There’s been a lot of discussion recently on the web about the tenor of conversations which take place there. Whether on blogs, news sites, Twitter, or personal Facebook pages, there seems to be a movement afoot, away from the free-for-all, anything goes, say what you will culture of instant reply that has so far been the dominant model adopted across the web.

This model has come from the search for as many eyeballs as possible, as many page views as possible to serve those advertising dollars that keep sites running. There is no better way to get people to come back to your site than by employing some classic link-bait strategies and posting a few incendiary pieces that are designed to trigger outrage among readers, and to keep them coming back to express their rage in comment boxes just waiting to spill over with vitriol and yet more page views.

But are all comments good? Probably not.

A wise person (though the shifting sands of time have made it hard to find out who exactly said it first) once said, “Never read the bottom half of the internet”. Matt Gemmell outlined the reasons by comments are not always a good thing. He is particularly lucid about the impulses which drive people to leave comments on the internet.

Comments encourage unconsidered responses. You’ve just read an article, you feel strongly about it, and you have a text field just waiting there. When disagreeing, people tend to be at their very worst when writing comments. They use language and tones which they’d never use in email, much less in person.

There is no problem with robust discussion, in fact it’s a hallmark of a healthy society, and there are comment communities which are vibrant and fun places to be. But mostly they aren’t, and they descend to the level of bully-pit with predictable speed, largely because most people don’t separate the writer from their argument and so attack the person, ad hominem, and not their ideas.

Lots of sites are introducing connect via Facebook, Twitter and Google, which could help to change the tone of conversations when commenters are tied to their real names, rather than anonymity-granting pseudonyms. For people who moderate comments, this is where editorial judgement about what kinds of conversations you want to engender in your communities really comes into it: moderating a community effectively is a full-time job, and if the resources can’t be allocated adequately to ensure this, than you are likely better off with not having comments at all. If people want to hurl insults at each other, that’s what football matches are for.