The Atlantic Magazine Ends Online Comments In A Retrograde Step

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.

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20 comments

  1. Virtually all sites in “freedom of speech” Meirica have shut down their comments sections to become even more of the “echo chambers” they have already been. Outside ideas not welcome. Goes for those formerly liberal turned ideo-fascist to the conservatives and the regular fascists. Just another stake in the heart of the giant.

    1. It’s a bad trend. A couple of sites that closed down online commentary had to open up the comments again when readers turned away in droves. People like the interaction, especially when they are used to it. It’s contrary to the interactive culture of the internet.

  2. Well, a Shionnaich, the thought that writers actually take note of our comments, let alone act on them … that’s downright scary. I mean, all we’re doing mostly is the equivalent of screaming at the telly 🙂

    1. LOL! Okay, but I do pay attention. What’s the point otherwise? Feedback, good or bad, helps me with my own writing and messaging. It acts as a reminder, admonishment and teacher. Readers chastising me on sloppy spelling, writing, phrasing etc. makes me strive to do better. There is much to say for public embarrassment or humiliation.

      And some commentators have proven themselves to be more knowledgeable or articulate than me.

      1. Fair enough, but I just wanted to warn you not to take every comment to heart. Sometimes we’re just letting off steam, and anyway as they say, you can’t please all the people all of the time 🙂

    2. We” are not posting this comment. I am.
      I do not use the Internet for the equivalent of “screaming at the telly.” People who write posts for that purpose are wasting their time.
      The presence of such posts by other has never bothered me that much- I know how to scroll, and have some reasoned criteria for when to do it- but when people trivialize the peerless potential of this historically unprecedented medium for free speech as if it were only designed for futile venting- as if we’re all just truculent children, or powerless proles- that does bother me. Enough so to prompt me to compose this reply to your post.

    1. That seems to be the result from other examples. The most engaged readers, those used to commenting, often over a period of years, simply walk away. They no longer have any personal stake in the website.

  3. I don’t know if the more well-known comments sections are worth fighting for. They’re full of cranks and bullies and anything good posted there is swallowed up in the bile and rancour of the exchanges. Just look at the comments section of the journal.ie or independent.ie, they’re just poison.

  4. Many media outlets don’t want to pay someone to monitor their online commentary areas, so the easiest thing to do is shut them down. Ultimately, it’s their loss. That said, if publications aren’t willing to police their own forums, those forums aren’t of much use because, as others posters above have noted, they’re often full of invective, serve as a sounding board for off-topic political rants or are feeding grounds for trolls.

    1. I think that’s the problem. The difficulty of having a full-time editor managing the comments. Or asking writers to engage with BTL views. It is no easy task. But some have done it well. Ironically James Fallows and Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic were excellent examples. Both actively sought out reader participation and opinions on certain pieces. Their articles were all the better for that. And the comments were good barometers of them succeeding in their aims. A thoughtful examination in the link below.

      How Ta-Nehisi Coates built a comment section that doesn’t tolerate trolling, rudeness and bad faith

      1. Thank you for linking to the article. It was very prescient in many ways regarding the online commenting. I’m not a reader of The Atlantic for the simple reason I simply don’t have time to read all the publications I’d like to, but I would have very much enjoyed to have read Coates’ pieces and the comments they generated when it was in its prime.

        Of course, if you really want to feel depressed about the future of society, try reading a comment section for local television news stories.

  5. I think there are ways to ameliorate the problem of offensive or juvenile comment posts without the requirement to use continuous active moderation (an activity that would require a lot of shift workers in order to do the required 7-day, 20-24 hour coverage, and which would also leave the site doing the censoring or firepitting open to allegations about the selectivity of their “suppression of free speech”, wearying attacks by organized troll mobs, etc.)

    The solution that strikes me as the most effective for the least effort would be some form of pay-to-play, without the need to put the news site itself behind a pay wall. For example, by retaining the ability of Internet users to have unrestricted free access to the Atlantic articles themselves- but access to reading article comments would require a baseline subscription, and access to the ability to write them would cost extra- either in the form of an added premium, or through instituting a micropayment regime. Something like $.05 per comment, say.

    I don’t think that Internet micropayment accounts have caught on to nearly the extent that they deserve, but that wouldn’t present a problem in the case of a pre-existing site subscription payment account- the small sums could simply be added to the bill. An annual subscription might even include the ability to post, say, 100 comments per year for free, with a per-post surcharge for each additional comment.

    As a formerly inveterate Atlantic comment writer, I’d even pay additional money for the ability to easily and reliably do keyword searches for comments, and to have the ability to download or print an entire post archive as a document. I’m not sure how many other writers would value such a capability enough to do the same, but I doubt that I’m the only comment writer who would consider that capability to be a benefit, to the point where I’d pay for it.

    I realize that the majority of article comments on Internet news media sites run a limited gamut from the superfluous to the offensive. But that’s no more relevant to the presence of comments of exceptional insight and value than the presence of dirt, gravel, and dross in a gold mine. And anyone who dismisses the very possibility that article comments are capable of providing a high level of insight and information value is either not paying attention, or they’re confining their reading to the wrong sites.

    My suggestions here are intended to increase the ratio of worthwhile comments to worthless ones. Most of the worthless comments take the form of brief “drive-by” posts of one or two lines, and it’s obvious that their usual top priority is turf-marking. As long as it’s free of charge for cheap-shot posters and antisocial egomaniac trolls to comment, they’ll take advantage of the opportunity. Especially since it’s the case that one person can easily post literally hundreds of comments a day- sometimes employing sock puppet multiple identities- to gratify their pathology. Up to the point where posting 100 comments a day costs them $5.00. I don’t think most troll posters would pay a nickel; they’re empowered by the “freedom lie”, and when it comes right down to it, their implicit message is that Internet free speech is worthless for any serious purpose of discussing or debating ideas. Troll “participation” is likely to diminish markedly on any site where it costs at least $20-$50 a year just to read comments, and even more to post them.

    1. Good idea. I think I’ve seen similar suggestions before. Restricting commenting privileges to paid subscribers from the get-go makes sense. It might also encourage subscriptions if readers get irked enough to get the urge to comment.

      That said, The Guardian does a fairly good job of managing its BTL spaces. But it’s certainly labour intensive and I suspect not always rewarding. V few authors engage with their readers on mainstream media sites. Which is a mistake. They should play a role too.

      All that said, even I struggle to keep up with comments, with moderation and replies, on this microscopic website. It is difficult.

  6. I agree that it’s a hassle simply to keep up with open comments on a blog. I’ve let a couple of them go fallow, with comments left open. Come back after a couple of months, it’s like opening a refrigerator and seeing a biology experiment. Spam cultured.

    The Guardian provides an awful lot of content without requiring any money in return. I just gave them $50.

  7. Just let the comments run wild. ASF pretty much does that until it goes as far as death threats. Death threats are not okay. Everything else, no matter how stupid or insane, is fair. It’s part of the deal. Let it or leave it. If you leave it to registered or paid-for commentators you just get what you want to hear, no one else is going to leave their name. That means you don’t get real sentiments, just the so ever-prevalent “yes sir” BS that no one really needs.

    1. I do that, though I always worry that I’m way too lenient. But I hate the idea of censoring people. It’s not easy to find the balance. I’ll let a few pejoratives fly, its not always a bad thing, but usually try to close it off if it gets repetitive.

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