Comment sections are prevalent on national and local news websites in the United States. Most comment sections are designed as one column of responses organized in a vertical, or cascading, manner. Yet several news organizations have been experimenting with new formats (see, for example, The New York Times and The Washington Post).
In our study, we compared a one-column comment section to a three-column section that organized comments by whether they favored, opposed, or had questions/other comments about the legalization of marijuana. We chose marijuana legalization as it was a topic covered frequently in the news media during the time of the study.
Results showed several benefits to the three-column comment section. More thinking is needed, however, in figuring out how to best display the columns on a page.
- The three-column comment section was rated more favorably than the one-column comment section.
- Participants were more likely to leave a comment in the three-column than the one-column comment section.
- On average, 13% of commenters left comments that were nonsensical or inappropriate (including placing the comment in the wrong column in the three-column comment section). The percentage was similar whether people saw the one- or three-column comment section.
- The three-column comment section was less familiar to participants than the one-column section.
- On average, participants spent one-and-a-half to two minutes with the comment sections. There was no difference in time spent with the one-column versus three-column comment section.
- The one- and three-column comment sections did not intensify polarization or affect attitudes about marijuana.