Pay to Play (In the Comments Section)

birdman-movieI got to the end of a provocative (read: just this side of troll-y) article on Tablet, and I noticed something I had never seen before: a short list of commenting charges.

COMMENTING CHARGES
Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

WAIT, WHY DO I HAVE TO PAY TO COMMENT?
Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who’d like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

This is genius. But don’t worry, we’ll never do it. 

Free news-y Internet sites have long struggled to figure out how to balance the desire for page views, impressions, and just general relevance with the need to keep the lights on. If you look in one direction, webmasters are erecting pay walls; if you look in the other, the same kind of folks are scrambling to tear them down.

The New York Times has been experimenting with various revenue-generating ideas for years. Remember when it tried charging for Op-Eds? All that happened was that fewer people suffered from Maureen Dowd migraines and David Brooks dyspepsia. The Times realized it needs the folks who hate read its opinion pages and gave us access again, before we could get too accustomed to health. Now it continues to tinker with its somewhat successful metered system.

Many users love to hate read comments. They also, or often, love to add their two cents at the end of a story. Why not capitalize on that urge? And, at the same time, why not discourage those who only want to lower the tone of a conversation?

Nieman Lab calls Tablet’s move a “troll toll.”

Putting up another barrier — one that necessitates a credit card, or at least a PayPal account — aims to disincentivize individuals whose only motivation is trolling from joining the conversation. The group blog Metafilter is one of the few to try a version of this model: Its members make a single payment of $5 for the ability to share links and comment on the site; reading remains free. The website says this system helps ensure trust in the community and that the quality of contributions is high. The comedy website Something Awful has a similar system, charging a one-time $10 fee for posting and reading access to its forums.

But comments can add something vital: they create a sense of community, as Capital New York points out.

The value of comments sections has been a hot topic over the past few months, with news outlets like The Chicago Sun-TimesPopular Science, Reuters, Re/code, Mic, The Week and Bloomberg switching off readers’ comments. Moderating such forums is expensive for companies with limited resources, and a lot of reader conversations have moved to social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. Comments sections can also, notoriously, devolve into exchanges of personal attacks and squabbles about subjects only tangential related to the posts they sit beneath.

On the other hand, some critics argue that the movement away from comments jeopardizes news organization’s ability to engage with readers and analyze their preferences.

“You see site after site killing comments and moving away from community—that’s a monumental mistake,” The Guardian’s executive editor of digital, Aron Pilhofer, said at a conference in London last week. “Any site that moves away from comments is a plus for sites like ours. Readers need and deserve a voice. They should be a core part of your journalism.”

On blogs like this one comments really are a core part of the site. I can’t imagine the Billfold without them; it would seem silent and lonely. A lot of you seem to come here as much to interact with each other as to hear what we have to say. But still, I’m interested to see what happens to Tablet and I applaud the site for trying something different. And, at least for now, it looks like you can still comment for free on Tablet’s blog Jewcy.

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