Let’s Talk About Comments

If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you’ve heard, or said, “Don’t read the comments!” at one time or another. I know I have. It’s usually accompanied by an eye-roll and a heavy sigh, the implication clear: of course you shouldn’t read the comments, surely you know better than to expect anything good to come from this morass of the web now, in twenty-fourteen.

That’s actually how I first began to question the belief that comments were just a sad pit of internet despair. Few things raise my hackles, or my skepticism, like the argument that we should be embarrassed or ashamed for believing things could be better than they are. It’s cynical, dismissive, and downright disdainful of a way that many people use the web.

I’ve written before that at their best, comments are a form of community. Given what I do for a living, I’m naturally loathe to see online communities start disappearing from the web. Some argue that comments are superfluous in the age of social media; now that everyone can have a Twitter or Facebook profile, even their own blog, for free, the comment section is hardly the only place dialogue occurs. While that’s certainly true, it glosses right over the fact that someone might have valid reasons for not wanting to maintain a presence on those platforms, or hell, might want to have a conversation about a particular topic without inviting all of their Twitter followers and Facebook friends into the mix.

More than that, at a time when Google, Facebook, Twitter, and seemingly every other website, is trying to predict our needs and interests, tailoring the web to what they think we’ll like, comments and community offer a refreshing opportunity for serendipity—the unexpected encounter that opens our eyes to a new perspective or idea. The realization that we have more in common than we thought.

Is that idealistic? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen either. When we act like every comment section out there is as bad as what we see on YouTube, we’re dismissing a very real way that a lot of people have chosen to participate on the web, and we’re reinforcing this notion that comments are just inherently bad—that the content and the people who create it are adding nothing to the web, even taking away from it.

A little while back, Frank Chimero shared a talk he gave at the School of Visual Art’s Thesis Festival. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. In the talk, he shares some examples of how Yellowstone National Park has dealt with the unpredictable nature of, you know, wildlife, over the years: when wolves were attacking cattle, they got shot; when bears were eating sandwiches (and destroying cars in the process), they started a “bear management” program, to help people learn how to enjoy the park without tempting or endangering the bears. Here’s Chimero:

“I’m sharing this weird parable about Yellowstone, because it describes both sides of how to approach problems. Some designers want to shoot the wolves, others want to manage the bears. One is trying to make an antidote, the other invests in a process to keep things open and adaptable.”

Most of what I see these days is people killing the wolves—getting rid of comments sections wholesale. Somehow, simply having a place for people to leave comments has not guaranteed that our comment sections will become a place for rich discussion and community—who’d have thought?

Having an interesting, worthwhile, and dare I say, engaging, comment section takes work. It is work to read through all the comments a site receives and decide what should or should not be published. It is work to bring together all the necessary people and get them to agree on what the guidelines will be, and who will enforce them. It is work to remind everyone of those conversations when people test those boundaries and are disappointed to find them enforced.

Obviously, not everyone is up for that, or interested in creating community in that particular way. The lovely folks here at The Pastry Box aren’t, and that’s perfectly fine. Somehow though, the fact that comment sections aren’t miraculously cultivated web-gardens, when we don’t do the work to keep them that way, has turned into this belief that they’re just inherently awful pockets of the web.

Here’s the thing though: comments sections don’t have to be terrible. Folks like Jennifer and her fellow bloggers at Captain Awkward, authors like Ta-nehisi Coates, and the team over at Code Switch—these people write about difficult, challenging topics. They write about race, about relationships, about politics and feminism and whether or not it’s moral to watch NFL games anymore. These are not mundane topics—they’re lightening rods, third-rails of the web.

But you know what? The comments are pretty fascinating. I often learn something new from reading through them, and usually have a hard time pulling myself away. They’re fascinating because people put in the work: because they set boundaries, and then enforce them. Here’s Code Switch reflecting on their first year of conversations about race and culture on the web. It clearly hasn’t been easy, but they’ve found it to be a valuable experience, worthy of the obvious effort they’re putting into it, because they’re creating a place for discussion that might not exist otherwise.

Part of that boundary-enforcing means being willing to step in and remove comments that steer the discussion, intentionally or not, off the topic at hand. Many of us who work on the web have bought in to, on some level, the geek social fallacy that “ostracizers are evil,” and are loathe to play that role, even when it comes to web comments. We’re left with a sort of all-or-nothing approach: either we keep all the comments, except those so blatantly violating our guidelines that they can’t be ignored, or we throw out comments altogether, unwilling to play bad cop on our own sites. The middle-ground, being willing to prune our comment sections, is hard work too—Matt Thompson, at Code Switch, outlines this for their readers:

“So if we delete your comment, it’s not necessarily because we think the comment is “bad” or “wrong,” or because we want to suppress your point of view. Most often, it’s because the comment doesn’t get at the topic we’re aiming to discuss at that moment, in this space. We are trying to curate a discussion that is intelligent, unique, and novel — a discussion that moves us — and that may require removing comments we think are not directly contributing to the focus of the conversation at that time.”

There’s another layer of work that goes into making these comment sections better than the rest: instead of ignoring the comments, or holding them in obvious disdain, these authors actually read and respond to them. People participate, in part, because they’re able to build a relationship with a writer they like and respect. Knowing that someone like Coates may read what you’ve written, and will probably call you out if you’re being a jerk, is a pretty good incentive for people to not just follow the guidelines, but actually share thoughtful contributions.

Seeing comments sections like these, it’s clear to me that there are ways for us to manage the bears, instead of shooting the wolves: we can create guidelines for our comments sections, we can enforce those, and we can engage with our commenters, encouraging them to participate in a way that benefits the community as a whole.

I have a hunch that the recent Open News—New York Times—Washington Post collaboration will provide some very interesting tools to facilitate this, though I suspect they have their sights set on a whole host of issues beyond comments as well. Still, at a time when so many sites are giving up on comments, and so many in our own community view them with contempt, it’s exciting to see smart people invested in improving this part of the web.

Not every site needs to be a community, and community can grow in a myriad of ways, but at its core the web is about connecting people and ideas. In a web that feels like it’s becoming more siloed and restricted, let’s try to keep things open and adaptable. Let’s manage the bears instead of killing off one of our methods for creating community, just because it’s been neglected or poorly executed in the past.


This piece originally appeared on The Pastry Box Project

Coming in 2014: More Internet Opinions

In my last post, I mentioned that some good things have come from sharing my opinions on the internet: I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with outstanding people, I’ve made hilarious friends, and have generally just had a great time.

This year, I’ve been presented with two incredible opportunities: to write a monthly post for The Pastry Box Project, and to join the lovely folks at A List Apart as blog editor.

In a somewhat serendipitous coincidence of timing, my first post for A List Apart was published yesterday, and my first thought for The Pastry Box appeared today. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them, and I hope you’ll add both sites to your reading lists, if they’re not in heavy rotation already—both are exceptional publications for anyone who works on, or cares about, the web.

My Orange Coat of Internet Opinions

Marie's Orange Coat

Waiting for the T in my orange coat

A few years ago, I would probably rather have died than wear an orange coat.

Why?

Because people would see me.

This is, obviously, both hyperbolic and absurd.

Of course I wouldn’t have turned down the orange coat if a big plate of death was sitting over in column B.

Still, I probably wouldn’t have accepted a free, puffy orange coat from a friend moving to warmer climes if it had been proffered just a few years ago.

And of course, people can see me regardless of what I wear. So it’s more than that.

In my orange coat, people can see me:

  • Being different
  • Being “loud”
  • Being a bit ridiculous

And also being pretty comfortable with all of that, because it’s a great coat and I love it.

When I thought about the reasons I wouldn’t have been comfortable in it a few years ago, I realized they were the same reasons I wasn’t always comfortable writing and sharing my opinions online: because people would see me.

There are, to be sure, some good reasons to keep your opinions to yourself, but by and large, the repercussions of having opinions on the internet have been largely positive for me.

This may sound silly to those who have never been hesitant to speak up before, but if it resonates with you, I’d encourage you to find your own orange coat of Internet Opinions, embrace the opportunity to stand out from the crowd a bit, and get comfortable.

I hope good things will come.


On a somewhat related note, two things I’ve been meaning to share for a while:

  • A guest post I wrote for The Pastry Box Project earlier this year on @Horse_ebooks, the NSA, and the Internet we thought we knew
  • An HBR piece that describes the work we do at GHDonline and the Global Health Delivery Project

In Defense of Comments

You’ve heard it a million times: don’t read the comments.

It’s my least favorite of internet mantras (perhaps second only to if you build it, they will come, but more on that some other time) because it dismisses a huge swath of internet participation, and prevents us from realizing the potential of what comments can be – making it all that much easier to accept the status quo.

Don’t get me wrong, I have few illusions about the downsides of many comments sections out there. They can be chaotic, terrifying messes that serve up the seeming worst of humanity – sometimes, not reading the comments can be an important act of self-care.

But I often hear this phrase combined with an implicit: what did you expect? and that’s where I think we need to push back, because not every comment section is a cesspool – many of them are clean, well-lit spaces where good things are happening for people who come to the internet to learn, share, and connect with others.

In fact, at their best, comments are community. If you only skim the comments on YouTube, you might miss it, but on sites all around the web, connections and relationships have been built in the comment sections of journalists, bloggers, news sites, retailers and more.

I little while back, I asked people on Twitter and Facebook to share their favorite comments sections – I wondered if there were sites people would be genuinely sad to see the comments disappear. It ended up being one of my most popular Facebook posts. Here’s what people came back with:

There were a few other suggestions as well – a friend of mine was pleased that she’d never received an angry comment on her personal finance blog, another pointed out that without the help of commenters on ModCloth, she’d never find the right fit, and another recommended The Truth About Cars as having a particularly smart community of commenters.

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list, and it’s biased towards the interests and reading habits of those I happen to be connected to, but seeing the range of these recommendations confirmed for me that a lot of people are reading the comments, and getting something from it besides higher blood pressure. For those who’ve loudly proclaimed that comments are beyond saving, I’d encourage you to check out some of those sites and see if you find anything that strikes your fancy.

Two things stood out to me in reviewing these sites:

  • Engagement (and moderation) counts – Maybe it’s the observer effect, but many of these sites and individual writers are definitely reading their comments and aren’t afraid to get into the mix. Writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Captain Awkward do a great job of publicly moderating discussions and letting commenters (and the rest of the community) know when something crosses the line, and news organizations like The Guardian have invested significantly in online editors and moderation staff.
  • Anonymity isn’t the problem – This is most certainly a topic for a longer post, and perhaps I should say it isn’t the primary problem. I think anonymity is a bit of a red herring, but it always seems to come up in discussions about comments. Many of these sites have robust comment sections without any kind of Real Name policy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue for the past few months, and I definitely don’t have all the answers, but since it’s Monday morning and we’ve got a nice fresh start on the week, I’ll invite you to join me in a little weekly goal: be a better commenter this week.

Maybe that just means reading the comments and responding to some of the positive ones, maybe it means commenting on a piece you found interesting or helpful, even if you don’t have much more to add – be part of that virtuous cycle.

If you’re ready to get started, feel free to share some of your thoughts on sites that should be added to the list above, or your ideas on what makes for a good comment section below!