Why Have Comments

As reported by Against the New Taboo, the magazine Popular Science announced last month that they’re shutting off comments on new articles. Popular Science’s post cited research on “the nasty effect“, which found that hostile comments contribute to a polarized and dogmatic reaction from readers on both sides, impeding rather than advancing understanding.

The way I see it, the fundamental problem of comment threads is that ideologues and crackpots almost always care more about a topic than ordinary people and will be more likely to comment, often incessantly and repetitively. And bad comments drive out good ones: a discussion thread that becomes a swamp of ad hominems can easily overwhelm any productive discussion that might be going on, and can even suck the air out of the original article.

A science-based article, say about global warming or evolution, is definitely diminished if the comment section is swarmed by ignorant cranks. It’s likewise impossible to have a thoughtful conversation about race or gender if loudmouthed bigots can participate unhindered. And of course, any blog about atheism has encountered the typical stock-character proselytizers who parrot apologetics and add nothing to the discussion.

Now, I think most of these problems can be headed off with judicious moderation, but it takes effort to do that well, and on big sites it’s hard to make it scale. For one thing, having lots of moderators makes it more likely that they’ll disagree with each other, which leads to even bigger problems. So I have sympathy for the websites that have decided comments are too much of a headache to bother with, or that have limited commenting in other ways (as with the Los Angeles Times announcing it will no longer print letters from climate-change deniers).

Still, I like having comment threads on Daylight Atheism, and I plan to keep them. Here’s why:

So that people can correct me when I’m wrong. Yes, someone could always send me an e-mail, but I could ignore that easily. The same is true of feedback on Facebook or Twitter: the correction is divorced from the error, and most people who read the original post won’t see it. I make mistakes as often as anyone, and I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I think I’m immune from correction or accountability.

Because I get good ideas from comments. It happens more often than I’d like to admit that a really good comment will elucidate one of my points even better than I could have. (The very best comments are the ones that make me think, “I wish I had put it that way!”) Other times, a commenter will bring up a related idea that I wasn’t aware of, something that I can work into a future post on the same subject. I’ve learned a lot from reading comments on my blog and others.

Because it makes for better persuasion. I don’t hide that one of the reasons I write and argue is to win people over to my point of view. If readers have objections to an argument I make, I’d like those objections to be aired, so that I or others can try to overcome them. I still think debate is the best way to get at truth – at the very least, it proves that I have no fear of letting opposing voices be heard. Even if the person with the original objection isn’t persuaded, it may still prove enlightening for the onlookers

Because I like to encourage community. Look, I’ll just say it: You people are pretty cool! I’ve had some great times meeting up with people I originally got to know through discussions in the comments. Not having them would have denied me that opportunity. And hopefully, there are some people out there who’ve gotten to know each other the same way. (I’m not responsible for any marriages – that I know of.)

As I’ve written before, one of the big reasons the internet is so valuable for atheists is that it fosters community and a sense of belonging among people who are geographically dispersed. But that can only happen if we talk to each other. Without comments, blogging is like standing at a lectern and talking to a darkened auditorium with spotlights glaring in your face; you have no idea if there’s an audience out there, or if anyone is listening at all. I’d rather my blog be more like a conversation in a friendly living room, where the exchange of ideas is two-way rather than one-way.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Rod

    One of the issues is that Popular Science deals in very well-grounded reality and facts,most of which have been verified. Challenging those facts just because you don’t like or disagree with them is not the same asa disagreement on a philosophical point or a subtle difference in belief or interpretation.

  • FuzzyDuck81

    I respectfully disagree with the whole system of comments & refuse to have any part of them.

    ….Yeah you weren’t expecting that at all :)

  • DavidMHart

    So when are we going to launch a petition for a consistent comments policy across the whole Patheos site? It does describe itself as ‘hosting the conversation on faith’, yet some blogs get away with having a policy where everything goes into moderation and only gets displayed if the moderator explicitly allows it. This seems profoundly antithetical to the spirit of open discussion and debate.

    (I don’t know if there are any Patheos blogs that don’t allow comments at all – obviously that’s even worse)

    I’d have thought that a policy whereby comments appear as they are submitted, but where a moderator can delete or edit them (provided that they provide an explanation as to why they have been deleted or edited) would be ideal, but I don’t know if it possible to exert any leverage over Patheos as a whole…

  • Dorfl

    I don’t know if there are any Patheos blogs that don’t allow comments at all – obviously that’s even worse

    There are. Owen Strachan’s blog for example:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thoughtlife/

  • Pofarmer

    The deacons Bench here on Patheos has disabled comments. I have apparently been blackballed on a couple of the Catholic blogs( specifically Longeneckers) and I always tried to keep my posts on topic and mostly respectful. I have commented on evangelical and proggressive blogs and have never been just outright banned for disagreeing over valid points. I have emailed Patheos over this with no response. I think it’s a travesty for a site advertising itself as “the conversation on faith” when some are allowed to proselytize with no discussion.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    To be fully transparent, that’s the policy on my site as well.

    When I first came on board, Patheos used basic WordPress comments, which had a setting where a person’s first comment had to be approved, and once it was, they could comment freely thereafter. I liked that policy, which in my view strikes a good balance between keeping out spammers and troublemakers while requiring minimal moderator effort.

    A few months later, and very much against my will, Patheos switched to Disqus, which doesn’t have anything like that option. The closest thing that Disqus offers is a setting which sends all comments to moderation by default, but allows specific commenters to be whitelisted by the moderator. I try to whitelist new people as often as possible, though.

  • 8DX

    You’re keeping comments, yey!

  • JohnH2

    There are blogs on Patheos that delete nearly all comments critical to the post leading the blog to be an echo chamber of praise.

    Others are so full of shallow partisans that any deviation from the consensus leads to insults that lack substance.

    Depth of the post and depth of the average commentator can drown most trolls though.

  • Alex Harman

    The LA Times didn’t actually say they wouldn’t print letters from climate-change deniers — they said they wouldn’t print letters asserting that there is no evidence that human activities are causing climate change. Since that assertion is as obviously and provably false as the assertion that Donald Trump won the 2012 election and was sworn in as President on January 20, 2013, the Times is entirely correct to refuse to print such nonsense. Presumably, a letter that acknowledges the evidence that exists but disputes the conclusions drawn from that evidence by presenting other evidence supporting an alternate hypothesis could still meet their “no outright falsehoods” standard for publication, which is as it should be. (Not that the denialists have actually managed to produce any strong evidence for any of their alternative hypotheses, but it’s not impossible that they will — just very, very unlikely, especially in light of the fact that they’ve felt the need to fabricate evidence where there is none. See the links at the bottom of this page for details if you’re not familiar with denialist falsehoods about climate change and their refutations.)

  • UWIR

    “(I don’t know if there are any Patheos blogs that don’t allow comments at all – obviously that’s even worse)”

    I don’t know about that. A blog with no comments allowed is arguably better than one where the comment thread is just a chorus of agreement falsely giving the impression that all the readers agree with the blogger, when in fact only post that agree are allowed. A blogger that presents the blog as allowing comments, but only allows agreeing posts, is basically lying.

  • UWIR

    The first link I clicked on from that article led to another article on a man who was thought to be in a coma, but was found to be conscious. Except that a commenter pointed out that it was a hoax, which would have been revealed through even the most basic fact checking.

  • willhelm

    What is he some kind of Anti-hoaxist???!!! (Jk)

  • DavidMHart

    Hence the proposal that the moderator should be able to delete any comment they want, but be unable to do so without leaving a little note in its place, giving away the fact that a comment has been deleted, and giving them the opportunity to explain why. A blog whose comment thread was a mix of sycophantic approval and a suspiciously high number of deleted comments would make itself look bad, so it would be a way of encouraging honesty on the part of the moderator. I’d seriously be keen to try to find out if the site hosts could be persuaded to make that a mandatory part of their policy.

  • UWIR

    I don’t get whitelist status?

  • cipher

    Now, I think most of these problems can be headed off with judicious moderation

    Or we could have mandatory intelligence testing and establish a minimum passing grade. We could put up a sign at the entrance to the Internet: “You must be THIS smart to post a comment”.

    Of course, it would disqualify the vast majority of Americans.