“Isn’t [it] ironic that your editorial about reader comments receives so many reader comments?” Mark Robins tweeted at me just hours after I posted my April 2 editorial on why we’re closing Daily Xtra’s comment section.
Little did Mark or I know that the comments on my editorial would climb to 46 the following week, ranking it in the top five comment-generating articles posted to dailyxtra.com in the last year.
“I created an account just in time to lose the ability to comment!” Véronique lamented in a comment she titled, “Bathwater fouled, but don’t toss the baby.”
“So I am one who has not been commenting (I’m very slow to register for anything that wants real information from me). And I would not want to be a comment moderator,” she posted. “But it seems to me there ought to be a better solution than to shut off comments entirely. Then the site would become completely non-interactive. Might that result in even less engagement?”
“Yes, the comments here are but a trickle,” 1dizzy1 acknowledged. “To me that suggests you’ve lost touch with your readers. But your solution is to cut off their feedback altogether. And then do what? More navel gazing?”
“A community-focused publication ceasing communication with the very members of the community which it’s supposed to represent kinda seems anti-democratic and censorial in my mind,” Moondoggie commented. “I have not always agreed with some of the commentary I’ve read over the years . . . but I have always defended the right of readers to express their views. Commenters prove that the community is not just one big homogenous lump, mindlessly following trendy groupthink.”
“I don’t have answers,” Véronique concluded, “but I really hope there is one other than to have no comments at all,” she added.
My colleagues and I don’t have answers either, but we are open to your suggestions.
So far, our attempts to foster free speech in an online comment section have been a mostly depressing exercise in vitriol and unaccountability, not unlike the experience TED’s social media editor Nadia Goodman describes in her recent editorial on Monica Lewinsky.
“When Monica spoke at TED2015, held in March in Vancouver, the audience in the room received her with warmth and generosity of spirit,” Goodman writes. “Many who’d had reservations were swayed by her talk. We saw this kind, vulnerable, strong woman who wanted to be heard — a woman who knew what was at stake for the victims of public shaming and who deeply hoped to get her message right . . . When we posted her talk online a few days later, the safety we’d created in that room went out the window.”
In stark contrast to the reception she’d received in person, Lewinsky was immediately attacked online, Goodman says. “As soon as her talk went up on Facebook, in too little time for anyone to have actually watched the 20-minute video, the comment thread was deluged with vitriol and hatred. People called her a slut and a whore, made jokes about sucking dick, and said she deserves the shaming because ‘shaming is an important part of how we shape our culture.’”
Reading Goodman’s editorial, I was struck by the similarity and reminded that we decided to close our comment section for a reason. It’s not a lack of commitment to freedom of expression; it’s an admission that this format is rarely conducive to the civilized, constructive discussion we aim to host.
Most of the 46 comments (some of which appear to have been posted by the same people using different avatars) on my April 2 editorial objected to closing the comments. But some of them acknowledged the challenges we’ve faced and supported our decision, as did most of the conversations I saw on social media.
“While it’s unfortunate that ‘our community’ is losing a forum for the exchange of opinions and the challenge to reporting, the comment section was not really fulfilling that role (for the reasons outlined in the article). I won’t miss it,” Gilles Marchildon posted.
“And yes, I am appreciating the irony of me posting this very comment,” he continued. “It’s too bad, however, that Xtra isn’t dedicating some of its editorial resources to . . . editing! Why not have someone qualified review comments submitted online and post the most intelligent, informative and thought-provoking submissions that inform and enrich debate, just like the ‘letters’ section in a newspaper used to do (including criticism of the publication itself to keep you on your toes)? It could represent a brave new direction. Yes, it represents work but I’m sure you’re up to the task. THAT would provide real value for readers!”
We are certainly open to Gilles’ suggestion and any others you might have on what shape a constructive new forum for discussion might take.
How do you think we can create a space that’s conducive to heated debate, rather than deluged with vicious personal attacks that tend to drive commenters away?
Can we, together, surmount the challenges that plague so many online comment sections to create a space where our community can actually exchange ideas freely, without subjecting one another to personal attack? An online town hall of sorts, where even unpopular ideas are welcome and dissenters valued, but viciousness is called out rather than condoned?
Goodman closed her editorial with a line from Lewinsky’s speech worth considering: “We talk a lot about our right to freedom of speech, but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of speech.”