Getting my time back on the Internet

Part 1: Comment sections, engagement, and karma whoring

You don't have time to do all the things you want to do. That's a fact proven by science1. And the older I get the harder it is for me to justify spending long stretches doing things that are just for entertainment and nothing else2. I still do those things, of course, but the way I go about them has changed.

I rarely watch movies.3 I look at the time involved to watch a movie (usually around an hour and a half to two hours or more) and I just feel bad about blocking out that much time to do something where I know that I'll be occupied for that long. Of course I still watch movies sometimes, but I would usually, given the choice, opt to watch a television show instead. Most television shows are a half hour to an hour, which is less time than a movie, so it's easier to for me to clear that mental hurdle to get started on it.

Around the beginning of the 2000's I got a job that required me to move out of state. I roomed with a guy who didn't have cable service and and antenna was insufficent to get much in the way of any over the air television stations, so I ended up de facto giving up television for about nine months in 2005. I tried to keep up with the shows I was watching via bittorrent, but gave that up pretty quickly.

When I left that job and moved to an area where I could get cable and OTA service again, the landscape of what was being shown on channels had changed. More and more channels were doing these mini-marathons of shows where they would show four or six or eight episodes in a row, seven days a week. These were shows I had missed for a variety of reasons, so it was convenient to be able to catch up on shows that I didn't really follow all that much when they were new. Not only that, but since they were showing blocks of the show every day it was easy to get caught up with the show's episodes pretty quickly.

And I did.

At the time I had a TV tuner in my computer and I constantly had a window tuned to whatever television channel I was 'watching' while I farted around on the Internet. I had no mental block about watching these shows like this because the marginal cost4 of each show was only a half hour. I can do a half-hour.

But those marginal costs add up quickly. Each one isn't all that much, but if you're not careful, you can spend an entire afternoon watching Scrubs reruns.

And I did.5 Frequently.

It was about this time that I started to notice that I was playing fewer video games (which caused my backlog to balloon faster than ever before) and that I didn't seem to have the time to do some of the things that I used to, even a few months prior when I was putting in insane hours at a video game development studio. I chalked it up to 'being an adult' and having to do Adult Things™ like mowing the lawn or taking the cat to the vet that took up too much of my time.

I kept up this delusion for years. I even made charts to see where my time goes in a week to prove to myself that I just didn't have the kind of time I needed to do things. But I had time to watch these mini-marathons on television, which I didn't question for a long time. It's just what people did. It's what I did.

Long story slightly shorter: I gave up cable and got a Netflix subscription. I got sick shortly after and binged the entire series run of Star Trek that week. Then other shows. Netflix just made it so easy to do (and, in fact, make it easier now than ever). Besides, it's just one more episode. What's another 44 minutes? Or 22 minutes, depending?

After I burned through the shows I was interested in and searched in vain for something that I could binge again, I had a realization: I was just wasting time and money. I canceled my Netflix subscription and went to an over the air antenna.

Over the last few years, over the air television has seen a bit of reinvention. The switch to digital has allowed the television stations to carve up their signals to offer up 'subchannels' with completely different programming than their main channel. Most of the networks on these subchannels show the same mini-marathons of shows that were popular 20 years ago or more. They seem to have settled on two or three hour blocks of one show, then the next, then the next6.

I realized that this has to do with engagement. Television stations sell ad space between the shows that they air. The more eyeballs that are on the channel at any given time means that that ad space is more valuable, so it behooves the operator of the station to provide content that will keep people 'engaged'. An easy way to do this is to show a lot of programming that was popular when it was new. People seems to be predisposed to rewatch something again and again that they already know they like because they watched it 20 years ago or more, plus there's probably a twinge of nostalgia in there, too. The particulars don't really matter all that much, I'm not a psychologist or anything7, but that's the general idea: driving engagement. Once I realized this, I started to remove OTA television from my life, too8.

Which brings me to comment sections on websites.

Back when Slashdot was a site worth vistiting, there was a sentiment that the comments were usually better than the article. That was mostly true. The site was called a blog, but it was a glorfied forum. The moderators picked a few news articles every day as topics, and the community discussed them at length. A particular story might get hundreds or thousands of comments, and a lot of those were by people very knowledgeable about the topic, so you could learn a lot. The comments were the content for a lot of people.

And, like most websites that reach a specific size, ads were introduced as a way to defray costs of running it. Typically, when ads come into the picture, things change.

This isn't an anti-ad article9, if someone has decided to try and make money with their website and ads are the way they decided to do it, then that's their call. But, just like the television stations (and radio, too, if we're being honest), the more ads you can sell, the more money you can get. It becomes very tempting to succumb to the temptation to do everything in your power to optimize your site (or television station or radio station) for delivering ads instead of not-ads (i.e. what's colloquially known as 'the content'). And once you've done that, then the goal becomes to keep people around as long as possible so that you can show them as many ads as possible.

It turns out that comment sections are one of the easiest ways that you can drive engagement. Especially if you can pair commenting with the 'right kind' of article.

If you write an article or comic or web page or whatever and there's no comment section under it, it will get some number of views. If your content is particulary well done, it might get a few more, which means that there is some incentive there to make your content as good as possible so more people come to consume it. Once you add commenting to your content, then the whole dynamic changes. Conversations start, people come back over and over to check for responses to their comments or to make new comment threads. The number of 'clicks' on the content goes up even though those people only read the article once. Now we're attaching the popularity of the article to the amount of comments that it gets. Since each new comment is potentially a new pageview and a new chance to show an ad, it makes sense to retool your content into something that will generate more comments since more comments means more pageviews and more pageviews means more ad impressions and more ad impressions means more money.

But writing good articles is hard work, and visitors to Big Site™ want lots of articles all day every day. So you still write the well-researched hard-hitting pieces, but you also sandwich them between fluff. Shorter, lower-effort stuff, usually devoid of anything actually useful, designed to generate lengthy comment threads. Stuff with a headline like Internet thinks <x> about <y>, but the article is just a bunch of twitter posts or instagram pictures, usually with the most inflammatory or wrong-headed viewpoints the author could find with the hopes of generating a huge discussion and generating lots of pageviews in the process.

But then you might start to wonder why you need to bother writing articles at all if the comments are the real money maker. Then you end up with aggregators that don't publish anything original, they just post links to things that other people have created and just host discussions for that10.

But then you might start to wonder why you need to bother with aggregating things at all? Comments are the real moneymaker, after all. What if you had a site that was just a giant comment section? Then you might end up with something like twitter.

Twitter is optimized for engagement. Each tweet is short, so the marginal cost of every additional tweet you read or write is just a couple of seconds. It's easy to read or write 'just one more' tweet over and over again until you accidentally wasted an hour instead of the few minutes you intended to spend on it. Most tweets are content free. They take almost no time to write, no time to read, and are almost always completely useless. Yet, that site is consistently in the top 50 websites on the Internet according to Alexa11. Because they have maximized their site for engagement.

It's not maximized for usefulness. It's not designed for conversations (even though twitter claims that it is). It's essentially nothing. Sure, there are exceptions. Some tweets are very informative, usually the informative ones are ones that link to something someone else wrote on some other site. And if the link to the thing you posted gets a thousand 'likes' a hundred 'retweets' and dozens of reaction .gifs (that someone else made), it feels good for a little bit to get that recognition. But then what?

Do you keep posting things that get reactions? Trying to outdo yourself to get more and bigger numbers to show up under your posts? I've gone down that path and I didn't like where it took me. Once I separated the notion that my posts and websites were only as good as the number of likes and started posting things that I wanted rather than what I thought people wanted me to post and I stopped being fixated on my 'stats', all of those numbers started to become meaningless.

And once that happened, the siren call of places like twitter lost its effectiveness on me12,13. If I don't care how my posts are doing, then why am I wasting time there with their artifical limits and endless tweaking of the timeline in an effort to get me to spend more time there when I could be doing my own thing my own way instead?

Comment sections can be useful, true, and I'll probably still participate in commenting systems around the Internet occasionally if I have something to say. But I won't get caught up in the hunt for more karma points. If some article that takes five minutes to read and it generates a thousand comments, I'm not going to spend two hours sifting through the comments to find something interesting, and I'm probably not going to post in it, either, since my comment will likely get lost in the noise anyway.

Besides, I have better things to do.


  1. Or a supposition made by some guy on the Internet
  3. Yes, I know that was an excellent segue. Thank you for noticing! ☻
  4. This is an economics term that basically means the cost of buying or consuming one additional unit of something.
  5. I'm just using Scrubs as an example. The actual shows I ended up binging changed frequently for a while.
  6. Very occasionally it'll be a block of one hour or, *gasp*, one half-hour episode
  7. Thankfully
  8. I'm not ready to give up my television completely, though. I stil use it to play the occasional video game, and it's nice to have during a severe weather outbreak
  9. I already wrote that article on another website and I don't feel like rewriting it again today
  10. Note that I'm leaving web forums out of this discussion, those are a different beast that deserve their own article
  11. Which is also not a super useful metric, since its data is skewed, but it's a starting point, anyway
  12. Full disclosure: as of this writing, I'm still using twitter some, but I'm down to less than one post a day, and I don't obsessively check it every time I have an idle second. I mostly use it to tell people I know in real life about things I'm doing because I'm just about the only person I know that still uses email
  13. See also Slashdot's karma system, Hacker News's point system, whatever the point system on Reddit is called, and so on.

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