Can $5 Improve Reader Comments?

On the Web site thatsaspicymeatball, you can view the latest comments from MetaFilter (which requires a one-time, $5 membership fee to post a comment) and YouTube (free) side by side.

The site’s creator, Bertrand, uses Yahoo Pipes to retrieve comments from the most recent posts on both sites and displays them on one page, which is updated every hour or so.

Here’s how a poster from each site expresses disagreement:


And here’s where we diverge, as we have from the get-go …


yeah you’re dumb you expect me to shut up because you tell me to? ha yeah sure

And as a comparison, the Huffington Post (no membership fee to comment):

… I forgive your comments, because it is based on ignorance. Here are the facts.

Bertrand’s comparisons leave him wondering what drives the quality of a Web site’s comments: is it the membership fee, the age or demographics of the posters, or the level of comment moderation? (YouTube has virtually none, while MetaFilter has very little.)

Maybe the answer lies in what motivates readers to comment in the first place.

(Hat tip: Paul K.)


You can't diverge from divergement. It's silly.

I suppose you can't diverge from divergence, but you can do whatever you want with divergement.

On a conceptual level, the MF comment was perfectly acceptable. Perhaps the Metafilter commenter should have said, "here we continue to diverge, as we have from the get-go" ...but that's splitting syntactical hairs, isn't it?



... you had to see it coming.

Seriously, though; it's all about demographic. The average youtube viewer and commenter is likely to be a kid under the age of 19, who has grown up in a world devoid of personal responsibility on the Internet because there is little to none of it.


I guess then it is up to each site to determine if the loss of the good commenters without money is > or

I can sympathize with this point, being that I'm from India and I don't have a credit card (and the $5 dollar sum, although not unreasonable, was a bit of a barrier for me to get in; I wasn't aware that I could've mailed cortex or jessamyn about this though and asked for their assistance), I think it's necessary to moderate the site to some extent, and, like cortex mentioned, reduce the signal to noise ratio.

Doug Nelson

Removing even the slightest bit of anonymity helps a lot. I suspect it's more than the $5 or $9.95, it's the addition of consequences, impossible in total anonymity.

I simply built a database of freemail domains and banned them all. The quality of posts jumped instantly when they realized they couldn't simply reregister if banned.


Metafilter was high quality even before they started charging 5$ for membership. The "average" metafilter member is probably slightly smarter than average. The site is relatively small and well moderated.

The "average" youtube member is likely of average intelligence, since the site is so incredibly popular, and there is almost no moderation.

I think moderation > 5$


A further comparison: I am (on hiatus as) the senior moderator at (>1000 posts per day). We have somewhat defined rules, light moderation, and very little true idiocy. It's also free.

This comes down to the fact that we've got a higher percentage of long-term members than most forums and a greater community aspect, as well as it being a single forum, restarted daily (previous days back to 1997 are available for posting at any time), so it's not a chore to see all the comments and what needs to be moderated.


MetaFilter attracts people who want to be part of a community, and understand that there are certain standards that must be upheld in order to be a member in good standing. The good news is, there's tremendous latitude in the community standards; it's a big tent. You are far more likely to be called on the carpet for posting something dumb or poorly thought out than you are for snark or incivility.

YouTube attracts commenters who want to write "FIRST!" or make boob jokes.


I guess the "identifiability" of the commenter plays a major a role in this scenario.

The one that payed $5 knows that this name, reputation, address, credit card number, etc tied to his account, he have to be himself and behave like a normal social being.

The other one is behind the mask of semi-anonimity, in an account that he doesn't even have to add a valid email to.


I post on a forum where some sections (amongst them the controversial debate forum) require a paid subscription - I think it's $40/year. Though the fee goes towards maintaining the forum and original reporting on the rest of the site, it does serve as a filter for the content also.

Occasionally, the admins open up the forum to everyone and this leads to an increase number of posts and expressed viewpoints.

It's hard to say which is preferable, but I do think one finds a lot more fringe views (gold standard, for example) when the forum is open. There also seem to be more posts based on raw ideology instead of based on facts of some sort. Whether that indicates those views are more likely held by younger posters, those with less income or simply people who put a lower (or no) monetary value on debating in said forum, I don't know...

So even if the average quality of posts decreases, the number of viewpoints increases. It's an interesting trade-off.



I think the relative quality of content on MetaFilter also drives much of the quality of comments. YouTube is visual, and its top viewed videos tend to be dominated by bikini-clad women (well, at least the thumbnails). MetaFilter's moderators don't allow just anything to be posted, and the relative gravitas of the subject matter (cats on scanners excepted) often leads to a thoughtfulness of discussion.


It's well known across the internet that YouTube comments are probably the worst in the world. I do agree that forums with a membership cost are much better than those without, simply because there is an monetary cost to being banned (and reregistering).


As Scott and many have said, content and demographics have an impact on the quality of posts. But, if you want to maintain a forum that has insightful posts and is free, there's got to be guidelines for self-regulation. CBS Sportsline lets people comment for free on sports, articles, etc. Rarely do you ever see personal attacks or irrelevent comments because the forum allows users to "warn" a particular poster, in turn the comment is reviewed by a moderator at CBS. If a poster has been warned too many times they can't post for x number of days. A person's "reputation score" is posted next to their comments.
It seems to work, considering there are quite a few fanatics out there.


I'm seconding the mention of SA by Robert (#13).

In addition to the strict moderation of the site (the moderator's are posters as well, so they have a great feel for the dynamics of the day-to-day culture of the forums), there are multiple forums where posters can purposely - and sarcastically - leave juvenile, 'flame-bait' worthy posts filled with l33t speak.

It's the internet version of a controlled burn to prevent a full-blown forest fire.


As I mentioned back over at the MetaTalk (the recursive Metafilter self-regard forum), as the $5 fee has been a recent (well, two years) development, the $5 thesis would be testable by comparing metrics like the percentage of banned users or deleted posts in all three membership eras of Metafilter (free for anyone to join, closed sign-ups which took moderator action to allow any new members, and the modern $5 era). There are some confounding factors, like the amount of moderation time available, and obviously the expanding scale of the member base. You could also, if you felt prone to real exhaustive study, compare the relative (and likely problematically subjective) quality of comments on similar posts in all eras.

Now you just have to get on it. C'mon, you're the economists.

Alan Cordle

I am a librarian, like Jessamyn, who was excommunicated from MetaFilter. They can feel smug about someone building a comment comparison system with YouTube all they want, but the truth is that their moderation system is borderline censorship, which Jessamyn claims to abhor.

What I resent in particular is how comments which physically threatened a friend of mine were allowed to stand, while Matt Haughey, Jessamyn, and Paul Bausch (whom I've all met in the real world) took me down.

Go ahead and continue to pat yourselves on the back.

Nikhil Punnoose

The 5 dollars has nothing to do with it. Of course, anonymity vs the need to build up a reputation matters, but its not the driving force. Neither, by the way, is the relative AGE of the commenter... I'm 19, have an IQ of 140 and have never felt compelled to quote on youtube. As others have mentioned, its the content, stupid!


I believe that post quality is most impacted by the demographics, which is in turn impacted by the content of the site. For example, users looking to seriously debate the economics of posting on the internet post here, while the "LoL!!11!!" kids are on youtube because there are funny videos, with the majority focused on more immature audiences (not that mature users don't appreciate them though).

Brandon Blatcher

The comparison of YouTube and Metafilter is odd. They're two vastly different sites, with different aims, and sizes, born of two different eras in the web.

And the implication that Metafilter is better is humorous. Mind ya, as aMetafilter member I agree, but keep in mind that its been around since 1999 and only has about 70K members, while YouTube went online in 2005 and has considerably more members. Some people would see that as failure of Metafilter, so remember it's possible to say whatever you want with stats.

That said, Metafilter's success and generally better comments are probably due to a number of factors, and the $5 admission fee is just one. There's also the presence of the mods, how they're moderating, how many people are posting links, how many people of are posting comments and more importantly, the quality of the those two things (a crappy post of a controversial subject tends explode), timing (if a crappy post of a controversial subject happens when the mods are off somewhere, the explosion tends to last longer, sparking other explosions), the state of the world in general and the United States in particular (most Mefi members are American and with the elections going on, there's a tug of war about whether to post political links) and just sheer luck. All of these things and more are at play in particular moment, so Mefi's light moderation touch tends to work well.

There's also a certain X-factor that comes from the mods, in that they actually seem to care about the site and it's goals and the sum of those parts make it more than a job, which tends to shine through in the site's darker moments.

$5 ain't got nothin' on that.



@19 "I'm also curious how a mechanic like the one on the Digg news site (which allows all users to rate all comments) would work on sites with naturally more articulate readership."

Many people would say


Jessamyn and Cortex as moderators are biased in their belief that moderation is a strong determinate of MetaFilter comment standards.

But MetaFilter was equally, if not more, civilized and intelligent before it ever included a fee to join (which was, what?, the first 5 years it existed), and before it ever moderated comments at all (ditto).

Looking only at these early years: intelligent/educated/liberal people self-selected into MeFi because they saw like-minded people commenting there. The site founder and early commentors set the basic tone and values of the website early on.