Replace comments with letters pages

I like this, a CSS file that hides comments on many popular websites. It feels a bit like we’re very slowly turning a corner when it comes to how we think of commenting (unless it’s merely my wishful thinking).

Comments can be great of course. I generally find comments on my own site useful, pleasant, interesting and ego-stroking. Because my site isn’t very popular so I don’t get many. But we all know that any hugely popular site will generate dozens, hundreds of comments on any page, which almost no one will read through.

(I like to think The Diary of Samuel Pepys sits at a lucky point on this continuum: popular enough to generate a bunch of interesting comments from nice people every day, but not popular enough to drown in noisy idiots.)

Comments on YouTube are a standing joke for their dumbness. BBC News’ Have Your Say has a site dedicated to highlighting its worst nonsense. Engadget recently turned off its comment system for a while because things had “gotten out of hand”.

Over the past decade or more we’ve developed many systems to allow the good comments to bubble to the top. Some work a bit, some don’t. Often they’re a little too complicated for the mass-appeal sites that have the biggest problems.

So maybe popular sites should simply turn comments off.

If I was an attention-seeking, “controversial” columnist I’d be saying this is the only solution. ALL comments are bad, the internet is RUBBISH and ALL commenting should be BANNED! Bring back Web 1.0!

I’m not saying this, just that maybe comments don’t always help.

I expect many stubborn, old-media institutions have only recently come round to the idea that such “user-generated content” should feature on their websites. Maybe they were right to be cautious. Comment sections on most popular sites provide an outlet for people who become noisy, aggressive and egotistical online. I don’t know how you’d decide when comments will add to a site and when they’ll just provide a place where a tiny community of people will get shouty. It’s tricky and there’s no one solution for everybody.

But here’s what I’d like to see more of: letters pages. Edited, curated letters pages.

I enjoy reading letters in print publications. People who have something worth saying have taken the trouble to write or email in, and the best have been chosen to be printed. This doesn’t preclude discussion among the readers: the back-and-forth can go on for months. And the letters can, online, be added to the original article. For example, this London Review of Books article about the @ sign features a great, but brief, discussion spanning four months. All signal, no noise, and worth waiting for.

So maybe something more like that would be a more interesting solution for high-traffic sites. Replace moderators with editors who select submitted comments and then collate the best ones into a daily or weekly article for the site. It’s not as immediate, but that’s nice sometimes. A breather. Room to think.

I’m not sure it would work for something like YouTube, but maybe it would be best for more focused sites with their own content. I go to them to read their content, after all, not to hear from every fellow reader with something to get off their chest. Maybe, for sites that originated in print, it would merely be an expansion of their current letters pages.

Anyway, I just thought it would be far more civilised, and interesting, than the usual knee-jerk morass of comments threads in which the few valuable responses get lost.


  • I beg to differ. While many news communities are simply white noise, others contribute massively to the news article in question.

    To me, the best example would be the Guardian's blogs. I often find the below the line comments to be more interesting than the articles themselves.

    Letters and user comments are only similar in that they are both written by readers. Letters have no sense of immediacy, and do not lend themselves very well to back-and-forth debates. How many times have you read a written 'debate' between two academics in a newspaper or magazine and felt frustrated by a) how much time they spent introducing and concluding their arguments b) the way the debate gets side-tracked so easily (mainly due to pressures of brevity - no letter exchange goes on for more than 3 rounds)?

    Imagine my dismay when, just last week, the Guardian's mobile site stopped loading up the various user comments. Instead, my android phone now loads the articles in a 'mobile-friendly' format (i.e. resized and linear, with fewer images, and absolutely none of the user comments). Talk about a step backwards.

Commenting is disabled on posts once they’re 30 days old.

4 Feb 2010 at Twitter

  • 10:05pm: @phl Most things are probably my fault if you look too closely. Glad you got it working.
  • 3:12pm: 1357 comments on the Pepys site requiring attention after an old database mangling. At least 24 hours' dull work I reckon. Onward. Upward.
  • 11:21am: Right now my twitter feed is made up of 90% fictive characters from Pepys' world, and various Pretend Office employees.
  • 11:01am: @anothersam No problem - email me tomorrow if you still need a hand.
  • 10:13am: Having upgraded to Movable Type 5 yesterday, the admin interface's "News" widget is now announcing Movable Type 4.3 in July 2009...
  • 9:44am: @anothersam Let me know if you need a second eye on your Movable Type problem - I'm not very busy today.

4 Feb 2010 in Links