Paid Comments, Do They Make Sense?

I posted a link about a newspaper site that will begin charging readers to leave comments. The fee is nominal ($0.99 one time) and the idea is noble. The basic theory operating behind this idea is that requiring people to use their real (full) names (and verify that by making them pay with a credit card) the quality of all the comments go up. Instead of comments looking like YouTube’s they look like those that people used to mail to editors.

The Concept

The paper will charge customers $0.99 to register – registration allows them to leave comments on the stories. Registration and the fees are one time only and must be paid using a credit card in the registrants name. Once registered users will not be able to change the name that is displayed when they leave a comment – it is the billing name that will be shown.

Due to this verified identity schema the paper believes that people will be more apt to leave comments of an intelligent and insightful (read: helpful) nature. Instead of just berating the journalist or the politician being talked about with slang and put-downs – actual evidence will be presented. This is all based on the idea that people are vain and when they can be called on something they said (in real life now) they will want to portray a sensible and smart self.

Thus in the end you have a cleaner commenting system, requiring less moderation and further engaging the readers of the story. In essence you have brought back the relevance of comments.

My Guess at the Reality

I think that very few people would argue that the above seems like the end goal of comments – make them relevant and engaging. However reality is much different from the concept. Conceptually we assume that people are smart and care about what people think of them. Further assume that no one will pay $0.99 to tell the writer that they suck.

In reality all people are not smart, and a lot of people simply do not care what others think of them. So what is stopping them from paying less than a dollar for the privilege of flaming on? Further we assume that people want to sound intelligent that thus will try to be intelligent. Have we forgotten that most people do indeed believe they are smart and (worse yet) right?

Have you ever tried to argue with someone that is completely miss informed about a situation and yet they believe whole heartedly that they are correct and you are nuts? It is painful and frustrating to do – these are the people leaving most of the problem comments. They will not go away with paid commenting solutions. This of course is not to imply that what they add to a conversation is hurtful, just that what they add to a conversation is not necessarily productive or the desired outcome.

Which brings us to perhaps the most contentious point of paid commenting systems – how do you moderate a paid comment? If someone is paying you to be able to comment on your article, can you then still remove the comment if you don’t find it tasteful? Certainly there are terms of service agreements, but that means you then need legal to step in and explain why a comment was removed. Given the sheer amount of poor comments this could prove to be quite a challenge, both fiscally and manpower wise.

The Real Problem

Comments are more noise than they are valuable. Let me offer and analogy: we all love Freeways even though they are incredibly noisy, they provide great value in moving us long distances in a short(er) periods of time. Comments though are like a Freeway that doesn’t take you anywhere you want to go – pointless and noisy.

The solution being proposed then is to change all the Freeways into Toll-ways where people now must pay to use them. The problem is that you will now have less noise, but you still won’t be going anywhere you want to go. You have only solved 50% of the problem. Comments won’t be great until you can foster an environment where people leave useful/constructive/informative/interesting comments.

The only way to get great comments is to take away the soapbox. That is the reason more and more blogs are moving away from comments that appear directly on the article to a commenting system where readers email the writer. I am all ears when people email me comments, or hit me up on Twitter it is really no different that having to send a letter to the editor. I take away the soapbox to remove the noise and make sure that we are going somewhere – this is the only model that currently works.

Originally posted for members on: July 19, 2010
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