Why I’m Cheering for “Popular Science”

2012/04/12 Tracey

A little over a week ago, Popular Science published an article called “Why We’re Shutting Off Our Comments.”   In it, the magazine announced that, from now on, it would no longer allow comments on stories it publishes online.  An old friend from college posted the article on Facebook, tagging me and a few others asking our opinions on the decision.  My response was this:  “You had me at the title.  I don’t even need the ‘Why’ at the beginning of it.”

I can imagine the protests to come – calling the decision outrageous, violations of the First Amendment, cowardly, etc.  To those accusations I already had my pat reply: that what is really outrageous is the online culture of stupidity and meanness so pervasive in what is attempting to pass for internet discourse.  First Amendment rights do not entitle people to say whatever they please behind the anonymity of their computer screens about whatever they please and be heard by a particular organization’s audience.  Cowardly is more accurately descriptive of spambots, trolls, and first-generation-uprights who take every opportunity to sabotage any semblance of conversation begun by an author’s original piece.

In a million years, I wouldn’t diminish the incredible benefits of the Internet, social media and their offspring.  The joy, the support, the outlet for creatives and their expanding audiences, the laughs, the first golden step it offers an introvert to finally brave the world of conversation and connection - these are all invaluable and precious benefits.  I would not be a writer today if I had not joined Facebook in 2008 – this I know.

Yet as phenomenal as the Internet’s capacity is to deliver joy and knowledge, so is its capacity to deliver soul-crushing blows: to individuals, to organizations, to a nation’s collective psyche and intellect.  A teacher I tend to quote ad nauseam once wrote, “Technology advances faster than our wisdom in knowing how to use it.”  Through that lens, I view Popular Science as taking a step toward wisdom acquired through experience.

In his piece for Slate Magazine, Will Oremus calls the decision lazy and wrong:

“[Popular Science] editors seem to think of themselves as heralds trumpeting unimpeachable pronouncements from the castle tower to a crowd of subjects somewhere below. Allow the subjects to talk back, and some traitors to the cause of science are likely to foment rebellions that would threaten the integrity of the castle walls.”

I don’t see it that way.  I see this decision as a natural consequence of the damage done when absolutely anyone can say absolutely anything about absolutely whatever (and in however a manner) they please on the Internet.  I see Popular Science‘s decision as carefully thought out.  It’s based on macro and micro-observations of how this shape-shifter Internet world is moving.  In citing studies showing the debilitating effect that certain types of comments regularly have on the way people process scientific material,  Popular Science editor Suzanne LeBarre says:

“If you carry out those results to their logical end–commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the ‘off’ switch.”

I agree with quite a few of the points Oremus makes, including calling out LeBarre for citing (and not even linking to) only two studies.  He’s also spot on when he holds up the benefits of comments, and ways in which commenters can be guided towards having a more responsible and discerning discourse.

I disagree, though, with his declaration that closing off the comments is a decision based on laziness.  Has he ever acted as moderator on a page with a reach in the hundreds of thousands?  Personally, I have about four regular commenters on my blog and I even have trouble keeping up with those few.  People I know who moderate pages with larger readerships spend a TREMENDOUS amount of time reacting to, guiding, considering, discussing responses to the hundreds of comments they receive.  I know there are systems designed to prioritize/monitor/sort/rate/delete comments based on relevance to the story, ability to identify the comment author, etc.  These are useful guides and tools, but I do not blame Popular Science for not necessarily choosing to employ them.

Further flawed, I think, is the implication that a periodical’s readership is entitled to have such direct access to and impact on an author’s work.  As LeBarre correctly points out, there are still a large number of ways in which readers can comment on and communicate with the magazine.  Commenting directly upon an article where it appears is perhaps the greatest source of immediate gratification for the commenter – the best way to feel one’s voice is amplified – but it is not an inherent right.  Perhaps this decision will have a pleasant effect down the road, one where more of us send the link to a friend or group of friends, and perhaps a meaningful discussion can ensue from that.

A discussion, not between nameless, faceless readers scattered across the internet universe, wherein the participants are free to disparage and mock as they please without repercussions, but a discussion where there is a presumption of respect and affection between the participants. You know, the way my college friend put Popular Science’s article up on his Facebook page, tagged me and a few others, and asked for our opinions.

This post originally published on The Broad Side on 9/27/13.

Image via iStockphoto

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