Helen Lewis wrote an interesting post back in April about the value of comments on websites. In it, she equated a thread of comments to a Giant Lavatory Wall on the web and rightly asked what the business case was for an expensive community and moderation team.
I didn’t get round to writing a response to some of the points she made at the time (including the number of moderators and community co-ordinators the Guardian employs, which wasn’t particularly accurate) and won’t go into it here but one comment thread on The Times last week made me think back to Helen’s piece.
It was on an article about how the rate of suicides of men aged between 35 and 54 had risen. Depression was mentioned in the article as a possible cause of the rise (apparently, many men feel they can’t ask for help and become psychologically and emotionally trapped) and one commenter left a comment saying he’d had ‘dark thoughts’ himself.
The following is a screenshot of a portion of the comment thread which took place, with names and any identifying features removed. In short, it shows Times readers associating with his problem, giving him advice and wishing him well in his quest to get back to full health. I was able to point him in the direction of the Samaritans and, after this gentleman, a number of other commenters said that they had experienced similar feelings of helplessness. In all, there were 69 comments, almost all of which people were sympathetic and compassionate and, at the end, the man in question seemed genuinely grateful for the response. It was lovely to see.
Now, obviously, we don’t know if the man in question has depression and, clearly, the people who responded to him aren’t all mental health experts and therefore you can question the value of their responses. There’s also the fact that this is an issue rather than directly news related (which I think have different challenges around comments). But putting those aside briefly and judging by his reaction, to me this shows the value of comments.
I’m not saying this is the case across The Times but it is a nice example that shows the role comments can play on a general news site.