Should We All Give Up Reading the Comments Section…Forever?

Two of my friends, both of whom are writers with plenty of experience in the comment section trenches, have given up reading comments for Lent. Another friend with years of writing/blogging experience ended an email offering me some advice on a sticky professional situation with this nugget:

Do your best not to read comments. Not on your posts, not on anybody’s posts. So many commenters are pathological freaks.

While I am SURE she would disqualify all of my faithful commenters from the “pathological freaks” designation, I think she has a point. (I am fortunate to have several thoughtful regular commenters, and even when new folks pop in largely to tell me that I’m wrong, they often do so respectfully and become valued contributors to the conversation. I have had to delete several dozen truly “pathological” comments on my “Why I am a Christian Democrat” post, including one just last week that started off with “Obama is a Muslim” and went steeply downhill from there.)

The idea behind comment sections in response to Internet news and opinion pieces is a noble one. I have compared it to hosting a conversation in my virtual living room—a salon of sorts. In the ideal scenario, a writer offers some information and opinion, and then invites people to respond, which they do, with respect, courtesy, and additional information and perspectives to inform the discussion. Thousands of conversations going on around cyberspace at any given moment potentially add a productive layer to our cultural discourse.

The reality, of course, is not quite so….positive. I have participated in and observed comment sections in which courtesy and helpful discourse reign. But they are, unfortunately, the exception rather than the rule. More often, I have observed or participated in comment sections in which:

  • Commenters say things that have little or nothing to do with the post. For example, commenters on one news site’s religion page seem to essentially wait around for someone to post something, anything, so they can make fun of the writer for having religious beliefs, rather than say something about the writer’s actual topic.
  • Commenters become “one-trick ponies,” bringing up their pet topic in response to posts that are only tangentially related to that topic, if at all.
  • Commenters respond without actually reading the writer’s piece carefully, which becomes clear when they accuse the writer of saying things he didn’t actually say, or ask him why he didn’t include point X, when the writer clearly addressed point X in the second paragraph.
  • Commenters focus on everything the writer didn’t say about the topic, which is bound to be a lot, given that most online content falls in the 500 to 1,000 word range.
  • Commenters accuse writers of all kinds of ulterior motives, such as self-absorption and money grubbing, failing to understand that for most of us, online writing is part of an actual job in which we publish our opinions for many professional and personal reasons including, yes, caring for ourselves and our families by earning money.
  • Commenters are just plain mean. They call writers names. They gang up on a writer, recruiting like-minded people to come echo their mean-spirited comments.

You get the idea. Not only are these common behaviors frustrating to writers, but they often dissuade more rational commenters from jumping into what they perceive as an unsavory, cutthroat environment.

We writers love to whine about commenters, frequently getting into “can you top this” conversations about the worst comments directed at us. Two Christian bloggers perfected the art of comment commentary (??) with their blog When In Comments, on which they posted short videos or photos to illustrate their reactions “to ‘those comments’ left typically on evangelical/religious themed blogs.” (I especially liked this one, given that a number of people proclaimed dismay at my “potty mouth” in this post.) The site authors, however, announced recently that the blog is on hiatus because (if I have read their video hieroglyphics properly) some people’s feelings were hurt.

Bless their hearts.

I get it. They want to do the right thing, to not become defensive and snarky. I respect the When in Comments writers for stepping back out of a desire to be upstanding folk. But when a couple of frustrated and talented writers come up with a clever idea for lampooning certain types of comments, then quit out of respect for their audience—even though many comment sections are pretty much heaping pits of audience disrespect toward frustrated and talented writers—something is out of whack.

Might there be a way to encourage helpful discourse while curtailing the scourge of comment free-for-alls? I keep coming back to the old “Letters to the Editor” model that newspapers and magazines still employ. Out of the hundreds or thousands of responses an article might receive, editors pick a few that are both representative of varying opinions and well-written and well-argued. By reading Letters to the Editor, readers can get a sense of the general response to an article and also benefit from perspectives, opinions, and facts that weren’t included in the original piece.

The problem with this model for the online writing community is, of course, that it takes time and money. It requires an editor’s (or at least an editorial assistant’s) time reading through letters and emails to pick good ones. It seems to require a third party beyond writer and audience, someone able to select well-argued criticisms without the writer’s ego getting involved. It might require verification of the letter writer’s identity, particularly if the letter writer is claiming some special knowledge on the topic. There is a necessary delay between the article’s publication and the publication of reader response. Online readers are used to the immediate gratification of hitting “post” and seeing their comment show up immediately. And who am I kidding? Writers are hooked on that gratification too. We spend a pathetic amount of time hitting “refresh” on our browsers to see if any new comments have posted.

But I can’t help but wonder if there is some way of taking the old “letters to the editor” model and applying it to online publishing.

As for me, I’m not giving up reading comment sections for Lent. But I have permanently changed the settings on my blog so that I don’t get an email every time someone posts a comment. This change was initially accidental, but I’ve decided I like it better this way. Given how I check my email throughout the day, while sitting at my kids’ bus stop or waiting in a doctor’s office or just before I go to bed, suddenly being hit with a blog comment, especially one that isn’t so favorable, would often leave me distracted and distressed. Now, I check and respond to my blog comments approximately once a day, when I’m sitting down, focused, and able to respond if I think a response is needed.

That’s the best I can do for now. But I think we can all do better. Anyone have ideas?

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    “We spend a pathetic amount of time hitting “refresh” on our browsers to see if any new comments have posted.”

    Hey, has someone been looking over my shoulder?!

    SO here’s my take on comment sections, Ellen. I like them. I like trying to build community at my blog through the comments and I like taking part in it at other places, like here. But I have stopped reading certain blogs that have allowed their comment sections to devolve into snark and hurtful putting people in their place. That’s one of the beauties of reading, of course, is that I can stop reading whenever I like.

    And that delete feature for comments I want to erase from my blog? Love it.

    Cheers,
    Tim

  • Evelyn

    I don’t like the way you haven’t addressed the issue that Obama is a Muslim…

    Just kidding. I’m not a writer, but am often staggered by what people will say online that they wouldn’t say face to face. I’m sorry you have to dela with that.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Ha! You got me. I read the first sentence and my stomach dropped. Then I got to the “just kidding” part. Phew!

  • http://prinsenhouse.blogspot.ca/ Jeannie

    My blog is not popular enough to get negative comments, though on one post I got 14 of those mass-produced medication advertisements, and once I got one of those spammy “I appreciate the excellent content of this wonderful post!” comments. Although that could have been my mother…

    When reading comments on other blogs or FB posts I generally follow The Rule of Ten: if I get to the tenth comment and there’s been no profanity and no one has abused the poster or another commenter, I’ll consider reading on! But I’m kind of thin-skinned and I get personally upset when people say nasty things to other people, so it’s not good for me to spend too much time reading comments. I do find it appalling how much toxicity there is out there (“Haters, begone!”). But the blogs I follow, including yours (and Tim’s, who commented above), are generally very positive and I come back to them because the posts themselves are edifying and challenging and most of the time the comments are too.

  • DaveP

    > Although that could have been my mother…

    :)

  • casey

    A decade or more ago when I first started following blogs, there were several which had good communities. Gordon Atkinson’s RealLivePreacher.com and Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light (nielsenhaden.com/makinglight) were two of my favorites. Gordon’s (which was originally a Salon.com site) you could experience ‘enough’ from by just reading the main posts, but Making Light is exactly the sort of virtual living room you describe. Comment moderation is a problem that has been with us since the first message board. The ‘best’ communities have upstanding members that can be trusted to use the power of the delete button and the ban hammer for good and not ill. This is not exactly your editorial assistant model, where only the cream is allowed to be published, but rather a delegated veto. Thinking about this I’ve got a few ideas that could form the nucleus of a solution though.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Yes, I agree that a “delegated veto,” in which a community of committed people could act as gatekeepers, is another model. I used to really enjoy the comments section on the NYT’s Motherlode blog because they used a lot of tools to make sure that the “best” comments got the most play. People could recommend their favorite comments, and then you could filter the comments so the most-recommended were first on the list. It was a way of making sure that more thoughtful comments got more attention, and also helped keep people from hijacking the thread because if someone said something off topic, it wouldn’t get recommended and could then get lost at the bottom where few others would see it. One problem with this mode, though, is that if a bunch of commenters take issue with a post, perhaps unfairly, and respond to it less-than-gracefully, they can recommend each other’s comments and you can still end up with some unpleasantness getting a lot of play. I would love to know your ideas!


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