There’s been a big to-do this week about Gawker’s commenting system. Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) reported that Gawker founder Nick Denton was (gasp) forcing his authors to show up in the comments and (second gasp) engage with their readers.
In Denton’s words, “The goal is to erase the traditional distinctions between writers, editors, readers, subject, and sources” and “help our writers each achieve greater influence and reach with the same amount of work.”
To be clear, what Denton is enforcing is not nearly as radical as the above statement makes it sound. In short: he’s asking his writers to go into the comments after they write a piece and respond to question, queries, and disagreements. He’s not asking them to brawl with trolls, or respond to each and every comment. He’s not asking them to screen comments — Kinja, the commenting system, has a complicated algorithm that does that and more — or pick fights to get more comments. He’s asking them to participate. He’s asking them to act like 99.9% of bloggers (meaning everyone who blogs for free) and think of comments not as baggage, but as potential.
Like so much of what Denton’s done with journalism, various outlets have questioned this move — will it lead to THE END OF ALL JOURNALISM? Will magazines fire all journalists and replace them with (third gasp) COMMENTERS?
But there’s also potential. As the CJR concedes,
It’s no secret that internet comment systems, particularly on mainstream news sites, are broken. Offensive and off-topic comments outnumber interesting comments so that the entire comment system is regarded as toxic and ignored by writers, which then leads to even more terrible comments from unregulated commenters. Sicha sums it up bluntly: “The comment space is treated like shit, so [commenters] act like shit.” Even if it doesn’t revolutionize journalism, Kinja could fix this problem, since it allows writers to control which comments are displayed. If Kinja does work, Gawker writers could find their commenter-engagement skills in high demand.
But you guys, “commenter-engagement skills” ? I really don’t understand. Isn’t that a basic blogging skill? Who are these people who can’t engage with the comments?
I queried Twitter with that very question the other day, and realized that part of my bemusement at the radical idea of comment-engagement is directly linked to the online environments in which I write.
The first is the academic world, in which comments may sometimes be erudite, but very, very rarely troll-ish. The vast majority of commenters comment under their real names, which encourages “responsible” commenting. (As I’ve discussed with others, it also generally discourages commenting, as self-conscious academics are often scared of sounding not-smart-enough). But as I recently argued in my piece “Media Studies Makeover,” making our work available online is the main way that media scholars can substantiate the claim that our work is important. Interacting with comments is one way to show that we find feedback important, from scholars and non-scholars alike. Otherwise, you’re essentially suggesting that your thoughts should exist in a vacuum, with you congratulating yourself on how awesome them are. (It’s ironic, then, that the new online in which my own piece is published, Frames, is not open to comments. Don’t talk to me; talk to the editor). It’s also what’s behind my frustration with big media studies blogs like Bordwell and Thompson’s Observations on Film Art, also closed to comments. I understand why, at least in part, they’ve done — to ward off the trolls — but I feel that much is lost in the process.
The second online environment, and the one in which I get the most feedback by far, is The Hairpin. Having now written for The ‘Pin for the last year, I can say that no other experience has done more for me as a scholar. It’s given me room to think (and write) expansively, in different voices, posit new theories about stars, and perhaps most importantly, have a tremendous amount of fun. I love writing the pieces, as painstaking as the research and the writing process continues to be, in part because I love seeing how the commenting community responds to it. There’s some obviously some vanity invested in the process, but there’s also pure delight: the readers of The ‘Pin are uniformly (and I can say that without hyperbole) interested and interesting. Many are outrageously funny. Others have more classic Hollywood knowledge than I do. A select few help with copywriting/factual errors that my eyes couldn’t see. Many ask me questions, others ask each other questions. They are just f-ing delightful, and I don’t exactly understand how Edith, Jane, and Nicole have made it work. Part of it is self-policing: the one time that a true douche came and off-basely criticized one of my pieces (something along the lines of “this is boring,” other commenters essentially shamed him off the site. But these commenters are (for the most part) completely anonymous. That should encourage trolling, or at the very least shaming and attacks the way you see at other female-oriented blogs. But it’s just not there.
Some people might say that positive commenters don’t challenge me to be a better writer — that they make me complacent. I couldn’t disagree more: I try to write better, more interesting, more compelling and well-researched stuff because of how great they are.
The same is true for the work I do here, on this site. I never get as many comments as a Hairpin piece, but the comments I do receive are, at least 99% of the time, extremely helpful, even when you disagree. Commenters help me to reconsider or reevaluate various components of my argument, they help me think through “soft” areas of my thought process. They add additional information and challenge me to think from different angles. And on The Hairpin and here alike, they tell me to keep writing — which is sometimes exactly the sort of encouragement that a writer who blogs for free needs, and why I try to do the same on others’ blogs. The simple idea that your work is important to me; please keep doing it is tremendously undervalued in today’s blogging “economy.”
I realize that my experience with comments as been unique. As a fellow academic, researching the role of online reviewers, passed along, dozens of female reviewers and recappers have been threatened with rape, death, and worse in the commenting sections of various sites. The Chronicle of Higher Education comments sections are cesspools of despair and mirth. Slate, Salon — there’s just no escaping the amount of petty bickering and thoughtless insult that dominates the vast majority of comments. Only when I think broadly can I understand why authors would be so reticent to engage with their readers.
For now, I can say that commenters remain one of my primary motivations for writing on the internet. But that motivation remains contingent on the existence of “safe spaces,” to use a not entirely inappropriate word, where writers’ work can be respected….and commenter’s opinions on that work can be respected in turn. Back in my rhetoric-studying days, I learned that “ethical communication” could only happen when two parties truly listen to each other, and open themselves to persuasion. If I don’t allow and respond to comments on my work, then I’m not communicating ethically. If you post THIS SUCKS UR FAT, you’re not either.
Which is all to say: keep commenting. I will too.