You might not have noticed, but near the end of last year, at the end of one of the recommended reads, I mentioned I was starting an informal experiment, to not run comments on the site. Here’s a very informal report on this very informal experiment.
Since January, I’ve disabled comments the default option. On a number of the posts, however, I’ve overridden the default to add a comment section.
What are my findings? I don’t think discussion on social media has increased as a result of not having comments, but then again, the comments on the site have been a very small fraction of the total discussion. I don’t think the presence or absence of comments changed traffic. It’s climbed a bit, but probably due to other factors.
I’ve had more positive feedback about removing comments than negative feedback. The most common remark was along the lines of, “It seems your commenters have been mostly privileged white guys, so I appreciate your motive,” and the most common negative feedback was was primarily to say that my choice or my motives were not valid. Then again, I didn’t run a poll, and this was all feedback initiated by other folks, which might skew for folks with stronger opinions. Dynamic Ecology ran a post about my experiment, and the comments were all over the place, though from a demographically narrow group. Meanwhile, I’m curious what most non-commenters think, but I don’t wonder so much that I want to dedicate a whole post to a poll.
Why would I want to take away the comments section? I have two reasons. The first one is that the small fraction of people who comment are not representative of the commentariat. This wouldn’t be a big deal except when the underrepresented in comments are already members of minoritized groups. A lot of the commenters are people who already have more power, and amplifying that power would go against my motive for creating the site. Some legitimate Scientists Who Are A Big Deal have strolled into comments to argue that I’ve gone too far in arguing for equity in one way or another. When this happens, the voices of the folks who deserve equity get squashed. Almost nobody wants to argue with a Famous Scientist in the comments, even if they can stay anonymous. (I haven’t kept track, because that’s weird and creepy, but there are several folks who are National Academy members or MacArthur Fellows or other some form of Big Cheese who have commented. It’s nice to have such recognized folks participating, but also makes it intimidating for other folks who chime in.) I don’t ever want to tell a good-intentioned person that their comments are not welcome, but I also don’t want to run a comments section if it happens to be overrun with comments that inadvertently make it harder for marginalized folks to join in.
The second reason is that don’t want to give any kind of platform to derailing or trollish remarks. It’s not uncommon that I advocate for a particular idea, and some comments advocate against that idea. I’m all for giving space to a constructive discussion with people who disagree with me! But when someone arrives in bad faith, there is absolutely no value in handing them a platform they would not otherwise have. When I am writing about issues involving fairness, equity, and access, bad faith remarks pop up. I am not the only one who has decided the fix to this problem by not having comments. Many sites have disabled commenting their platforms (and others have designed their sites so that accessing the comments requires additional clicks after viewing the post.)
Let’s say a non-constructive comment pops up, can’t the readers just ignore it? Or other commenters can show how they’re wrong and move on? Well, yeah, that can happen, but if the point of my post is to give a damn about a certain set of people, and the point of the comment is that we shouldn’t give a damn about those people, then those words are harmful. Why would I allow harmful comments? Leaving space for rebutting harmful comments doesn’t remove the harm. Unfortunately, wordpress doesn’t have a filter for rude people who aggressively miss the point and want to ruin things by being a jackass. (I could require people to register with an identity, but that would filter out lots of marginalized voices.)
For example, in last week’s post about not making assumptions about who is a native English speaker, there’s a series of comments by a person who summed up his main point as, “Some people need to take a chill pill.” If my post is designed to support people who are targeted with unfair remarks in review, then giving space to people who say, “take a chill pill” is not just a waste of space but it gives a platform to a person who is furthering the harm that is being done.
Can’t people just brush off jerky comments? Can’t they just “take a chill pill?” I think marginalized folks are expected to do this in potentially every professional interaction. If I’m writing on a theme that might evoke such a comment, maybe the best thing for me to do is make sure that that kind of stuff doesn’t happen here.
Why don’t I just delete those jerky comments? Well, they occur along a continuum, from well-meaning-person-who-deeply-doesn’t-get-how-the-world-works to odious troll. I don’t think I’m well positioned to decide how to decide who gets to comment and who doesn’t based on how I subjectively place them on this continuum. I’m not sure if trust myself 100% of the time to tell the difference between an actual jerk, and someone how I’m annoyed at because they genuinely disagree with a logically and ethically sound viewpoint. And even if I could trust myself, others wouldn’t. While it’s possible that the comments might be a forum where personal growth can happen for readers (and myself), should I be doing this in this particular space, or should it be happening in someone’s own social media feed? There are often discussions about posts here on Facebook and Twitter — if someone wants to get feedback from friends, they far far more often post there than they do here in the comments.
Another way to do this would be to screen comments before posting, like on Tenure, She Wrote. Frankly, I just don’t have the time for that, once I write a post, it’s typically queued for publication at 5 am in my time zone. I’m not going to turn on notifications so that my phone bleeps every time a comment pops up. I might go for days without thinking much about this site, and that’s better for my health.
There are some huge positives in comments – there’s an opportunity to learn new things, and it helps build a form of community. There’s a lot to be gained from a constructive discussion. I just did a quick search about removing blog comments, and quickly found a post from a guy who shut down comments for a year, and then brought them back. I think his reasons are good reasons.
By the way, I’d like to be clear that this isn’t a free speech issue. You can say whatever you want. The issue here is whether I get to choose, on my own site, whether I want to give everybody a platform. Just like you don’t can’t reasonably expect that the New York Times will publish your rebuttal letter, you can’t reasonably expect that I’ll give you space either. Maybe this means that Small Pond Science is not a traditional blog. Okay, cool. This is not a blog. Sounds great to me.
How am I wrapping up this experiment? I’m changing the default setting, so that the comments are on. I write posts on all kinds of topics, and one subset are essays arguing for fixing some particular kind of inequity. These are the posts that are likely to end up with comments that are harmful to the people subjected to this inequity. In those posts, I’ll disable the comments. Yes, this shuts down one avenue for discussion, but it also shuts down harmful remarks, and safety comes first. I don’t want folks visiting this site to be subjected to remarks that question whether they deserve to be treated fairly.
So, in summary: Comments are back on, but not for all posts. Some posts attract comments that are more harmful than constructive, and I think it’s wise to not give them a platform.