Community and Context: Thoughts on Closing Comments


This afternoon, several of our readers questioned our decision to close the comment thread on Jaron Lanier's post about WikiLeaks, "The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy." The discussion transformed into an extended Twitter conversation with some of my favorite writers, professors, and readers about the ethics and strategy of that decision. I'd like to walk through my thinking with you all here.

Before we dive into the details, I want to tell you where I'm coming from, philosophically and strategically.

First, I love Atlantic readers. This isn't pandering; I go home every night thankful for the audience that we have because I know that I've got it good. But we're a totally open website and we can draw trolls just like anywhere else. I kinda love our homegrown trolls, but I have no patience for people who visit once just to say something mean. They demean the community.

Second, I am not religious about the necessity of comments. Comments have a history just like every other literary genre and that entails conventions. Many of the general conventions around Internet discourse developed in ugly ways. (That's why oddball commenters are so delightful, like this limerick-writing guy.) Commenting standards differ across the Internet -- our unwritten code tends to require basic civility -- but when you have an article get widely distributed, the standards of the local site tend to collapse from the onslaught of outsiders. I also firmly believe that comments are not always the best conduit for critique, feedback, and reflection. Theoretically, at least, one could design a better general system, or one that could be used in some special cases.

Third, a closed comment thread does not prevent the propagation of critical responses in today's world. To suggest so is to ignore the link. In age where blogging -- micro, meso, and normal -- could not be easier, most discussion of a story takes place off-site anyway. In fact, that's one problem for us sites that would like to capture the conversation-creating power of a story.

Ok. Now, to the specifics.

Late last week, Jaron got in touch with The Atlantic about a piece that he had written for the German magazine Focus, but which did not have an English-language home. After a couple of emails and a quick conversation, we agreed to take the story. Jaron's book has been more influential than his detractors would like, and even though I didn't agree with most of what he had to say, I think of the tech channel as a place that can host alternative viewpoints. That is to say, I feel OK posting things with which I disagree. (It might sound silly to people who don't work here, but the tolerance for difference that was baked into our magazine 153 years ago is still important to us. I mean, where else could Megan McArdle and James Fallows work in adjacent offices?)

In any case, while we were talking about the piece, I told Jaron that I wanted to post my own response to it. Jaron made the request that I hold off on the response for a short while. Because his essays are long and occasionally difficult, he worried people wouldn't read the actual essay, instead jumping down to the comments or over to my response. Given Jaron's long history and strong positions on some hotly contested issues, it did not seem unreasonable that his piece would be marred by nasty trolling instead of real engagement with his ideas and arguments.

This is a tricky issue because I want to do right by our writers and readers. (After all, dozens of our readers *are* our writers.) In a competitive market for ideas, part of what we can offer to writers is a little more control over how their work might appear. The context that surrounds a piece just keeps growing. Just a few years ago, media organizations held complete control over the presentation of work. I'm glad that there is much more flexibility now, but -- as someone who writes for the interwebs every day -- I don't think it's unreasonable to want to control *how* your work is read on its original publication. Of course, we have to balance the desires of these producers with the expectations of readers.

In this case, I agreed to a closed-comment policy. I thought many of those who would want to respond to Lanier would use their own blogs, Twitter feeds, and other venues to wrangle with his work. My plan was to collect up those responses and post them to the site -- and then link that piece in with his original essay. I also wanted to respond myself, made a call for responses on Twitter, and directly reached out to two people I thought might be able to provide good counter essays (Biella Coleman and Zeynep Tufekci).

And, I figured, we'd never closed comments, so it seemed worthwhile to see what would happen if we did. The Technology Channel is less than four months old. *Everything* is still an experiment. Hell, on The Atlantic, we have thriving communities that make extensive use of comments (Coates, McArdle) and that use alternative mechanisms (Sullivan, Fallows). I think what I do is a lot more like the former, but perhaps we could deploy the latter in some circumstances?

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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