We know already that “SEO consultants” are liars, or, as they would insist you write it, /03/10/11/we-know-already-that-%22seo-consultants%22-are-liars-32671.aspx/. When you pay a consultant to tell you how to rewrite your “content” to “optimize” it for “search engines,” that consultant is feeding you lies that perpetuate his own business.

If you want an analogy, corporate IT departments exist because the Windows systems they insist on buying crash constantly, are beset by security faults, and are so hostile and dangerous that actual users require constant handholding. Buy Macs and the reason for being of an IT department vanishes. Write intelligible content, mark it up semantically, and use slugs you can dictate over the phone and the reason for being of an “SEO consultant” also vanishes.

Now let’s look at another colony of industry parasites whose entire message is based on a lie: Consultants in “community engagement.” They’re the ones who counsel newspapers to install comment sections on news stories, even though these are a proven failure in every respect. They even cost money to police, which should be your first clue right there.

But they’re wrong in principle. As I’ve explained before, even if we accept there are overt and covert biases in news reporting, at root we are reporting the facts, and a newspaper has no interest whatsoever in what readers’ opinions of the facts are. Nobody cares what you think about the fact that two plus two equals four. There is certainly no cause to install a forum in which anonymous cowards yell at each other, which is what every newspaper comment section becomes.

But to admit all that is to admit that high-profile advisors who have been wrong from start to finish, like Mathew Ingram, were actually wrong from start to finish – and you wasted your money hiring them. It would be an admission that clients hired consultants to recommend a method that is a known failure. It would further admit that maintaining comment sections is throwing good money after bad, and that doing so is an injury – self-inflicted, no less – to the stature and repute of journalism.

We now have a new colony of parasites

It’s the professional apologist for anonymous commenting. Today’s exemplar is Adario Strange (no relation). He makes two mistakes: Asserting that “the conversation” is in some respect valuable, which is akin to asserting that God created the earth in six days, and comparing comments to letters to the editor. Here, though, he gives the game away:

[W]hile anonymous trolling comments are indeed one of the troublesome aspects of featuring comments on certain sites, […] anonymous [sic] can be an incredibly effective way to fuel reader engagement.

“Trolling comments” aren’t the actual issue, though it is another in the constellation of lies and misdirections charlatans charge good money to feed you. The moral argument against comment sections as obvious, and as unspoken, as their worthlessness: Comments hurt real people.

Site owners act as though they have no responsibility whatsoever for personal invective and insults expressed in their comment sections. Legalities mean nothing here; the sites are the owners’ and everything that takes place on those sites is the owners’ responsibility. Permitting personal attacks is an approval of those attacks.

It is flagrantly false that the cost of free expression in comment sections is hurting a few people here and there. That cost is much too high, and it is amoral and inhumane to pretend that your own indifference to the suffering of others is the minimum level everyone must tolerate. Your “thick skin” is really a form of callousness or autistic-spectrum disorder. When you allow personal attacks on your site, you are the co-author of those attacks and you wear them.

Anonymous commenters are the worst offenders, but of course they aren’t the only ones. Nonetheless, experience shows that associating real names with comments prevents people from launching into personal attacks. Running your commenter-authentication system through Facebook or Twitter opens up you and your commenters to a range of privacy dangers, yes. But privacy is an accepted topic of conversation; the personal harm caused by the alternative is not discussed. That’s almost as bad as the harm itself.

When you run a comments-enabled site, you have an ethical responsibility to police the fuck out of it to ensure that nobody gets hurt – not your worst enemy, not somebody you think got off easy this time, not somebody “everyone hates anyway,” not anybody. If you aren’t doing that, then you are actually in the business of inflicting harm on others. You are running an amoral business. You are profiting off the suffering of others even if no money changes hands.

It’s even more shocking when mature people who should know better, like Zeldman, outsource commenting to Twitter, the most efficient cyberbullying medium that networks have ever known. Twitter induces insults and invective. It is almost a truism of the medium. (And it just got a local journo fired – a couple of months, I should note, after I separately complained to his bosses about his cyberbullying of me.)

Meanwhile, as I explained already, the only site of note where comments actually work, MetaFilter, succeeds because four people tend to every corner of the site 24 hours a day and an entire auxiliary forum is set up to air grievances about itself. They’re doing something right, since MetaFilter is 11 years old, has about 70,000 active users, just passed its 100,000th post on MetaFilter proper, is profitable, and actually pays those four people. And if you need to post anonymously, you can, within limits.

And your newspaper site is what?

Your defunct blog about a public broadcaster, run from a foreign country under a voided pseudonym, is what?

Your career as a proponent of “joining the conversation” and “community engagement” is what?

The first thing you want to do in response to this posting is what?

At some point, you’re going to have to snap out of your denial. Comments are a proven failure on news sites and are a minefield of personal harm everywhere.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2011.03.10 14:55. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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