Yesterday Derek Thompson put up a very good item on the pluses and minuses of enabling reader-comments on web sites. This was of course occasioned by Popular Science's decision to stop allowing comments on its posts. Derek explained why the Atlantic's various sites and writers felt that comment sections, some moderated and others left to ferment or combust on their own, added more -- through engagement, variety, insight, accountability, community-formation -- than they took away through rancor or polarization. Our digital editor, Bob Cohn, made a similar case last month for the open-comment policy throughout the Atlantic's domains.
With one exception: me. I didn't allow comments back when I had my own small site long ago, and I've stuck that policy since lashing this little skiff onto the Atlantic.com mother ship in 2006. There were two exceptions in the years when Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish was part of our operation, since he too takes the no-comments line.
Nearly three years ago, I explained why it makes sense -- to me -- to do business this way. Prompted by Derek's item, I looked at that old post again, and I still believe what I wrote then. Please feel free to read the whole thing, but here was the gist:
1) Unless a comment stream is actively moderated, it inevitably is ruined by bullies, hotheads, and trolls. If you feel otherwise, fine. This is what I think.2) I am unwilling, or afraid, to commit the ongoing attention necessary to be a real-time moderator of comments on this site. I am often away from the web world for a couple of days running, for instance the past 36 hours. [Update 9/25/2013: Or most of the past 72 hours, for a combination of family obligations, travel, and other-writing duties.] That is a long enough time for things to go wrong and people's feelings to get bruised. Also, although I tremendously value the connections I've made and stimulation I've received via Atlantic.com, I think of magazine and book writing as my "real" work and need to give them attention-precedence.
Corollary: The comment-communities that flourish, notably the Golden Horde of TN Coates, require real-time, frequent intervention by a moderator not afraid to put his stamp on the discussion.
3) So instead I try as much as I can to republish comments I get from readers, and do so almost every day. Generally this does more to advance the discussion than what I originally said.
I don't have any second thoughts about this policy. Many people will disagree -- it's a free country. I do regret, even more acutely than when I made the point back in 2010, not being able to keep up with, curate, respond to, and republish a larger share of the fascinating mail that comes in. I'll keeping trying my best. [Picture from here; he didn't allow reader comments either.]