Reporter's Notebook

Remembering the Horde
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A collection of memories from members of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s old commenting community, which was profiled by Eva Holland in “‘It’s Yours’: A Short History of the Horde.”

Show None Newer Notes

After seeing the AMA responses from TNC today, long-time reader Nicole Pezold Hancock writes:

I’m really late in seeing all these notes from Horde members, but years ago, I was the commenter known as Pontchartrain Girl. I joined the Horde in 2009, around the time of the murder of Dr. George Tiller. As a news junkie, I frequented The Atlantic magazine and had even read TNC’s Michelle Obama article [link] but had never noticed the blog.

And then Dr. Tiller was gunned down as he attended church. I spent a few hours in the days after scouring the Internet—not for news, but for comments. I don’t know why reading the violent ravings of people I disagreed with was attractive to me right then. Perhaps I wanted to feel more pain? Or gloat at their misspellings or apparent lunacy? Or maybe I was just spoiling to read a fight.

At any rate, I ended up in TNC’s salon and witnessed a remarkably civil discussion of abortion rights [link]. That’s the only place online or off that I’ve heard all these disparate voices respectfully sharing their thoughts on such an emotional, divisive subject. And that was just my first day lurking there.

Shortly after, TNC hosted a lengthy, ridiculously entertaining debate on mayonnaise versus Miracle Whip and their cultural significance [link]. I was in love. The Horde was smart. The Horde was funny. The Horde was thirsting for truth, whether about how we remember the Civil War or what milk substitutes are healthiest. And their leader was rigorous about facts and the rules of engagement. He demanded as much integrity as the best of professors and I learned better how to say mea culpa—even to a faceless online community (I can’t listen to “I Stand Corrected” by Vampire Weekend without thinking of him).

TNC and the Horde refined and challenged my thinking on so many subjects.

And then things started to fall apart. Others have explained this far better than I can or remember. But I went from being Pontchartrain Girl to being a Pontchartrain mom around the same time that TNC’s stature was growing. I found it dizzying and dissatisfying trying to keep up any conversation or even to follow those of the Horde because it got so crowded. It wasn’t only trolls. There were just too many of us jockeying to speak and be heard all at once. TNC would post an item or the OTAN and almost immediately it’d be mobbed by 300 comments, then 500 comments. And so I quit.

(Editor’s note: These questions from Atlantic readers—in bold—and replies from Ta-Nehisi were compiled from an “Ask Me Anything” he did with the TAD group on 1/12. In the podcast above, starting at the 114:30 mark, Ta-Nehisi speaks at length about the bygone era of blogging and his writing today. Money quote: “Blogging was real-time, ongoing learning process. That went away. … I didn’t write too much [during the 2016 election] because I didn’t want to take this oracular role. There was no space to try to figure it out. There was no space to think about it.”)

I have been dying to ask about the new book. Is it by any chance the historical fiction one you’d started oh so long ago? I always thought you had captured some lightning with that one.

Hi Sandy. Yes. Signed a two book deal. First, is essays. Second is that historical fiction.

You tweeted earlier this year that you’re focused on book-writing. How much has your process changed as you’ve gotten more attention and a wider audience? How different is your day-to-day process now from the days of The Atlantic blogging and the original Horde?

Changed a lot. More people looking. Probably more than I’m comfortable with. Much less room to think out loud. So, thinking is much more of a private thing these days. The landscape isn’t really set up for the public act of asking questions.

It’s cool though. There was a time when I asked questions privately—before I got to The Atlantic. Basically have to go back to that. Maybe that’s as it should be.

Do you miss blogging? [Atlantic colleague and former Dish editor] Chris B. was lamenting the fall of blogging as a platform for thinking and learning in public and I always found that to be my favorite kind of process to read.

Yes. Terribly.

You seem both surprised and a little discomforted by how much attention you got following BTWAM [Between the World and Me] and, obviously, a lot of it was hostile. I remember reading about your Park Slope house purchase and your comments on the whole response to that. How do you manage that? I'm legit just curious about it as someone who feels, y'know, affection for you from your work but also invested in your work and what it adds to the discourse.

The house was actually in Lefferts-Garden, where I’d rented when my wife, my son and I first moved to New York. Was attached to that neighborhood. Got the house. Neighborhood blog plastered my face up. Realtor talked. And suddenly it wasn’t home anymore. It was performance.

When you know that people know who you are, you are always working—and not the work you want to do. You are sort of performing, because you know they are looking, or at least glancing at you. Would hate to walk out thinking about that.

There is something else: People never stop to think about you as an actual person with a family in these situations. I’ve said this publicly now, so it’s no point hiding it. My wife has long had women’s health issues at the core of her mission, specifically reproductive rights. She’s actually in med-school now, and the plan was always for her to be active on that front. When you want to go into that work, and your address is plastered all of the internet, with pictures and floorpans of your house, well … When I talked about “not feeling safe,” it wasn’t just for me.

Depiction of the Golden Horde at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380, which contributed to its decline (Wikimedia)

Longreads announced this week their ten most popular exclusives from the year, and Eva Holland’s short history of The Horde is among them. We still have a few excellent emails from Horde members that weren’t included in the first two batches of retrospectives we aired earlier this fall, so now’s a great time to air them. Here’s the reader who goes by “Craig”:

The Horde came about, in my opinion, because TNC had some very clear ground rules for commenting, rules that were not open for debate. The biggest rule, and the one that you could sort of boil the essence of all of them down to, was that it was not a space in which to question someone else’s humanity.

In practical terms, that meant that anybody’s lived-in experiences were to be considered as real, as lived, and not up for discussion. So if a female commenter said the way women are often diminished online is through tone policing, or if a person of color said my experience with the police has often been one of antagonism, anyone who would respond to that person was expected to accept that as real, and learn from it if necessary.

TNC was never a neutral arbiter. He wasn’t looking for a commentariat who fell in lockstep with him politically, but he was looking for one that was willing to see their own privilege and listen to (and learn from) other people. No one was allowed to politely suggest to someone else that they didn’t experience what they experienced. His space was created for people of all walks of life to come together because TNC’s rules made it come into being.

I don’t know if there was truly a triggering event for the Horde’s demise, but if there was, it was the Trayvon Martin case.

A former moderator of TNC’s comments section, Sandy Young, writes:

Depiction of the Golden Horde (Wikimedia)

That was a good piece on the Horde. I would disagree to some extent with Jim’s claim that we “drove away” dissenting voices like Amichel—who, if memory serves, continued to post right up to the reparations article. But that’s small potatoes.

In keeping with the Horde/Khan/Steppes metaphor, I would remind people that, while it was thrilling, being a member of the Horde was also a hard bloody ride. You had to follow along as people far more knowledgeable dove into difficult topics, and you had to search for sources to defend your positions. And more often than not, you had to let go of that stubborn insistence that you were right. As I said to one commentator who had just apologized for handing me my ass, “This is no place to be if you can’t stand being wrong.”

You have linked before to some of the more memorable conversations, such as oatmeal. But I wonder if you have read what, in my opinion, was TNC and the Horde at its best: his pieces on “The Civil War Isn’t Tragic.” That was an on-going discussion, analysis and scholarship that is unsurpassed in the records of the Horde.

The Horde was always a delicate balance. As TNC’s fame grew, he became a bigger target, and no amount of moderation would have stopped the attacks. It simply wasn’t a platform built for that. Most of us miss it, but we go better armed into the world of ideas because of it, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

From another member, silentbeep:

The Horde is not dead, not really.  We still talk to each online in other mediums, such as the five-year-old Facebook group we would periodically advertise in the OTANs. (The group is only for TNC commenters, or now past commenters, with extremely rare exceptions, and TNC knows of its existence.) We even meet offline. Erik’s tone made it seem like we’re far gone, and that’s just not the case.

Dan Fox shares a wonderful, in-person memory:

As a member of the Horde, I wanted to relay a story about Ta-Nehisi from his early days at The Atlantic, when had dinner with me on my birthday.

If you’re not familiar with The Horde, Ta-Nehisi’s community of commenters, this short history by Eva Holland will give you an excellent idea. It begins:

Ta-Nehisi Coates started blogging for The Atlantic on August 4, 2008. His first post was titled “Sullivan… McArdle… Fallows… Coates???” and it laid down his terms from the start: “My only rule, really, is simple,” he wrote. “Don’t be a jerk to people you disagree with.”

The first recorded comment came from “8th Level Barbarian”:


For genius commentary on the D&D lifestyle, search for “Fear of Girls” on YouTube. The original is classic, but the sequel is pretty awesome, too.

One of the most prolific commenters became Jim Elliott, better known to The Horde as “Erik Vanderhoff.” Last month, just before Notes launched, I was emailing with Jim about how the new bloggy section will try to rekindle some of the lost magic of The Horde. Over the past few years, as traffic to Ta-Nehisi’s posts grew and grew, his ability to moderate a civil atmosphere among his readers became nearly impossible. Finally, about a month ago, all of his posts were automatically closed to comments, joining Fallows and Goldberg.

Jim mentioned that he had been writing a retrospective of The Horde, so I offered to post it as a clarion call to other members of The Horde within Notes. Given today’s news of Ta-Nehisi garnering a MacArthur grant, prompting this poignant appreciation from Yoni (known to The Horde as “Cynic”), now seems like the perfect time to post. So here’s Erik Vanderhoff:

Mere happenstance brought me to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ virtual door: A quoted paragraph at Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish arrested my eye. Was there a link to follow? Why, yes there was! And follow it I did, to The Atlantic’s collection of bloggers, and I never turned back.

Since that day in 2008, rarely a day went by that I didn’t navigate back to Coates’s page, enamored as I was—and largely still am—with the wordplay of the man I consider the finest prose writer working in the American tongue. Coates has the ability to string words together to form passages that make other lovers of language throw their hands up in despair.

A mild despair—and, if I’m honest, something of a fanboy-ish obsession—were born, and I demanded constant sustenance in the form of blog posts or articles. Other than his Twitter stream, I think it’s fair to say I haven’t missed something Coates has written since. His openness and inquisitiveness attracted me, and dozens more like me. Comment threads were opened and a torrent commenced. Discussing the topics he raised, from the continued salience of Spider-Man to the foofaraw of Ron Paul to the immensity of the first black president, a community formed. I still remember many of those avatars with great fondness: Emily L. Hauser, Sandy Young (Corkingiron), Baiskeli, petefrombaltimore, exitr, JBColo, Craig, and on and on.

The commenters—dubbed the Horde by our host and Khan—were special to me, distinct online personalities that I came to know and enjoy, all the more so because the Khan did not hold himself aloof or apart from his people. No, he waded into the muck and wrestled and laughed and cried with us. (I’ll never forget the day he opened an Open Thread at Noon just to commiserate over the fact that my dog had died the night before.) Coates mustered a digital army, and his unwillingness to hold himself as a leader to that community made us love it, and him, all the more.

And that, I think, ultimately gave us the opportunity to become our own undoing.