For 10 Years, I Read the Comments
Farewell to my stressful, dispiriting, but occasionally awesome life as an internet comment moderator.
In 2008, I started an experiment that became a career. I began posting photo stories focused on the news that were made up of large images all on a single web page—as opposed to tiny slideshows, which were the standard back then. That first photo blog, “The Big Picture” at the Boston Globe, always included a space for user comments at the bottom of each page. My next photo blog here at The Atlantic continued this tradition. For the past decade, comments have been a part of every photo essay I’ve published—until The Atlantic closed commenting site-wide last month.
When I first started posting these photo stories, I was aware of the possible downsides of allowing comments. But I was always hopeful that readers would have interesting responses. I wanted the ability to prevent ugly comments from ever appearing, and the only reliable way to do that was using a method called pre-moderation, where all incoming comments are held in a hidden queue to await approval. What that really meant was that somebody (me) would have to read and approve every single comment before it showed up on the page—and delete the bad ones, so that they were never seen by everyone else. This seemed like a good plan to me at the time. I thought maybe I would be checking incoming comments once a day.
I had no idea what hell I was getting myself into.
When comments on The Atlantic shut down, I decided to make a tally of my moderation efforts over the past decade. I’ve moderated more than 75,000 comments on my photo essays at The Atlantic since my arrival in 2011. At the Globe, we used a different commenting system, that attracted more engagement: A good estimate for my three years there would be 120,000 moderated comments. I’ll call that an even total of 200,000 comments moderated over 10 years. That’s an average of 55 comments a day, or one new comment to read, evaluate, and approve or delete every 15 to 20 minutes that I’ve been awake since May of 2008. (They rarely came in evenly, though: Usually, it was a few dozen one day, hundreds the next.)
Over these 10 years, comment moderation became deeply habitual for me. I checked the pending comment queue first thing in the morning. I checked it last thing before bed. I checked it dozens of times during the workday, and on every weekend, every vacation. This self-inflicted responsibility of course came on top of any other tasks I had, like the research and production demands of my actual job as a photo editor, and meetings, and family matters, and, you know, living my life.
The relentless grind had a psychological and emotional toll. While moderation was generally a quiet place, letting comments sit in the queue too long would make readers furious. Constantly making judgment calls on other people’s utterances, sometimes by the dozens in stressful circumstances with uncertain boundaries, is draining. My stomach always twisted in a knot of anticipation when I knew a subject I’d just posted might be even slightly controversial. (And I’ve learned that almost anything can become controversial.)
It was never enjoyable to approve comments that I might disagree with, or that attacked me or a photographer directly. But if the comments weren’t abusive or racist, I would generally let them through. My estimate is that between 90 to 95 percent of the comments made it. That remaining 5 to 10 percent, though—I’m glad that I made the effort to never let them show up on any of my stories, even for a second.
One emotional photo story that I put together early in my career was about Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. I’d reached out to several families, asking them for permission to publish some of their personal photos—images of their young children in hospital rooms and in recovery. While putting that story together, I made a mental promise to those families and to every other subject that I might include in a story that I would do my best to keep the comments civil, at least where I had control. I just couldn’t allow some careless troll to leave an unmoderated insult about one of those kids for their parents to see there.
I’m happy this chapter is over. I also wonder how long it will be until I stop trying to check my incoming comments. Even though I deleted the bookmarks, I still catch myself looking for them several times a day. Why did I keep doing this for so long? There were always glimmers of hope and amazing moments. Every now and then, a photo essay would inspire a genuine meaningful exchange of ideas, where strangers would listen to, and even learn from, each other. One time a NASA astronaut contacted me to see if I could put her in touch with a long-lost friend she’d seen commenting on one of my articles.
But, as most people know, the majority of discourse in online comment sections is not inspirational. The best I could do as moderator some days was to keep the conversation from completely turning into a flaming cesspool. Last month, I was speaking to a friend, describing my long-held hope that things might someday improve, that every time a conversation in comments went really well, maybe it signaled a turning point—that from then on, things would get better. As soon as I said that aloud, I realized that it sounded as if I had been living in a long-term abusive relationship.
Farewell, comments section. There are a handful of voices I will miss, but, on balance, the comments always had more of a negative impact than a positive one. For those who still plumb their depths, I’ve collected some thoughts, observations, and frequently posted comments from a decade of being a comment-section gatekeeper.
One question I’ve thought long and hard about often comes up when I post images of injured or dead people involved in disasters, accidents, or attacks: “How can you show that? What if that was your family member in that photo?” If you read the thought process of Jeff Bauman, the Boston bombing victim famously photographed after being horrifically injured, I think I agree with the conclusions he reached. While the situation was horrific, the photographer was doing his job: “He was showing the world the truth—that bombs tear flesh and smash bones—and making the tragedy real.” No serious photojournalist or photo editor takes their job lightly when it comes to making or publishing sensitive images like that.
Another common question: “Why no photos of [insert commenter’s favorite thing, missing from essay]?” The act of editing is one of abbreviation, of cutting, of being selective. Many photos fall to the cutting-room floor. Many photos just are not available to me through our licensed sources, or any other avenue. (I apologize in advance for the next time I post a photo essay about Animals on the Playing Field, and leave out that one hilarious raccoon.)
And, finally: “Why are these collections so focused on the United States?” I’m limited by the photos available to me either through agencies we have contracts with (Associated Press, Reuters, and Getty/AFP), or that are freely available, such as U.S. government works, NASA photos, and the Library of Congress archives. In all, most of my sources are largely based in the United States, and that may be reflected in my photo essays, especially ones focused on historic images.
The advice I’d offer to commenters, if they’d really like to hear what a moderator likes to see, is pretty basic. Be kind and civil. Allow that you may be mistaken; allow that others will make mistakes, be gracious. If you’re going to contribute, try to make it worthwhile.
“We should give them tv’s and guns!”—The first comment I ever approved, posted to an article titled “Uncontacted Tribe Photographed in Brazil,” in May 2008.
“I hope he had his towel.”—The last comment I’ll ever moderate, about Elon Musk’s orbiting car pilot, posted to “The Launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy,” on February 6.