The problem with online comments. Solved.

I read an article in the Guardian the other day calling for an end to online comments.

“On most sites – from YouTube to local newspapers – comments are a place where the most noxious thoughts rise to the top and smart conversations are lost in a sea of garbage.”

Prima facie, there’s something to this argument. There are a lot of downright scary comments online. YouTube is about the worst place for it. I figure that’s because videos are the main intellectual sustenance for people who can’t read well, so when it’s time for comment you get the blatherings of the intellectually incapable.

(Here, by contrast, the readers are shining beacons of erudition and compassion and the comments section is a delight. ;) )

So partly, the problem is that different sites have different readers and not everyone’s worth listening to.

But think about The Guardian. In theory it’s a thinking-person’s paper. But the comments section is a disaster. What’s the explanation?

(Nobody is going to die of surprise in the next paragraph as the economist reaches for the folder marked I for Incentives.)

The problem with online comments is the incentive structures! For some idiot with anti-social views, this is his one chance to get his views amplified. The pay-off here is high. Normally he can’t get anyone to listen. But if he quickly writes something inflammatory, he can spend a happy afternoon jousting with people he made angry.

The intelligent person looks at the animals head-butting each other in the comments section and can see no reason to get involved.

For the Guardian writer up above, there’s no solution to comments beyond chucking the whole system out. I know different because I spend a lot of time on Reddit. There’s a site with a wide variety of people on it, from all over the world, from all over the political spectrum, of all ages and of all levels of education. And the comments over there often genuinely brim with wit and intelligence.

Reddit is nominally a link-sharing site. But the value of it is actually in the comments. How do they do it?

Reddit’s comment section is ruled by two main incentive features. Upvotes and Downvotes. Users can upvote or downvote any link or any comment.

Upvoted comments rise to the top. Vile idiocy exists on Reddit, of course. But it sinks into the murky depths where it is little seen. And any comment that gets more than 5 net downvotes disappears from view.

So the incentive system is different. Instead of bad comments floating round riling people up, they disappear. That disincentivises trolls.

And good comments are rewarded.

Every user has a “karma” account that tallies their “karma” – simply the total upvotes they’ve ever received. This Karma is not exchangeable for gold, rubies or bitcoin. It has no value. But those status-seeking missiles we call human minds don’t give a damn. One of the problems on Reddit is actually people doing dumb stuff for karma.

While other sites do have incentives – e.g. the New York Times picks, the Reddit system is a more proven success.

Redditors can ask a stupid question on the site and see a dozen people go scurrying off to provide a well-written, well-researched answer provided with wit and goodwill.  Reddit’s growth is extremely rapid. The site has seen 1.7 billion comments so far.

This system is actually the goldmine lying beneath the land investors in Reddit purchased. They may have thought they were buying a succesful domain name or a winning web brand, but what they’ve got is a killer comment system they need to patent, ASAP.

And then preferably license out. The comment threads of the world need it desperately.

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thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

4 thoughts on “The problem with online comments. Solved.”

  1. ‘Up and Down’ votes are a good way for organised groups to remove comments they dislike and promote those they do like. Suppose there’s an organised group monitoring the comments. Should an individual post a comment that is agreeable to everyone but the organised group, the comment will naturally attract some upvotes; however it will attract a deluge of downvotes, reports to the administrators to remove it, and furious replies that the same group will upvote etc. When there are only upvotes, all views may be seen at the top in direct proportion to their popularity. It doesn’t matter how much some readers would like the commenter to ‘shut up’, it only matters how much other readers want to ‘hear’ them. Downvotes are censorship votes, upvotes give all comments a chance to shine.

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  2. People who can’t read well are intilectually incapable ? Come on Jason. I was enjoying your blog (I value creative thinking) until the above common think.

    Readers drive me nuts because most of them are regurgitators. In fact this is why it is so hard to move tax debate into productive territory… the readers control the debate and they are all copying each other.

    Here’s a hypothesis… for many, the more they read the less creative their thinking.

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