Let’s talk about comments

If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you’ve heard, or said, "Don’t read the comments!” at one time or another. I know I have. It’s usually accompanied by an eye-roll and a heavy sigh, the implication clear: of course you shouldn’t read the comments, surely you know better than to expect anything good to come from this morass of the web now, in twenty-fourteen.

That’s actually how I first began to question the belief that comments were just a sad pit of internet despair. Few things raise my hackles, or my skepticism, like the argument that we should be embarrassed or ashamed for believing things could be better than they are. It’s cynical, dismissive, and downright disdainful of a way that many people use the web.

I’ve written before that at their best, comments are a form of community. Given what I do for a living, I’m naturally loathe to see online communities start disappearing from the web. Some argue that comments are superfluous in the age of social media; now that everyone can have a Twitter or Facebook profile, even their own blog, for free, the comment section is hardly the only place dialogue occurs. While that’s certainly true, it glosses right over the fact that someone might have valid reasons for not wanting to maintain a presence on those platforms, or hell, might want to have a conversation about a particular topic without inviting all of their Twitter followers and Facebook friends into the mix.

More than that, at a time when Google, Facebook, Twitter, and seemingly every other website, is trying to predict our needs and interests, tailoring the web to what they think we’ll like, comments and community offer a refreshing opportunity for serendipity—the unexpected encounter that opens our eyes to a new perspective or idea. The realization that we have more in common than we thought.

Is that idealistic? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen either. When we act like every comment section out there is as bad as what we see on YouTube, we’re dismissing a very real way that a lot of people have chosen to participate on the web, and we’re reinforcing this notion that comments are just inherently bad—that the content and the people who create it are adding nothing to the web, even taking away from it.

A little while back, Frank Chimero shared a talk he gave at the School of Visual Art’s Thesis Festival. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. In the talk, he shares some examples of how Yellowstone National Park has dealt with the unpredictable nature of, you know, wildlife, over the years: when wolves were attacking cattle, they got shot; when bears were eating sandwiches (and destroying cars in the process), they started a “bear management” program, to help people learn how to enjoy the park without tempting or endangering the bears. Here’s Chimero:

“I’m sharing this weird parable about Yellowstone, because it describes both sides of how to approach problems. Some designers want to shoot the wolves, others want to manage the bears. One is trying to make an antidote, the other invests in a process to keep things open and adaptable.”

Most of what I see these days is people “killing the wolves”—getting rid of comments sections wholesale. Somehow, simply having a place for people to leave comments has not guaranteed that our comment sections will become a place for rich discussion and community—who’d have thought?

Having an interesting, worthwhile, and dare I say, engaging, comment section takes work. It is work to read through all the comments a site receives and decide what should or should not be published. It is work to bring together all the necessary people and get them to agree on what the guidelines will be, and who will enforce them. It is work to remind everyone of those conversations when people test those boundaries and are disappointed to find them enforced.

Obviously, not everyone is up for that, or interested in creating community in that particular way. The lovely folks here at The Pastry Box aren’t, and that’s perfectly fine. Somehow though, the fact that comment sections aren’t miraculously cultivated web-gardens, when we don’t do the work to keep them that way, has turned into this belief that they’re just inherently awful pockets of the web.

Here’s the thing though: comments sections don’t have to be terrible. Folks like Jennifer and her fellow bloggers at Captain Awkward, authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the team over at Code Switch. These people write about difficult, challenging topics. They write about race, about relationships, about politics and feminism and whether or not it’s moral to watch NFL games anymore. These are not mundane topics—they’re lightening rods, third-rails of the web.

But you know what? The comments are pretty fascinating. I often learn something new from reading through them, and usually have a hard time pulling myself away. They’re fascinating because people put in the work: because they set boundaries, and then enforce them. Here’s Code Switch reflecting on their first year of conversations about race and culture on the web. It clearly hasn’t been easy, but they’ve found it to be a valuable experience, worthy of the obvious effort they’re putting into it, because they’re creating a place for discussion that might not exist otherwise.

Part of that boundary-enforcing means being willing to step in and remove comments that steer the discussion, intentionally or not, off the topic at hand. Many of us who work on the web have bought in to, on some level, the geek social fallacy that “ostracizers are evil,” and are loathe to play that role, even when it comes to web comments. We’re left with a sort of all-or-nothing approach: either we keep all the comments, except those so blatantly violating our guidelines that they can’t be ignored, or we throw out comments altogether, unwilling to play bad cop on our own sites. The middle-ground, being willing to prune our comment sections, is hard work, too. Matt Thompson, at Code Switch, outlines this for their readers:

“So if we delete your comment, it’s not necessarily because we think the comment is bad or wrong, or because we want to suppress your point of view. Most often, it’s because the comment doesn’t get at the topic we’re aiming to discuss at that moment, in this space. We are trying to curate a discussion that is intelligent, unique, and novel a discussion that moves us and that may require removing comments we think are not directly contributing to the focus of the conversation at that time.”

There’s another layer of work that goes into making these comment sections better than the rest: instead of ignoring the comments, or holding them in obvious disdain, these authors actually read and respond to them. People participate, in part, because they’re able to build a relationship with a writer they like and respect. Knowing that someone like Coates may read what you’ve written, and will probably call you out if you’re being a jerk, is a pretty good incentive for people to not just follow the guidelines, but actually share thoughtful contributions.

Seeing comments sections like these, it’s clear to me that there are ways for us to manage the bears, instead of shooting the wolves: we can create guidelines for our comments sections, we can enforce those, and we can engage with our commenters, encouraging them to participate in a way that benefits the community as a whole.

I have a hunch that the recent Open News-New York Times-Washington Post collaboration will provide some very interesting tools to facilitate this, though I suspect they have their sights set on a whole host of issues beyond comments as well. Still, at a time when so many sites are giving up on comments, and so many in our own community view them with contempt, it’s exciting to see smart people invested in improving this part of the web.

Not every site needs to be a community, and community can grow in a myriad of ways, but at its core the web is about connecting people and ideas. In a web that feels like it’s becoming more siloed and restricted, let’s try to keep things open and adaptable. Let’s manage the bears instead of killing off one of our methods for creating community, just because it’s been neglected or poorly executed in the past.

This piece originally appeared on The Pastry Box Project