When Priceonomics was searching for a new writer, some of our applicants waxed romantically about digital journalism as a two-way street. "I think it's more of a conversation," one aspiring scribe told us in lamblike innocence. "You talk with people on Twitter, have conversations in the comments. You don't just talk to people anymore."
It felt a bit like being a grizzled political operator talking to an idealist who wants to run for Congress. The comments section is the beautiful, democratic future of journalism -- how adorable!
At Priceonomics, we believe we have an uncharacteristically intelligent and thoughtful readership. The quality of debate around our articles often impresses us. But when the wider Internet invades the comments page, the results can be downright depressing. There seems to be an inverse correlation between how much of an article someone actually reads and the strength of his or her opinion about it. This can lead to situations like the one below, where this author responded to a takedown of his article The Science of Snobbery:
Hey @NormalWine did you read the article? 6th paragraph reads "Wine is not bullshit." Would love your (& other somms') opinion of full post— Alex Mayyasi (@amayyasi) September 10, 2013
Writers quickly learn that the comments section is usually a sad place -- useful for seeing if readers catch mistakes or gaps in the argument, but not a good place to dwell or invite responses.
There's also this problem:
This is just our perception, but there seems to be some indication that readers who read thoughtfully generally don't engage online. The below chart is based on analysis of sites across the web. While it doesn't show who comments, we do see that the attentive reader who Likes, Tweets, and shares a post is a rarity compared to those who post their opinions on Twitter based on little more than a headline:
Source: Chartbeat in Time
No sour grapes though -- this makes thoughtful comments from people who read the article all the more amazing. When we see it happen, we actually are unreasonably happy and kind of believe in humanity again.
Dear Priceonomics readers in the center of the venn diagram: We love you. You're the reason we still read the comments section. You often make better points than we do in our articles. Please don't ever change.