On the 2nd of February the American current affairs website, The Atlantic, announced that it was closing down its Disqus-based comments system in favour of a new “letters” section (ie. the publication of selected emails from readers). The editor-in-chief of the conservative magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg, claimed that the site would now feature:
…the smartest, most compelling responses to our journalism. It will be a venue for respectful dialogue, criticism, meaningful observations, and challenging ideas.
An inspiring hope to be sure. But who will decide which responses are featured? And what criteria will be used be for those decisions? These are questions of integrity and self-criticism with no easy answers, unless one is reduced to the old journalistic platitude of “trust in us”. However, Goldberg justifies the move by arguing that the existing online comments section had:
…often been hijacked by people who traffic in snark and ad hominem attacks and even racism, misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish invective.
Instead of hosting these sorts of unhelpful, even destructive, conversations on TheAtlantic.com, we are choosing now to elevate respectful, intelligent discourse and argument.
If those things are true, then the problem surely lies in the website’s failure to properly manage and “police” the below-the-line commentary, and not in the facility itself? My own experiences with An Sionnach Fionn have proven to me that those who resort to abusive behaviour simply undermine their standing with other readers. So that when they do make serious or worthwhile contributions their reputation proceeds them. In most cases, such individuals eventually move on to some other platform to vent their ire.
Consequently, I have generally found the comments on ASF to be observational or informative in nature, encouraging me and others to engage with each other. They have provided an immediacy to individual posts which a weekly “letters to the editor” section would miss. I have rewritten whole articles within minutes or hours of publication because of the suggestions or criticisms made by readers. On several occasions I have been pulled up for the use of insensitive language or the failure to express my views in a considered manner. And rightly so.
The ability of readers to submit opinions or ideas under internet articles, and for those things to be responded to or acted upon, encourages further engagement. It gives the reader a sense of participation with an online publication, of shaping its tone and direction. To don my business hat, comments are a “value add” for a web-based news and current affairs site; not a “non-value add”.
By removing its comments section The Atlantic has returned to the model which was technologically necessary for printed newspapers and magazines. But not those operating on the world wide web. It has needlessly reestablished an antiquated barrier between creators and consumers; between journalists and readers. Ultimately, it will isolate the magazine from those it needs – and who appreciate it – the most.