarely justifies its own existence. It is, among other things, an invitation for spam, for misuse and abuse, for illicit or illegal behavior, and only occasionally the sort of discussion and debate it was meant to host.
The catch-all solution is moderation, an extra burden on writers and editors. In addition to requiring daily judgments, it embroils them in the continual development of policy. Issues of liability must be sorted out, and the ideal of fostering a platform for open debate grows increasingly elusive. Inevitably, mistakes are made. The returns, whatever they may seem to have been at the outset, rapidly diminish.
When sites first began to adopt the comment system, it was an innovation that offered a function in relatively short supply. In principle, nearly anyone could start their own blog or site, broadcasting their own message to a broader audience than ever before. In practice, though, the learning curve and costs were prohibitive. Comments were easy and accessible, opening the net to an even more voices.
Since then the trend in online interaction has been toward greater and greater ease. There is now hardly a commenter on the Web who does not have access to one social media platform or another, and the rising importance of aggregation means that many readers will encounter a comment — in the form of a tweet, Facebook or Tumblr post, or social news title — even before they read the article on which it comments.
And after all, comments were never all that egalitarian. They made the published page a shared space, yes, and that must be considered an advance over the one-way street of print, but comments never had more than a subservient relationship to the original article. In a medium that thrives on brevity, they extended pages interminably. Attentions spans tend to fall off sharply, so that, unless you have fame to boost your standing, you’d get as large an audience shouting your opinion in a public space as bringing it late to the comment field. One argument in favor of replacing comments with that old print convention, the “letter to the editor,” is that it staunches the tide, allowing editors to highlight the best expression of a common sentiment or outstanding response.
My sense, then, is that the comment field will soon lose favor with most editors, and thus with sites that publish the work of multiple authors. Culture Ramp is already in good company, with sites like The New Inquiry and The London Review of Books forgoing the convention on most pages.
That is not to say that they will fall into total obsolescence. There are many sites that no doubt benefit a great deal from allowing readers the ability to post immediate and spontaneous feedback. On one end of the spectrum, there are sites built on contact, where the relationship between an audience and the author or artist they are following is one of the principle justifications for publishing at all. Personal blogs, webcomics, the sites of indie game designers — they all seem to thrive on a healthy comment section, and will likely continue to include them. On the other end are sites emphasizing comments almost to the exclusion of other forms of content, and which, for that reason, might be better termed forums.
To the extent that there is a trend, it reflects the growing articulation of the major genres of online publishing, distinguished by the functional elements they involve. That in itself is a development worth watching. In the meantime, corrections, responses and rebuttals may be submitted as letters to the editor.