Gawker Media is scrambling to figure out a solution to stop violent pornography and rape images from being added to its Kinja commenting platform after the staff of Jezebel publicly called attention to a problem they’ve been dealing with for months. “If this were happening at another website … we’d report the hell out of it here and cite it as another example of employers failing to take the safety of its female employees seriously,” the Jezebel staff wrote in a post, which was finally published in an attempt “to light a fire under management’s collective ass,” outgoing editor-in-chief Jessica Coen told Poynter in an email.
The fire has been lit, to some extent. Until Gawker Media management can settle on a more permanent solution, it’s implementing a series of temporary fixes. Earlier today, comments were shut down on a post because, according to an editor’s note, “some asshole keeps posting gore and porn GIFs and we don’t have an adequate way to stop him. Sorry.” Just a little over an hour after the post was published, support manager Ernie Deeb emailed all Gawker staff to let them know that image uploads were being disabled across the entire network. (BuzzFeed has the full text of Deeb’s message.) I don’t know what solution Gawker will ultimately come up with, but I can offer a suggestion: Shut down Kinja completely.
Gawker boss Nick Denton will never agree to that, of course—Kinja has been in constant development for years now, and Denton sees it as the future of his company—but I’ve never been more sure of my decision to remove the commenting function from all Pacific Standard stories—and we didn’t have anything close to the problem Gawker is dealing with now. Nobody was posting violent pornography. No rape GIFs. (Though, as the publishers of Amanda Hess’ story, “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” we’re well aware of the devastating psychological effects of online harassment, especially that which specifically targets females.) Our problem was a different one: We primarily deal with science and research, and know that comments can change the perception readers have of not just the stories themselves, but the facts and figures covered in the stories that often shouldn’t be open to interpretation. (My decision was made shortly after a discussion I had with Jacob Ward, then editor-in-chief of Popular Science, which decided last September to make the same move, for many of the same reasons, outlined here.)
An argument for the end of comments isn’t actually an argument against the value of comments. They just don’t belong at the end of or alongside posts.
Plenty of people have argued that comments can have value, and that publishers should invest in moderators and the development of tech-based solutions that can cut out the irrelevant and offensive. It’s interesting, though, that nobody making that argument—as far as I’ve seen—has worked as a comment moderator for a large publisher before. In fact, my favorite comment on the Jezebel post is from Steve Climaco, a Gawker employee who “started out as a mod and worked my way up.” As a reward for that climb up the ladder, Climaco has personally been deleting—one by one—a lot of the problem comments described by the Jezebel team. His takeaway? “[W]e need people like that always because your average human being is kind of a douche bag. That has always been my opinion.”
Set the douche bags aside, and some of the remaining comments do have value—I agree! But that’s a strange response, falsely set up in opposition to those who make the case for removing commenting functionality from a publisher’s website. An argument for the end of comments isn’t actually an argument against the value of comments. They just don’t belong at the end of or alongside posts, as if they’re always some extension of or relevant to the original. They belong on personal blogs, or on Twitter or Tumblr or Reddit, where individuals build a full, searchable body of work and can be judged accordingly. Hell, put them all on Medium, and let Evan Williams try to sell the douche bags to BMW. As Annemarie Dooling pointed out on Wired today, you’re not going to scare off all of the trolls by forcing commenters to use their real names on your site—that’s why publishers that have implemented Facebook’s commenting platform have some of the same problems everyone else does—but, if done right, you can push them under the bridge and make that bridge easy for everyone else to identify and avoid while at the same time encouraging a more thoughtful, considered dialogue that takes place across sites and between publishers.
Here’s one example of a worthwhile comment, from New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait: “National Review Flips ‘Days Since Last Racist Rant’ Sign Back to 0.” A couple of hundred words of original writing, some blockquotes, and links back to the piece he’s commenting on. National Review‘s Kevin Williamson would probably disagree with me about the value of this, but he doesn’t have to see Chait’s response tacked to the end of his original post. Should he want to read it anyway—and he knows it’s out there—he has a full archive of Chait’s work on New York available to him to place his remarks in context.
Most people wouldn’t call my example a comment; they’d call it a post. But of course we’re both right.
Not everyone—thank God—can publish their thoughts on New York‘s website. But there are plenty of other publishers and platishers out there who will give just about anyone the keys to their CMS. Because it’s unlikely that the trolls will go through the trouble of setting up a new account somewhere whenever they want to comment on something, they’ll build an archive of their responses over time—there’s a good reason we already know, or can quickly find out, Chait’s thoughts on National Review or even on Williamson specifically. Anonymous or not, we’ll quickly get a pretty good sense of whether or not they’re worth even listening to, and the next time you see an inbound link you’ll know if you want to follow it.
Why bother with paying moderators when we already have a system in place that encourages would-be commenters to moderate themselves?