A friend of mine uses the term counterpunchers to describe those people who wait for you to make the first move, to expose yourself, to make a statement or perform an action. Then they bash at you, not with reasoned criticism, but with ad hominem attacks and snark.
Trolls are a different breed. While counterpunchers actually seem to believe they are performing a beneficial service, trolls revel in disruption for its own sake. They know they're providing nothing meaningful, and that's the whole point. Annoying, disturbing, and (if they're really good) angering strangers gives them a thrill.
Every day we spend online we put up with counterpunchers and trolls. They infest the comments sections of news sites and blogs. They lurk in discussion boards, ready to pounce. Like the slow drip of a leaky faucet, they're ambient noise. We've learned to accept them, to tune them out, to go about our online lives as if they did not exist.
But they do exist. And we, the people who build websites, keep them alive. We build houses for them by creating websites with social features that don't include robust reputation and moderation systems. We feed them by writing linkbait content that is designed to score eyeballs and create controversy. We get them into a frenzy by responding to them.
There would be far fewer counterpunchers and trolls roaming the highways and byways of the Intergoogle if we stopped building them houses, if we stopped feeding them, if we stopped coddling them. Reducing their numbers simply requires that we step back from the social features flypaper for a moment and recognize that giving every participant the ability to add their $.02 to the conversation is not necessarily a good thing.
I believe that in many if not most cases the addition of comment functionality does more harm than good. I say this having run sites with and without comments enabled. There's a way to do comments right, but it takes ongoing effort. In the best case scenario most comments are still chaff, and readers will still have to work to find the meaty bits. In the worst case scenario, which is far more prevalent, the inmates quickly overrun the asylum and comments sections become spleen-venting areas where the hostile, the ill-informed, and the self-righteous take center stage.
The nice thing about running your own website is that you can do as you please. But when clients are paying you to build a site, they call the shots. And these days most publishers want social interaction because they've been told over and over again that it's the right thing to do. Hey, everyone's doing it, right?
Unfortunately social features have also been sold as a fire-and-forget exercise. Spray on some social and you'll get that genuine interactive flavor without the hassle of creating inherently compelling content! Publishers have also been sold on AdSense and affiliate links, so they can't help but equate time on page to increased revenue. If visitors are commenting, they're staying on the page longer!
When taken to its logical extreme this approach leads to sites like the execrable Business Insider, which treats its readers as if they were Pavlov's dogs, clicking from one inane story to the next and occasionally hitting an ad link along the way.
With ad revenue firmly lodged in the minds of site owners as the only way to make money, or at least as a means of making money that is worth ruining the user experience for, how do we get out of this mess?
John Gruber, who writes Daring Fireball, has built a dedicated readership and brings in revenue from three primary sources: a syndicated RSS feed sponsorship, a single ad spot from The Deck, and t-shirt sales. He may not be getting rich off Daring Fireball, but he charges $6,500 a week for RSS feed sponsorships. He's doing all of this without employing any social features on his site.
Gruber is able to pull this off because he is an excellent writer who puts in the work. He produces a great deal of original material and provides commentary on a larger stream of linked content. There is no foolproof get rich quick scheme at play, just a guy showing up every day and creating something he believes in. Whether you agree or disagree with his opinions, the way he has structured the reading experienced makes it obvious that he respects his readers.
Unfortunately the Daring Fireball approach is the exception to the norm. Social features have increasingly become tools that are cynically deployed against site visitors. Instead of helping, they hinder. Instead of making the Web a better place, they are have become just another manifestation of the manipulative, lazy attitude that so many online publishers have adopted because of reliance on the AdSense/affiliate links shell game, rather than on great writing.
Joe Wilcox takes Gruber to task for his no comments policy, and Gruber responds.
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