On the Divide Between Authors and Commenters

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.


6 Responses to “On the Divide Between Authors and Commenters”

  1. Deeply Unhip says:

    “Who are these people who can’t engage with the comments?” The answer: Basically everyone who has ever worked at Gawker Media. In fact, Gawker Media has a reputation for being overtly hostile to their commenter communities, reacting to any and all criticism with severe hypersensitivity, engaging in a certain level of censorship, and happily instituting changes that negatively impact the community (who are told to suck it up or go away). The odd thing is, compared to the rest of the internet, Gawker Media has always enjoyed rather elevated conversations among commenters. The original commenting communities on Gawker sites (particularly Jezebel) were awfully similar to what you describe on the Hairpin. But with every “improvement” to their commenting system, the quality of the discourse (and arguably the content) has sunk lower and lower. It is a nice theory to have the writers engage with the commentariat, but if elevating the conversation was the goal, Gawker could have tried acting with a greater degree of diplomacy and professionalism over the course of the last 5 years. And there’s a ton of Gawker-like behavior on other blogs (think everything featured on GOMI), so the attitude that commenters exist to spew happy thoughts at the writer is certainly widespread.

    All this is a very long way of saying that the key is not just about whether you engage commenters, but how you engage them.

  2. Myles McNutt says:

    As we discussed on Twitter, I’m right with you on this one. While I have to deal with a few more trolls at The A.V. Club than you deal with at the Hairpin, my experience blogging on my own beforehand meant that comments were once something I cherished, and thus something I internalized as valuable, and thus something I’ve carried on into my work at The A.V. Club. I feel comfortable suggesting I’m among the most active writers on the site in terms of participating in the comments, and I believe—anecdotally—it has earned me a degree of respect even from those who don’t always agree with my reviews (which some of them don’t even read to begin with). Particularly when writing episodic criticism, where a good bulk of readers ignore the 1500 words you wrote and just comment based on the grade, the comments become an important space of community that is probably MORE important to the site than content at the end of the day. And so I will admit, with all respect to some of my colleagues, that I don’t understand people who write a review and just leave it there.

    And yet no one is paying me to moderate/participate in comment sections. It hasn’t been mandated—maybe it should?—so why in the world would people for whom freelance writing is a full-time job (rather than a part-time hobby) take hours out of their evenings to engage with the troll who thinks Jenji Kohan is a stupid slut? I didn’t have to spend ten minutes crafting a carefully worded reprimand that respected the person’s ability to express their opinion while rejecting their choice to attack Kohan in such misogynistic terms, but I consider it my responsibility for better or worse. And when 22 other commenters “Like” the comment, it validates that engagement, as it suggests I’ve had some role—however small—in helping create that “safe space” you refer to.

    But I would not expect everyone to jump at the chance to take on that responsibility, especially on sites where it’s part-moderation and part-rehabilitation.

  3. “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.”

    – Totally agree. But I think Bordwell and Thompson also close comments because the latest editions of FILM ART include their blog posts in the margins, e.g., “For more on this aspect of cinematography in CITIZEN KANE, visit our blog post at…” I’m assuming they don’t want this little “textbook extension” all dirtied up with pages of comments from academics, bloggers, trolls, etc.

  4. Nice post, and I certainly agree that good comment threads are among the most productive parts of online writing. One of the biggest problems with comments though, is how to interpret silence. I’ve often written posts that I feel should be provocative and trigger conversation, but that nobody reacts to. Should I assume that the piece is not as provocative as I thought? Or is it wrong-headed and nobody feels comfortable saying so on my own site? Or is it just that the effort-hurdle to comment is too much to take the time about a particular topic? This is certainly something I grapple with as I pre-publish my book for comments & feedback.

    I’ve talked with David Bordwell about their decision to close comments, and he said that they’re more comfortable writing the more traditional “monologic” mode for a few reasons, including the labor of spam/troll moderation, time challenge of sustaining response to the comments, and skepticism that the comments would be an ultimately productive space. While I disagree with this personally, I do think that it’s important to let many models flourish to suit everyone’s comfort zone – if the norm is that a blog must have comments, then many people will opt not to blog. The fact that high-profile traditional scholars now publish most of their scholarship digitally is a huge boon for the field that needs to be celebrated.

  5. b says:

    This will probably not be a very popular opinion here, but one reason full-time writers may not engage their audience is a lack of time. Maybe I somehow missed that here, but it sounds like a breakdown between fun but unpaid writing (a la The Awl network) and paid writers (a la Gawker) might have very different feelings about how much engagement should be required. Even if writers are being paid a nominal sum for their work, there’s simply only so much time to scroll through comments and reply thoughtfully to more than a few if you are paid, say, $75 per post. There are plenty of sites and publications that encourage engagement — The Guardian’s Comment Is Free is a good example — but writers are by no means outright required to dive into the fray. Freelance writers trying to make mid-five figures or more each year who write for these sorts of sites…well, I’ll just say that being one of them, I’m not all that inclined to wade through a lot of feedback of varying degrees of usefulness when my job as a writer is to be as clear and concise as possible from the start. I’m not saying that engaging with respectful commenters is always a chore. Sometimes, as Anne says, it’s quite fun. But I am saying that arguing or further explaining myself seems like not only more unpaid work that lowers my hourly rate; arguably, it can detract from the work by having a whole extra conversation below the original piece. Say what you mean the first time and stick to it. Right?

  6. Mark Stewart says:

    Picking up on the comments from both Jason and Myles, I wonder whether the reason that people who come from a blogging background (at their own blogs) really desire, even crave, that type of engagement. Especially at academic blogs, writers are often seeking feedback on their ideas, and so any and every comment tends to get a return comment. Freelance writers/journalists may well not have that sort of experience, and may even have been given the feeling, under traditional models, that they should stay separate, even aloof. Obviously, in the modern context, that is no longer an appropriate model.