Why some comments are good and others suck

The comments on The Hannibal Blog tend to be excellent–witty, funny, sophisticated–which is a great thrill to me because it suggests that my blog draws interesting (and I dare say erudite) readers.

By contrast, the comments on the website of my employer, The Economist, tend overwhelmingly to be banal, moronic and useless. There are gems in there, but on they whole the comments are so bad that, internally, we recently spent a long, long time discussing what to do about that.

So I was delighted when I came across a very well-thought-out post on the blog of Nicolas Kayser-Bril, a media economist. Given the publication I write for, it should have occurred to me to apply the logic of economics to the problem. Oh well, Nicolas beat me to it.

The problem is captured, as Nicolas shows, in this chart:

As Nicolas explains,

the more commenters you have, the more likely it is that one of them is a troll. … That’s why I drew the blue curve of the marginal value of a single comment. It decreases as an inverse function of the number of commenters, itself a function of the size of the audience.

Hence the red line: as the audience grows in size, the total value of comments increases more slowly.

Now for moderation. I’m assuming that the cost of moderating a single comment remains constant, so that the total cost of moderation increases linearly. Just look at the curve. At some point, it costs more to moderate comments that to get rid of them…

My point is simply that a larger audience automatically leads to a conversation of lesser value, relative to the number of participants.

The answer to the vexing issue of why The Hannibal Blog has great comments while The Economist has awful comments thus appears shockingly simple: The former has a small audience, the latter a large audience.

I will let this percolate through my morning brain. There may be concrete, real-world implications in this….


7 thoughts on “Why some comments are good and others suck

  1. Andreas:

    I believe that the quality of your blog compels quality responses. Your posts are interesting and reveal the work of a person who is thinking and walks the walk in terms of research-the bonus is that the topics are evocative and poignant. In short, I have been challenged in fashioning my comments, hoping that they are parallel and of some value. So, without sounding like a suck-up, you present as a very well-read and interesting person and are an excellent writer. So, thanks for the challenge. I feel like my brain is once again getting some exercise.

    Steve B.

  2. Why, thank you, Steve.

    But now: You are hereby officially allowed, encouraged and entreated to produce comments that are patently silly from time to time.

    After all, I can’t have my commenters getting stage fright. Gulp. Where would that lead? πŸ˜‰

  3. Andreas,

    Thanks for noticing this post of mine πŸ™‚

    What I was writing concerned a moderating system ceteris paribus. You have tons of websites that run on user-input but that succeed in making it work.

    Take Wikipedia, for instance. Most articles gain from users’ contributions. When too many people come into the game, they have this locking system.

    For news websites, I think you’d need more social features to evaluate content. Highway( h.ua), a Ukrainian citJ websites, works this way and isn’t too bad. Food for thought at The Economist? πŸ˜‰

    Best,

    nicolas.

  4. Andreas:

    Thanks for the license! If you knew me better you would understand why I enjoy a little brain stretching on your site. Stage fright, I do not possess. In fact, the opposit is often true. Avocationally, I have a cover band (Blues and Rock-I play guitar, harmonica and do vocals), backpack and fly fish and still think that the skit “Constiutional Peasant” by Monte P. is of the best!

    Good health to you and yours in the New Year.
    Best,

    SB

  5. Thanks, Nicolas. Too bad h.ua is in Ukrainian. But this will definitely be food for thought at The Economist. Great work, by the way.

    Steve, good taste in farce. I love when the woman in the filth informs her “king” that he can’t be king because… “we’re an autonomous collective”.

  6. …strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony…

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