To push things forward, Facebook is going backward.
Facebook announced Thursday night that it will be revamping its News Feed, all in an effort to get users seeing more “meaningful” content from friends and family and spur engagement.
What does Facebook count as engagement around meaningful content? Well, it’s comments, especially long ones. That’s a big bet meant to change what people see, do, and feel when on Facebook.
The only thing is, comment culture on the internet might already be dead.
Don’t tell that to Zuck, who is putting the kibosh on posts from publishers.
Or, as The New York Times put it, “passive content”:
The changes are intended to maximize the amount of content with “meaningful interaction” that people consume on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, said in an interview. Facebook, he said, had closely studied what kinds of posts had stressed or harmed users. The social network wants to reduce what Mr. Zuckerberg called “passive content” — videos and articles that ask little more of the viewer than to sit back and watch or read — so that users’ time on the site was well spent.
Comments are an internet relic. Just think about the last time you put time into crafting a comment on something. Were you met with thoughtful, polite, and insightful commentary? Were you challenged intellectually? Was it the start of a critical discussion that expanded your view of the world? Did it make you… woke?
Chance are slim — and if you said yes you’re probably lying to yourself.
Unfiltered comments have become a dark, problematic underbelly of the internet. And websites, particularly in the media world, have more often chosen to go without them. Twitter, in many ways, has been publicly dealing with a similar realization for years, and its public reckoning hasn’t been pretty.
But you don’t have to think too far to a time on the internet where comments were a measure of currency. The internet was built on comments, from the newsgroups of the early internet to hyper-niche forums to the genuine sincerity of people asking fellow Yahoo! users about the correct way to care for a pet potato.
For publishers, comments became a measure of relevancy. Stories that garnered discussion were pushed forward, promoted, and re-circulated. Gawker founder Nick Denton was one of the biggest believers in this. He invested millions in building a comment-oriented blogging system called Kinja, saying that publishing should be a collaboration between writers and readers.
“Why wouldn’t you want to tap the opinions and expertise of your readership? Unless you are embarrassed by them,” he told Fortune.
It’s about the time that Denton really pushed forward with Kinja that internet comments seemed to peak. “Most commented” sections across media sites slowly became “Trending” pages. The phrase “don’t read the comments” went from tongue-in-cheek advice to a way of life on the internet. Trolls had won, at least when it came to the comments sections.
This couldn’t possibly end badly internet comments are always polite, well thought out intellectual discourse done with empathy and respect for others. https://t.co/7VVhkRrfq7
— Adam Singer (@AdamSinger) January 12, 2018
By the 2010s, comments sections were disappearing across the internet. Now you’d be hard pressed to find a comment section on the web that isn’t moderated by humans. Facebook, in fact, is one of the few places on the internet where unmoderated comments still exist.
All of this goes to say that Facebook’s wading back into this way of thinking feels, if nothing, outdated. And it’s doubling down. Just listen to Zuck:
For example, there are many tight-knit communities around TV shows and sports teams. We’ve seen people interact way more around live videos than regular ones. Some news helps start conversations on important issues. But too often today, watching video, reading news or getting a page update is just a passive experience.
There are places on the web where comments are flourishing — the biggest, of course, being Reddit. But it has human moderators, ones who choose to do so without pay. The down-voting system also gives users the power to push more relevant and/or helpful content to the top.
Reddit has also had its struggles. Even with its roots in internet anarchy, the company has been cracking down on hate speech and how users from certain subreddits can comment outside their home turf.
Facebook, in many ways, is trying to be Reddit, a place where engagement drives “meaningful content” to the most amount of eyes possible. The end goal here to to help communities flourish. Facebook’s pivot back to Groups in July aimed to push users with shared interests together. And the latest change to News Feed is aiming to do much of the same.
But, in today’s internet, comments aren’t the answer.
It would be if it were 2009.