Good comments can turn an OK story into a great one. Great comments can easily eclipse the post they're attached to. We're not here to talk about those.
We're here to talk about the dregs, the scum, the poison. We're here to talk about the reason most people don't read the comments, and even fewer people bother writing them.
We're here to figure out who has the worst comments on the internet.
Newspaper and TV Channel Sites
Why? Hahahhaa, have you ever been to the New York Post website? Look at any story about crime, particularly ones where the alleged perpetrators aren't white. This is some grim stuff — deeply angry, unequivocally unproductive 30-word conniptions by people who seem to hate everything and everyone. The problem runs so deep that even a switch to a Microsoft/Facebook-powered commenting system didn't stem the flow of vitriol.
Other sites don't fare much better. These guys have been accepting comments FOREVER, so you'd think they'd have them under control by now. But a lot of them, particularly smaller papers, are fighting an uphill battle: they cover everything, so their audiences are broad; they're often using off-the-shelf websites and comment systems, so their technology is poor; they're understaffed, so their moderation is weak; they're often writing about big national news, but anyone with any savvy is probably reading or posting somewhere else. If you're writing a comment on a local news syndication of an AP wire story about international affairs, it's safe to assume that nobody needs to hear your opinion.
As for the big TV sites, I think it's just a matter of volume. Imagine the kind of person who would go to CNN.com to "be heard". Now imagine 1,000 of those people all talking at once.
Worst offenders: NYP, any local paper, CNN
Sliver of hope: The big guys — NYT in particular — have learned to moderate comments extremely aggressively. (Read: they just delete them all.) It's not a fix, but the bandage is working pretty well.
Why? This one is NEAR AND DEAR to my heart, because I've been wading through tech blog comments for years. The problem with tech commenters isn't that they're especially mean or ill-informed, it's that they think they own the place. Tech news used to dominate the internet to an extent that made tech-minded people feel very important. This is not true anymore! But tech commenters still have this unearned confidence and, to use the least appropriate word possible, "swagger". Everyone's an idiot to a tech commenter. Everyone is also: a fanboy, biased, on the payroll for a major company, etc.
It used to be that whenever culture entered into the conversation, the aggrieved nerd id would emerge and things would get dark. This doesn't happen so much anymore — rarely does a comment section below a post about new Beats by Dre headphones immediately devolve into a shouty panel discussion on "the gangster rap problem" and "reverse racism." HOWEVER, tech blog commenters still have a REAL HARD TIME talking about women. Point this out and you become The Problem.
Worst offenders: Depends on what you're looking for. The Techcrunch/BusinessInsider comments are overloaded with ego, but generally a bit more mature. The Gizmodo/Verge comments are prone to more of the above, but at least some people are having fun there. The worst is probably Engadget. It's just... too much.
Sliver of hope: There's a promising strain of positivity in the comments at the Verge, which are alienating only in that they're a little clubby. Sites that employ writers that seem to like things tend to foster a better discussion, and lack of snark makes "BIAS JOURNLIZMM" commenters look like scrooges.
Why? You could argue that these were doomed from the start. It's hard to talk about politics at the dinner table with your own family, so why would it go well online, in a semi-anonymous comment section?
I suppose we should keep this definition narrow, though. There are safe places to discuss "politics," or more accurately ideas related to politics, online. This seems especially true on sites centered around individual people — see Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic, for example.
But sites that are about politics, as in the process, personalities and controversies of the American political process, are much more treacherous. At the moment there's a stark divide between the commenting problems on liberal and conservative sites. Conservative sites, like FoxNation, have an extremism problem, serving as soapboxes for people who are comfortable saying overtly offensive and insensitive things that they might not be able to say in daily life. Liberal sites, like the Huffington Post, where a single article can exceed 10,000 comments (why????) are prone to bloviation and an endless cycle of building then tearing down straw men. Each looks nasty to even to people who broadly agree with it; but man, wade into a comment section on a site you generally disagree with. It's a nice reminder that thousands of people really, really, truly hate you.
But I think this may be more of an incumbency thing, too? Like, people feel OK writing unhinged comments about the most powerful people/groups in the world. Anyway!
Worst offenders: FoxNation, Politico, HuffPo
Sliver of hope: I don't know, most people know not to read them? Also, they've never once changed a single person's mind, I'm pretty sure.
Celebrity Gossip Sites
Why? Raw, personal, directed cruelty. Because the subjects of the stories are famous, commenters feel like they can say absolutely anything about them. Nobody's really angry at Kim Kardashian, I don't think. They're angry about plenty of other things, though, and she's a perfect proxy. They say all the stuff a mean person might say behind a friend or coworker's back, except they do it in public. They call people names, they bully, and they revel in it. They're also unusually, I don't know, lazy? Stupid? I don't want to stoop to their level and start calling them names, but these comments don't reflect much effort.
Worst offenders: TMZ, Perez Hilton
Sliver of hope: The same young people who might've commented on a Perez story five years ago have since moved on to Twitter, where only their friends can hear them.
Why? Facebook comments are unique in that they're everywhere. Lots of sites, including this one, use Facebook commenting modules, often next to other comments. Sometimes they're much better. Often they're worse. Overall, I'd say they're less vitriolic than anonymous comments on account of being connected to actual identities.
But they have a surreal, floating quality that other comments don't — often they're from people who discovered a post on Facebook, so they're directed more at their friends and family than at the readers of a story. This seems to moderate them a bit. It also makes them kind of useless for everyone. That said, I'm still routinely shocked by the things people will put next to links to their personal profiles. (See above.)
Sliver of hope: For a comment system that has over 800m users, Facebook comments are actually not as bad as they could be. Maybe it's just that the average person is less obnoxious than the average commenter.
Why? YouTube is a comment disaster on an unprecedented scale. All of the worst things that could be said have been said here: YouTube IS the room with the million monkeys and the million typewriters, but they haven't even gotten half-way though Hamlet yet because they're too busy pitching feces at one another.
YouTube comments read like gibberish and don't really seem connected to one another. Content ranges from typed grunts to racist sentence fragments to nonsensical homophobic outbursts. Nothing is off-limits. The only way these comments could be worse is if Google's spam filters stopped working completely. The above image, for reference, is the top-voted comment on a Willow Smith video.
Sliver of hope: I mean, you can't see comments on embedded YouTube videos, so that's nice. But really there isn't one.
YouTube wins. Everyone else can go home. I'm weirdly OK with this? I mean nobody in the history of the world ever said, "I go to YouTube for the comments," right?
Anyway, post your votes in the com... wait, actually, just scream them into your toilet. THANKS.