Anything Once

I Was Afraid of Slate Commenters. So I Became One. 

And it totally changed the way I think about them.

Diego Schtutman/Shutterstock

I was 13 years old when I first experienced the ineffable thrill of gabbing with strangers on the Internet. It was 1994, and the recent cinematic double-whammy of Sneakers and The River Wild had made me a devoted fan of the character actor David Strathairn. Using my grandfather’s Prodigy account—my home computer had no modem—I navigated to some sort of movies message board and created a thread that, I announced, would celebrate the actor and his work. I was a very weird kid.

But the Internet was made for weird kids like me, and shortly thereafter, my post drew a response: “Thank ya, Jesus, I’ve found another Strathairn fan.” I felt the same way. Before the Internet was ubiquitous, it could be hard to find other people who shared your narrow obsessions. I was a culturally isolated teenager who preferred folk music to grunge, old-time radio to Seinfeld, and middle-aged character actors to action heroes. The ability to hop online and connect with some random dude who was eager to discuss my esoteric interests was a beautiful, transformative thing.

When I became an online journalist, my relationship with idle online chatter changed. Every person who writes for the Web has, at one point or another, been driven to the brink of insanity by a commenter—usually a skeptical or resentful reader who has made it his or her personal mission to convince a reporter to go die in a fire. Back when I was an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, I remember staying late at the office one night, fighting with a commenter who wouldn’t stop needling me over some purported grammatical errors. At a certain point, I literally started yelling at my computer in frustration.

Who needs the hassle? Not me, I told myself. And so for years I consciously avoided the Comments sections at Slate and at other publications where I wrote, fearing they were filled with nitpickers and stone-throwers there to tell me that my writing is bad, and that I should feel bad. I don’t enjoy feeling bad, so I stayed away. But part of me has always regretted that decision. During my half-decade covering the media for CJR, I watched as countless old-media organizations lurched unsteadily and resentfully toward their digital destinies, and I came to believe that Comments sections wouldn’t be so brutal if writers made more of an effort to participate in them. It’s easy to rage against an absent stranger, one who writes his article and ignores the conversation below it; it’s a lot harder when he writes back at you. So earlier this fall, I decided to start hanging out in Slate’s famously opinionated (and mildly intimidating, and occasionally troll-infested) Comments sections as often as possible. I decided to become, to the extent that I had time, and for better or for worse, a Slate commenter myself.

* * *

Commenting has been an integral part of Slate since the magazine’s early days. For a long time, Slate comments were centered around The Fray, a message-board community overseen by a staff editor, who would periodically recap notable Fray goings-on in occasional Fraywatch columns. For many Slate readers, the Fray soon became as much of a draw as the articles. “It was a blast. It was an education,” one Fray fan wrote at Nieman Lab in 2011. “It became a way of life and after 15 years it became a family.” Slate journalists had a somewhat difference experience. In his introduction to 2000’s The Slate Diaries, a compilation of the site’s Diary columns, Slate founding editor Michael Kinsley observed that “the ferocious reaction of some Fraygrants (as we call them)—not just to your writing, but to your life, as you have chosen to present it—is so dispiriting that you call your editor at Slate and say, ‘I can’t go on.’ It’s happened a lot more than once.” The lesson: When you convene a conversation on the Internet, you can’t always expect to like what the participants have to say—and you will inevitably wonder whether that conversation is worth having in the first place.

In 2010, years after nearly every other online news site had already done so, Slate added in-page comments to its articles. “Fray discussion is isolated from Slate articles and is too insular,” then-editor-in-chief David Plotz wrote at the time. “We wanted to find a way that all of our readers could see and join in a lively conversation about Slate’s work.” Slate shuttered the Fray in 2011, and since then the site has seemingly tried to strike a balance between inviting readers in for conversation while reminding them that this is still our house. Today the site’s comments are powered by Livefyre, a third-party “content marketing and engagement platform”. (Slate Plus members are given priority in Slate comments; they can view their comments in a separate tab that filters out nonmember comments.) Livefyre, like its competitor Disqus, promises to make Comments sections easier for sites to manage and control—and implicitly promises to discourage the sort of nasty hit-and-run commentary that you find elsewhere on the Internet.

I suspect that more than a few Slate staffers are jealous of some of our competitors, who have decided to eliminate their Comments sections and either move the discussions around their content to social media networks or just abandon them altogether. The comments on Slate’s coverage of race and gender, especially, can seem like they are dominated by trolls—maladjusted saboteurs who take joy in deliberately missing the point, in subverting debate by flinging insults and forcing everyone else down to their insincere level. Even on less controversial topics, though, the pseudo-anonymity of a Comments section can inspire rudeness, truculence, callow dismissals, angry accusations, endless arguments characterized by bile, and mutual disingenuousness. Even so, I resolved to try and participate in as many comment threads as possible, and to answer Slate’s critics whenever I could—to try to be a force for civility and logic in a realm that is often seen as a citadel of dumb.

It wasn’t easy. The first thing I realized is that commenting is hard, and I am bad at it, which is why my commenting rate ended up being a lot lower than I imagined it would be. Comments come so fast on Slate that it can sometimes be hard to find an entry point into a discussion, especially when it’s a topic you don’t know very much about. As it turned out, I don’t know very much about most of the things Slate writers write about—so many of my comments were lame jokes or personal reflections. In an article about an undocumented immigrant in Texas who had been arrested at her gynecologist’s office, one commenter asserted that, “Illegal alien invaders have no business in our country and should be returned home.” I wanted to respond to this hot take, but I wasn’t sure how: I don’t know very much about immigration policy, and I have no strong feelings about the issue. So I just said, “I think I had the high score on the ‘Illegal Alien Invaders’ arcade game at Bill’s Pizza in Mundelein back in 1992.” This wasn’t a substantive contribution to the debate, but at least it was mildly amusing. Victory was mine!

A common trope among Slate commenters is to ridicule Slate and its writers for a perceived disingenuous contrarianism. I occasionally tried to respond to these sorts of comments, usually with self-deprecating humor. “Wait, you mean Slate writers really believe the %#&% they write?” a commenter called FlaLaborLawyer wrote one day. “We are a pitiable lot,” I replied, with a big “SLATE WRITER” label adjacent to my name.

That “SLATE WRITER” graphic eventually became a burden in my commenting efforts. I imagined readers seeing that label and saying, “OK, Mr. Professional Writer, this had better be good.” So I always felt pressure to leave comments that were worthy of a SLATE WRITER. I think I left some good ones here and there. Commenting on a XX Factor post about gender and comedy, I wrote about my own impressions of gender bias in the New York sketch and improv comedy scene. ‘“Women aren’t funny’ is a really lazy criticism, because *of course* women can be funny,” I wrote. “The issue is that female performers are often funny in a way that’s different from how men are funny, and, too often, ‘You perform differently from the way I do’ turns into ‘You are bad at this.’ ” This comment sparked a really interesting discussion. But writing the comment also took me a lot of time.

At first, it took me a really long time to write comments that I would be happy with. More seasoned Slate commenters evidently do not have this problem. It seems like some of them, in fact, literally spend all day on the magazine commenting on every single article. (I admire these commenters’ productivity very much, though I also suspect it means a corresponding laxity at their actual jobs.) But the more comments I left, the easier it became, and the more enthusiastic I became about the act of doing so. It felt good when I posted dumb jokes that got a lot of likes from other commenters. It was fun to debate other commenters about women and comedy; it felt good to stick up for my colleagues when they were being criticized.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that other commenters mostly welcomed my presence. Many of our commenters have been coming here since the days of the Fray. These people really like Slate, and they really seem to enjoy and appreciate it when writers and staffers participate in the comments. And I was surprised to find that, more often than not, I admired the quality of their posts just as much as the quantity. If nothing else, I’ve realized over this past month that I’ve been an idiot to avoid my comments for fear of angry, unfair criticisms. Now, I actually like most of the comments I read on Slate, and I think most Slate commenters are pretty smart and agreeable. There’s lots of disagreement, but I found that much of this discord is rooted in sincerity, and that most commenters are more than willing to explain and debate their own positions, at least once challenged. Some commenters are cranky, some are sarcastic, or helpful, but their personalities tend to be pretty consistent from comment to comment. What might seem like a trollish remark when viewed in a vacuum quickly reveals itself as BigfootIsReal2748 just being BigfootIsReal2748.

* * *

But even if Bigfoot can’t help being a galumphing oaf, he tramples a lot in his wake. The big problem is that some of what commenters write is still abusive, in context or out. “But I’m the grumpy guy! That’s me! I’m a grump!” might explain a given commenter’s dyspepsia, but it doesn’t necessarily excuse it. As a tall white guy who writes on relatively anodyne subjects like drones, sports, and the media, my own experiences with comments are very different than those of my colleagues who aren’t tall white guys and who write on more polarizing subjects. These writers often find themselves under rhetorical attack from gratuitously fractious and antagonistic commenters who seek to inhibit debate through intimidation, insult, and disingenuity. Though these trolls represent a minority of Slate commenters, they can quickly come to dominate a comment thread. Well-meaning Slate commenters can choose to ignore trolls, but they can’t do very much to stop them. And so Slate staffers will occasionally ban antagonistic commenters and delete incendiary comments in order to maintain the health of the Comments section as a whole, and to protect writers from threats and abuse.

One place Slate trolls seem to disproportionately congregate are the XX Factor Comments sections, which, infused as they often are with misogynist malice and fulmination, might be the worst on the magazine. When I commented on a XX Factor post near the end of September, Slate editors had recently banned several abusive XX Factor commenters and removed the offending comments. But some of the remaining commenters were spooked by the bannings. “[F]olks are scared to be themselves at the moment,” JBC2 wrote. “Just speaking for me, if I can’t joke in the comment section there won’t be any reason for me to be here anymore, but I am a bit tired of the juvenile attacks we see sometime. I do think that Slate has a spectrum of writing talent, from pretty good to pretty bad. Apparently we can’t point that out anymore.”

I tried to respond in kind. “It sucks to feel like you have to self-censor, and that you can’t be yourself for fear of antagonizing someone in power,” I wrote. “From a writer’s perspective—and, like you, I’m also just speaking for me—it also sucks to know that every time you write something it’ll be met by a chorus of insults from readers who think that your work is bad and you should feel bad. The easiest response to this latter scenario, from an editorial perspective, is to start banning some of the nastiest critics in hopes of promoting decorum. But bans can have a chilling effect on everyone else—and from what you’re saying, that might be what’s happened here. I dunno. There’s got to be some sort of middle ground. I’m not sure where it is.”

I’ve since had more time to reflect on this comment, and I wish I’d made more clear that there should be a chilling effect on abuse, and that it’s well within a site’s purview to set boundaries on acceptable discourse. If online communities are to thrive, then their leaders must be empowered to discourage antisocial behavior and excommunicate bad actors; this point has been made and reinforced in countless articles and studies, from Julian Dibbell’s seminal 1993 Village Voice piece “A Rape in Cyberspace” to Jonathan Paul Marshall’s brilliant ethnography of the Cybermind online mailing list, Living on Cybermind. I think most Slate commenters would agree with this, too. The dispute, such as it is, centers more around how decorum is enforced, and how these decisions are communicated to the community.

This point was borne out in the long and fascinating discussion that spun off from my comment. “[I]t’s always going to be more expedient for an overworked editor to just ban all presumed malefactors and be done with it,” I wrote, and I was speaking from personal experience. When I worked at CJR, every minute that I spent playing peacemaker in the Comments section was a minute I wasn’t spending editing the stories that were piling up in my inbox, fielding queries from writers, processing freelance payments, addressing site malfunctions, or performing any of the myriad other tasks that I was getting paid to perform. “Personally, I think it would be cool if more Slatesters spent time down here and familiarized themselves with the various commenters, in order to better be able to differentiate the well-meaning curmudgeons from the actual jerks. But I understand why a lot of them don’t.” One commenter, Danni, responded wisely. “[Y]ou guys have built a community, for good or for ill. Some of us have been here for years and made real-life friendships,” she wrote, and then followed up with another comment: “He’s right that it’s wonderful when the writers spend time with us … it’s why Vanessa [Vitiello Urquhart] and [Mark Joseph Stern] are so beloved. They do know who’s who, and they appreciate the dissent when it happens. No one ever learns without it.”

Danni has a point. For a long time, I told myself that “I don’t get paid to comment,” and that’s true in a sense. I’m paid to write articles for the Internet. But hanging around in the Slate comments has reaffirmed my sense that the “online” part of “online journalist” is just as important as the “journalist” part. Reporters have traditionally talked at their readers rather than with them, in part because there was no good way of doing the latter with the broadcast-media model. But now we can talk with our readers, and in doing so forge stronger connections with them. Written content on the Internet is more or less fungible. There are millions of places to go for articles these days, and for the bored-at-work contingent one blind Twitter link is much the same as any other. The communities that surround that content can be as much of a value-add as the content itself, and can. And the journalists who write those articles can play a key role in shaping those communities.

The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, has been lauded for actively and successfully cultivating an intelligent and lively comment community—dubbed “The Horde”—around his Atlantic blog, one “in which—wonder of wonders—intelligent adults thoughtfully share ideas and knowledge, and where trolling, rudeness and bad faith aren’t tolerated,” as Eva Holland put it at Longreads earlier this year.

And yet the Horde was still plagued with trolling, rudeness, and bad faith—just to a lesser degree than other comment communities. Holland writes that even Coates got exasperated by the daunting and endless task of expelling trolls, defusing tensions, and deterring bad behavior. “If there’s a lesson to be taken away from the story of the Horde,” she writes, “it might be—depressingly—that trying to build a comment section that truly adds value to a writer’s work will inevitably become more trouble than it’s worth.”

Holland might be right. Journalists and their employers will never be able to wholly eliminate trolls from their Comments sections or entirely inhibit malice and antagonism. No writer—and no commenter, for that matter—should ever feel obliged to sit and absorb insults and threats from website commenters or to get caught up in endless feel-bad discussions with them. Sometimes it makes more sense to just disengage; sometimes it can make sense for a site to eliminate comments entirely, as Popular Science did in 2013.

I can’t argue with any of this. And yet I’m still intrigued by the perhaps-naive—and in our current era of atomized social discourse, perhaps increasingly quaint—idea of treating the stories that I write as the start of an on-page conversation rather than the last word, even if that conversation occasionally brings me to anger, drink, or despair. So I think I’m going to keep commenting regularly on Slate, because commenting can be really rewarding, even if it isn’t always fun or fruitful. Twenty-one years after my admiration for David Strathairn’s performance in Sneakers sent me running to Prodigy to share my opinions with the world, I still find online banter to be as magical an experience as ever. Though the real world is dominated by structures meant to drive us apart, I more than ever want to believe in an Internet whose connective wizardry help remind us that we’re all in it together.

So I’ll see you all in the Comments section. Bring it.