Wall The Gardens: Comments Sections Don’t Have To Be Evil

Meghan Daum’s essay in the Believer on internet commenting is, I think, a fairly even-handed example of the species. She acknowledges that our discourse has always had its share of venemousness, that she isn’t actually required to read these comments. But I think she’s a bit too quick to dismiss comment moderation and community building:

But there is a world of difference between the traditional notion of public participation in a newspaper or magazine and the cacophonous, sometimes libelous free-for-all that passes for it today. Whereas the old-fashioned letter to the editor involved crafting a letter, figuring out where to send it, springing for a stamp, and knowing that its publication-worthiness would be determined by an actual editor who might even call and suggest some actual edits, today’s readers are invited to “join the conversation” as if the work of professional reporters and columnists carries no more authority than small-talk at a cocktail party. And although some sites are making efforts to weed out the trolls by disabling anonymous posting, filtering comments through Facebook, or letting readers essentially monitor themselves by flagging or promoting comments at their own discretion, most are so desperate to catch eyeballs wherever and however possible that they’re loathe to turn down any form of free content.

Obviously it’s not easy to moderate comments and to foster a community where a health conversation can actually happen. It’s something that takes a lot of your writers’ time if, like me or Ta-Nehisi, you read and moderate comments yourself. And if you don’t want to do that, you have to hire a community manager or managers. But I certainly think there are examples out there of successful efforts. And I think it’s probably worth interrogating the idea that moderation kills traffic or commenting communities: I think it’s much more likely that people don’t moderate because they don’t make the effort. I’m unpersuaded that the people who occasionally show up here to decry liberals or inform me about the evils of Muslims are carrying more traffic with them than they drive away. It’s a much more fruitful pursuit to figure out how we can create civilized spaces than to lament some sort of collective loss of civility. I think we should be open to a whole gradient of walled gardens, from moderated comments sections, to places like Metafilter where you have to pay to join the conversation as a demonstration of seriousness.

The most interesting question Daum raises, I think, is whether commenting and the internet have changed the way we write. She says she never would have published an essay she wrote in the mid-nineties about sex and HIV if she had to publish it in the environment writers face today. But Emily Gould did write a long essay about her own self-absorption in the New York Times Magazine when she knew she’d likely get dismantled in the comments section. And if web publishing existed in the same form then that it does now, Daum might not have had to cut down her essay to the point of unrecognizability to get it published by a respectable outlet. The way she describes it makes it sound like a perfect fit for The Awl. But even if you lose some ability to be personally revelatory, the huge benefit of blogging in particular is the ability to try out ideas, to play with different parts of arguments, and to test-drive different pieces of evidence, and to refine your ideas into a final product. We might be able to be less personally vulnerable on the internet, but I think it’s probably worth it in exchange for being able to do intellectual growth in public and with the benefit of feedback and allies.