Author’s Note: Amy Julia Becker and Rachel Stone are close friends as well as writing colleagues. While both have read this piece before publication and corroborated facts, the opinions stated here are solely my own. In this post I argue that we should revisit some of the rules and norms of online writing, including the preference for very short pieces. I regularly flaunt rules about keeping blog posts under 700-800 words. In this piece, I’ve abandoned that rule altogether. This post is long. But I think the questions in it are important, though some readers will disagree with my proposed solutions and/or my interpretation of events described herein. I look forward to discussing both the questions and solutions in the comments. Please note that I exercise the heavy-handed comment moderation that I argue in this piece ought to be more universal; keep your comments on point, polite, and kind toward those with whom you disagree.
The ironic part of Amy Julia Becker’s series of blog posts on contraception is that she meant to give herself a break. A long-time blogger for the evangelical magazine Christianity Today and author of two books, Becker writes about faith, family life, and disability—a trio of subjects that frequently touch on reproductive issues. A series of guest posts on contraception seemed a productive way for her to get a couple weeks’ break from writing her own posts, while engaging her audience in conversation about a key reproductive health issue.
Evangelical opinions on contraception range widely. Some evangelicals echo the Roman Catholic leadership’s position that “natural family planning” (NFP) is the only acceptable way for Christians to attempt to space and time pregnancies—a curious dynamic given that “Catholics are Christians too” is a controversial statement in some evangelical circles. A 2011 study*, however, estimated that 74 percent of evangelicals wishing to avoid unintended pregnancy use either a hormonal contraceptive method (e.g., the pill, IUD, injections) or sterilization (e.g., tubal ligation, vasectomy). A wide variety of opinions and experience, abundant misinformation about how specific methods work, and passionately held positions regarding extramarital sex and abortion make conversation about contraception both tricky and necessary. Having earned the loyalty of many thoughtful readers over the years, and having run her ideas (and the first post) by a Christianity Today editor, Becker hoped that the inevitable trollish and militantly moralistic comments would be overshadowed by an open, thoughtful conversation.
She recruited a variety of contributors to write posts, informed by professional expertise and personal experience. Posts covering contraception as a tool for global health, medical facts about hormonal contraception, and a history of contraception in the US would be supplemented by personal essays from Christians who have chosen NFP, a vasectomy, and hormonal contraception.
Within hours of the first post—Rachel Stone’s essay on why ready access to woman-controlled contraception is a life-saving necessity for families in the developing world—Becker’s hopes for thoughtful conversation (and a break from the blogosphere) lay shattered under a heap of critical comments, ranging from defeatist and patronizing to unkind and accusatory.
As I described in an earlier post, Stone’s main point was obliterated by readers’ reactions to her including the work of Margaret Sanger, who advocated contraception to save the lives of women whose bodies were worn out by unlimited childbearing. In the evangelical world, Sanger is almost universally despised for her founding of Planned Parenthood (today associated in the evangelical mind solely with abortion on demand, although according to Stone’s research, Sanger herself was anti-abortion) and her support for eugenic ideas. Stone did not deny Sanger’s eugenic ideas, nor excuse them. She argued that these ideas ought to be considered in their context—an early 20th-century America where eugenic ideas were held by many cultural elites, preached from many pulpits, and codified into many laws. Describing Sanger’s passion for saving the lives of vulnerable women and children, Stone invited readers to ponder why a West African nurse who delivers babies in conditions far more similar to Sanger’s America than ours would see Sanger as a hero, rather than a villain.
The villainous Sanger, however, was the only one most readers were willing to see, and Stone’s invitation to reassess Sanger’s work the only point on which most commenters focused. Sanger’s eugenic sympathies made it easy for readers categorically opposed to contraceptive use to avoid responding to Stone’s compelling evidence that access to woman-controlled contraception could save thousands and thousands of lives.
One unsettling subset of comments came from those who claimed sympathy with Stone’s core argument, and said that evangelicals should indeed talk seriously about the role of contraception in global health. But, these commenters argued, Stone and Becker should have known that Sanger would provide too big a distraction from the main argument.
These commenters implied that eugenics is such a grave problem that no decent person could be expected to ignore Sanger’s affiliation with it to focus on Stone’s main point. Never mind that we routinely celebrate and study historical figures who supported equally unsavory philosophies, from Jim Crow to anti-semitism, while racking up lauded accomplishments in other areas. The “you shouldn’t have distracted readers like that” commenters painted a disturbing image of hapless readers unable to read or think critically, unable to separate essential arguments from tangential ones, and unable to consider nuance, paradox or their own nature as flawed humans capable of thinking abhorrent thoughts and generous thoughts with the same mind, doing sinful things and gracious things in the same lifetime. Such comments not only laid the blame for hysterical distraction at Stone’s feet, rather than at the feet of those who insisted on being hysterical and distracted, but also hinted at a strange sort of elitism.
For example, Tim Dalrymple, former editorial director of the Patheos Evangelical channel, commented that, “There are some things—like qualifying [Sanger’s] views on abortion or contextualizing her views on eugenics—that one can do in an academic context that are probably inappropriate in other contexts.” (Presumably one of those “other contexts” is the blogosphere.) His implication was that only the learned folk who read academic journals or highbrow magazines could handle the uncomfortable truth that Sanger might have something to teach us about poverty, women, and contraception despite her troubling eugenic sympathies. Even if Dalrymple is right that a more academic setting would allow for more dialogue and less hysteria, his comment, and others like it, implied that we ought not even attempt to engage online readers with critical thinking and expect them to respond with some critical thinking of their own. We need to keep it simple, and not press readers to examine their assumptions or their consciences, if doing so requires us to complicate the simplistic equations with which they judge what information does and doesn’t matter.
Given that people get more and more of their news and reading material online, this vision of a readership that can’t handle nuanced arguments, particularly arguments that challenge what readers think they know, paints a chilling portrait of what we can expect from online discourse—the only cultural discourse in which many people engage.
As Becker’s blog filled with angry comments, many of us watching wondered if the editors would take the post down. But the post stayed up. Despite the implication that editors deemed the post defensible, however, no editor publicly defended it. That job was left to Becker, who apologized for “not paying sufficient attention to the editing of this piece.” She went on, “My hope for this post was to spark a conversation about the role of contraception in women’s health around the globe. I am a bit heartsick that it instead ignited a flame of vitriol.”
After that thunderous start, the contraception series limped along through several more posts. Dr. Emily Gibson wrote a straightforward article about what we do and don’t know about how hormonal contraception (such as the pill and IUDs) work. Dr. Matthew Towles wrote about choosing a vasectomy as a loving response to his wife’s offering of her body to their two children during pregnancy and birth. Alice Teti and Emily Heady wrote about natural family planning, Teti as a Roman Catholic and Heady as a Protestant. Liuan Huska wrote about choosing a barrier method of contraception after several years practicing natural family planning. Kelley Matthews also contributed a post titled “From Banned to Mandated: A History of Contraceptives in the United States,” that, to use the words of my history professor dad, wouldn’t pass History 101. A mishmash of inaccuracies and opinions rather than legitimate historical interpretation, the post referred to abortion as “one more contraceptive method,” made sweeping claims about Catholic and Protestant opinions on reproductive issues that ignored obvious differences in how evangelical and progressive Protestants approach the issues, and stated that some contraceptives work by aborting unborn babies, even though, as Dr. Gibson pointed out in her article, such a mechanism has not been proven.
My own post, meant to round out the personal essays by providing an example of a Christian who uses a hormonal form of contraception (in my case, an IUD) so that all of the major categories of family planning practice would be covered, was never published, at an editor’s request. Evangelicals tend toward suspicion of hormonal birth control in general and IUDs in particular (a suspicion based in part on the false notion that IUDs work primarily by preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg, thus acting as an abortifacient). Everyone involved in this series (including me) suspected that my post could lead to another angry backlash. Sympathetic to Becker’s weariness with the process, I told her not to fight the decision, and published the post on my own blog instead.
No doubt many factors contributed to Becker’s blog series producing more controversy and fatigue than thoughtful conversation. Reflecting on the series, I could write about American Christianity’s preoccupation with all things sexual, or how the religious right is recalibrating positions on other hot-button issues now that gay marriage is legal in most states. I’d like to some day explore further why contraception is such a polarizing issue for Christians, and/or study Sanger’s words and actions more closely while exploring why she is also a polarizing topic. But in the broadest sense, reaction to this blog series provides a case study for some of the problems facing online journalism.
This series exemplified a significant problem with comment sections, which is that they can overshadow the original piece of writing; instead of providing context and conversation around the story, they become the story. With Stone’s post, commenters latched onto a small segment of her argument and either emphasized it to the exclusion of everything else or twisted its meaning (or both). Subsequent readers—some of whom no doubt got sucked into the comment section before reading the post carefully, or at all—added to an already bloated comment section almost exclusively focused on Sanger’s eugenic views and Stone’s unforgivable sin of writing about her, instead of the post’s intended point about contraception as a tool for global health.
Becker and Stone did this work—the work of writing sensitively on controversial issues for a vocal and opinionated audience, and then responding, without public editorial support, when their intentions, character, and suitability for the job were violently questioned—for hardly any pay. Becker receives a very small monthly stipend for posting around a dozen blog posts a month—a workload roughly equivalent to producing a thrice-weekly newspaper column. She receives incremental additional pay if she meets certain page-view thresholds. Becker fought to secure funding from Christianity Today to pay each contributing writer to the series, ultimately receiving another small stipend to be distributed among all contributors. These arrangements aren’t unusual; in fact, they’re generous compared with the blogosphere standard. Most of us who produce the online content fueling Facebook, Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle—the writers who learn to see questions about our character and even threats to our well-being as simply part of the job—largely do so for free.
This series reveals what writers—talented, smart writers with years of experience writing under the banner of a name-brand media outlet—are up against when we challenge readers’ assumptions, which is precisely, of course, what good writing ought to do. Under these conditions, writers would be wise to do as Dalrymple’s comment suggested, and abandon the online masses for the elite environs of small journals, print magazines, or specialized newsletters, where we will still not get paid much or anything, but where we might not be so easily subjected to readers calling for our termination, or just calling us foolish.
But that would leave the people who don’t read those small journals or subscribe to those print magazines, the people who get most of their reading material for free online—that is, most readers—left with nothing to read that can’t be summed up neatly in less than 800 words or five bullet points. Guidelines for the most deliciously clickable online content (and therefore the most lucrative content for advertisers and writers relying on page-view–dependent pay) leave no room for questions without answers, for subtlety, for the light touch, for different perspectives allowed to abide in troubling tension, or for writers to say, “I’m not sure what I think except that I think we need to talk about it.” No room, that is, for flexibility or exploration, for revelation or poetry.
If we have to work so hard, and put up with so much, to publish and discuss actual ideas online, and get paid a pittance only when and if we break some predetermined page-view count, then does quality really count, as we and our editors and colleagues claim it does? Or, as Rachel Stone once said to me (in a conversation long before her post on contraception blew up), “If we are going only for eyeball grabs [rather than quality] then every post should be faux-vulnerable weepy, or vitriolic, or about sex, or pictures of cats wearing clothes.”
Numbered lists, cat videos and BuzzFeed quizzes will likely always be with us, but I’m not ready to let them claim so much of the online landscape that there’s no room for the high-quality, questioning, unsettling prose that I want to write and to read. We who produce, curate and partake of quality writing can do several things to work toward giving the people who click over to our sites a different—better, deeper—experience, if they’re willing to stick around and work with us to make it happen.
First, writers and site managers need to clarify the purpose of comment sections, and institute guidelines that support that purpose. At their best, comment sections allow for conversation among readers, helping them make sense of what they’ve read. Discerning comments can help writers clarify what we meant and see weak areas in our arguments that need more attention. But comments, of course, can also breed nastiness and, as they did with Stone’s post on global health and contraception, distract from the author’s words and intent so completely that the comments become the story.
Most sites institute guidelines to minimize vitriol, such as forbidding anonymous comments and deleting comments that contain clearly insulting or offensive material. Site managers can go further, however, to ensure that comment sections support writers’ literary contributions, rather than overshadow or spoil them.
Eliminating comment sections altogether is one option, but not the only one. If site managers agree that their primary purpose is to disseminate quality writing on topics of interest to their intended audience—and unlike a chat room or social networking site, that their primary purpose is not to provide virtual space for unlimited conversation among site visitors—they have a duty to their writers and to thoughtful readers to be heavy-handed with comment moderation.
Stricter potential rules could include allowing individuals to post no more than two comments on a particular post, to prevent long threads of back and forth between commenters that monopolize the conversation. Limiting the number of comments altogether allowed on each post would also help. Once comments exceed a few dozen in number, no one reads them all, new comments become less and less likely to say anything new, and anyone who tries to strike a more reasonable tone on an overwhelmingly negative thread will be overlooked. At some point, Christianity Today editors could have closed the comments on Stone’s post. Doing so, and posting a note that the editors believed the post to be editorially defensible, would have been a charitable way for editors to support the writers producing their content, while leaving room for subsequent readers to judge Stone’s post by its content rather than by the comment frenzy. We’re better listeners when we’re not preoccupied with thinking about what we want to say next; the same goes for our ability to read online content more carefully when we’re not daydreaming about writing a comment that will get plenty of “likes.”
Besides rethinking comment moderation, content curators and writers can brainstorm alternative payment structures. For online journalists and bloggers who are paid at all, the page-view–oriented payment structure dominates. Even if editors and site managers insist that they care about quality writing and thoughtful discourse, the system only financially rewards easy-to-read, short content that makes only one or two main points (along with content that deals with sex and cute cats—fortunately, not necessarily at the same time). The system also rewards posts that generate heaps of controversy, as Stone’s post did. I know that Becker and Stone would have much rather had fewer readers and better conversation; a few comments accusing them of creating this controversy to get more page views were widely off the mark. But writers, editors and site managers intent on securing page views—to the extent that post titles, tweets and tag lines often have a more divisive and argumentative tone than is in the post itself—have essentially trained readers to seek out and fan the flames of controversy. In a way, the commenters on Stone’s post were just meeting our sadly utilitarian expectations.
Internet-friendly prose can be useful, fun to read and fun to write. But it provides an inadequate format for writers and readers to grapple with significant topics and issues. If we wish to nurture writing that helps us ask and grapple with answers to the most difficult and necessary questions facing human beings, we must come up with other ways to compensate the writers willing to ask them, particularly as those writers must also endure virtual shaming at the hands of angry Internet mobs as the price of questioning assumptions and steering conversations in unfamiliar, challenging directions.
Given universal expectations that online content will be free of charge, alternative payment structures will require creativity and risk. But paying writers more, in ways that reflect the quality and effort we put into our work, is essential if we believe that public discourse requires more than numbered lists and viral videos. We must ask: What happens to our culture (and for Christians, to our faith) when ideas, questions, and words strung together for a purpose other than popularity or ease of online reading are crowded out by meanness and memes? What do we lose?
We lose opportunities to share ideas that leave both writer and reader uncomfortable, that refuse to tie up difficult material with a neat little bow. We lose writing that relies for its power on wide-ranging stories without a tidy moral at the end. We lose writing that is less about talking points and more about the way that words put together just so can dance about in your mind, draw you out of your world into a new one, or leave you unsettled and searching. We lose access to wisdom that can’t be summed up in three points or 140 characters. We lose opportunities to produce or partake of the sort of writing that changes hearts and minds—and ultimately, the world.
Amy Julia Becker and Rachel Stone hoped to challenge a corner of the evangelical Christian world to rethink the consequences of unlimited childbearing for mothers and babies around the world, and how ready access to contraception might turn that tide of suffering. Instead, conversation about the plight of women and babies was annihilated by the righteous indignation of a comment mob, and all anyone learned was that skilled writers who question their audience’s assumptions will be left chastened and alone, without even a decent paycheck to show for it. Writers intent on changing the world one question, one blog post, and one new idea at a time, and the editors and site managers who hire them, must seriously consider new models for the online world where so many of our words find an audience.