An interesting message appeared on Twitter this week. It was one of those “Huh?” announcements surely meant to draw followers to a more in-depth link. Well, it worked – I clicked it. On September 24, 2013, Popular Science magazine tweeted “Why we’re shutting off our comments” and included a link to the article bearing the same title. Written by Suzanne LaBarre , the online content director of Popular Science explains why “PopularScience.com will no longer accept comments on new articles.”
As a blogger team member here at Amazing Stories, I believe the comments section is an important element in membership involvement and vital to a growing fandom. The compassion of the fan base is evident through the willingness to appreciate, add to, and even debate the articles posted every day. We hope for and encourage reader involvement. We’re all part of this family of fans, and it should feel like a home. Like other sites, we are not immune to the occasional heated argument or rare inappropriate comment, but you can’t deny that this also reflects the heartfelt emotion from dedicated members of the fandom. How we embrace and utilize this unique form of communication will eventually determine the future growth of this fandom.
So, what went wrong? Why is popsci.com taking a step back from “interactive” status?
Crediting a study led by Professor Dominique Brossard of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reader perception of stories can be skewed by remarks made by others via the comments section. Of course this is only a brief summary of the study, but according to LaBarre, “If you carry out those results to their logical end–commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch.”
“The Future Now” is part of their logo and the basis of being an accepted media outlet for new cutting-edge technologies, so it’s understandable that Popular Science wants to assure its readers of concise purified reporting. But from a long time subscriber, it is both eye opening and depressing at the same time. Is this the true future of on-line comments?
The internet might have provided the anonymity to some of those otherwise too reluctant to contribute to discussions, but the ambiguity of a few ill-intended participants should not force us to shut down a valuable resource – one helping the community of fandom grow.
In this Wiki-influenced world of instant information, the ability to validate reliable sources becomes grayer and grayer every day. All facts are only as good as the sources used. But with that said, I also believe readers need to take some of the responsibility in separating researched information from obtuse comments. The dedication to story authenticity by Popular Science makes sense and should be applauded, but the willingness to cut reader participation in fear of misrepresentation does not. Surely there must be other options?
LaBarre pointed out that Popular Science still encourages reader comments through other outlets like “Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, livechats, email, and more.” I’m not sure if these avenues were included in the original research. But seeing how I first found out about Suzanne LaBarre’s article via Twitter, I can’t help but question the thoroughness of Professor Brossard’s findings. Can’t story perception be skewed through comments on these other outlets as well?
It should be pointed out that Popular Science will still open the comments section to a few “select articles that lend themselves to vigorous and intelligent discussion” This harkens back to the ink-and-paper editions of magazines where an editor selects a few choice “letters to the editor” for publication along with an editorial rebuttal. If you’re like me, it was one of my favorite parts of a magazine because it gives the reader a voice. I’m glad Popular Science is at least considering this option. Sometimes I agreed with the letters and sometimes I didn’t. But in the end, seeing a letter by Joe Citizen from Small-Town Somewhere always seemed to give me a sense of partnership with the publication.
Popular Science has always been one of my go-to sites for current events in science and technologies – and a great source for science fiction writing prompts. Yes, this also includes some of the insightful questions derived from the comments section as well. Oh, I’ll continue to go there. But the absence of reader comments might make me feel less at home.
(Editor’s Note: It is the stated policy of Amazing Stories that: 1. Your comments should be relevant to the subject being discussed.
2. Your comments should be directed to the SUBJECT, not the post author or other members who are participating in the discussion.)