Is it the beginning of the end for online comments?

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image captionThe Daily Dot recently became the latest news website to get rid of user comments

Vibrant online communities? Or cesspools of abuse? Have comments had their day?

The debate about comment sections on news sites is often as divisive as the comments themselves. Recently outlets such as The Verge and The Daily Dot have closed their comments sections because they've become too hard to manage. And they're far from alone. Moderating comments is a full-time job (or several full-time jobs) at many news organisations. Officiating comments on a BBC News story requires knowledge of more than a dozen different disqualifying categories. Alongside shouting, swearing and incivility, comment sections can also attract racism and sexism. BBC Trending recently found evidence of the latter when looking at live streaming app Periscope.

That's the downside. But it's also worth remembering that many news organisations - including the BBC - have used comments sections to make real connections with audiences, find stories, and turn what was once a one-way street into a multi-headed conversation.

So are comments on news websites still useful, or have they had their day? Trending asked The Daily Dot editor Nicholas White and Marie Lyn Bernard, aka Riese, of the LGBT website Autostraddle for their, um, comments on the issue.

Nicholas White, editor, The Daily Dot

In our experience, our community hasn't evolved in our comments. It's evolved in our social media accounts.

To have comments, you have to be very active, and if you're not incredibly active, what ends up happening is a mob can shout down all the other people on your site. In an environment that isn't heavily curated it becomes about silencing voices and not about opening up voices.

For us, it's partially a question of where to put scarce resources. I can't point to any specific comment and say it's the straw that broke the camel's back. There was no point at which somebody said something which was so vile and horrendous that we said: "That's it, we're done!" It was more that we weren't seeing the conversation happen on our site. It wasn't bad comments rather than a lack of conversation.

Our "favourite" type of comment is from people who clearly haven't read the article. When our users start trolling us, we gently troll them back. Although our guideline is that you should always act as a journalist. So if someone is saying something that's absolutely wrong, we'll answer back with something like "If you observe in paragraph three, the point that's made there directly contravenes what you said." We try to be journalistic trolls and we do it with a bit of a wink.

That said, there is a line, and there are people who are absolutely vicious, who we ignore and block and don't engage.

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Riese, co-founder and editor-in-chief, Autostraddle

Comments have been a big part of our community from the very beginning. I started out as a blogger and so did many of the founding team. For us, comments were always key to what we were writing.

For our community, a lot of what they go online for is to connect with other people like them. The comments section is a place where people make friends, and where we get valuable feedback and build community among our writers and readers. From the start, we never considered not having comments.

I completely understand why The Daily Dot wouldn't want to have comments - or in fact why most websites wouldn't want to have comments. I think 75% of the time they're more trouble than they're worth, and for us it's still a lot of work to keep up on.

Not all of our users are necessarily on Facebook or are out as gay on Facebook, or are comfortable talking about queer stuff on Facebook. We keep comments on the site which is a safe space for people to exchange ideas - and that's a big factor for us.

Conversations about comments sections seem to concentrate on the most awful trolls who say things like "You're fat", "You should die" and that sort of thing. But actually those are easy to deal with, because you can just delete the comment, and block the person. There's another category which is more difficult, which is people who didn't read the article, but have some sort of personal agenda and a point to make. There's always going to be people who have things to say which just aren't productive.

Nicholas White and Riese were in conversation with Anne-Marie Tomchak on BBC Trending radio - if you want to hear more about this story stream the programme or download our podcast.

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