Whither site comments?

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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.

16 thoughts on “Whither site comments?

  1. I have been following this site for a number of years. I value it for its insights into teaching, its suggestions for reading, and for the general interest of the subjects it discusses. Over the years I think I have commented twice and I read the comments only when the subject particularly interests me. The reasons for my reticence are simply my lack of any qualification to do so. I am English and a social scientist and much of the material is about American Universities and ecology. On occasions when I find the discussion is particularly relevant (e,g, blogs on writing proposals and occasional blogs on methodology) I do look at the comments and find them useful. So the point of this comment is simply to applaud you for restoring them,

  2. I’m usually more interested in the author’s thoughts than someone commenting, so this isn’t an issue. But I like the nuanced approach – one size doesn’t fit all. Nice one.

  3. I think your decision to bring the comments back is a good one, Terry. Despite the occasional jerk and those who comment in bad faith, most comments on your blog are interesting and add perspective to the posts. If there are disagreements between people, well, that’s the nature of academia: we disagree about things sometimes.

    However I’m curious about the feedback you’ve received that comments are from “mostly privileged white guys”. How does anyone know this? Most comments are not accompanied by a photograph and (as you pointed out in your posts about native English speakers) you can tell little or nothing from an individual’s name. OK, if it’s a well known individual one can surmise gender and race, but in most cases it would require someone to google a name, find their photograph on an institutional website, etc. Is that really what people are doing? Or are they just making assumptions based on the name?

    • “I’m curious about the feedback you’ve received that comments are from “mostly privileged white guys”. How does anyone know this?”

      Speaking as a women scientist who would prefer to remain anonymous right now, we know. We’re kind of pros at this, by now.

        • No, seriously, I am genuinely interested in how/why you think you can tell someone’s race from what they write. I have no beef with the idea that being white gives one some level of privilege, ditto being male (though it’s clearly more complex than that and factors such as upbringing, class, sexuality, disability, etc., need to be taken into account). But to claim that race, or even gender, can always be surmised from what a person writes in the comments of a blog seems to me to be as fallacious as assuming that someone is not a native English speaker just because they don’t have a classically English name, as Terry noted on that previous post.

        • How about this: In a better world it wouldn’t be possible, but in this world it certainly is.

        • If you really believe that you can tell that someone is white from what they write in a blog post comment then, logically, you must be also able to tell that a comment was written by a person of colour.

          If I was a person of colour I’d find that very worrying indeed.

      • Speaking as another woman scientist, I’m wondering if you’re a privileged white dude trying to make women scientists look stupid.

        • No, I’m not trying to make anyone look stupid, I’m trying to have a serious discussion about a very serious issue. I teach students from a wide range of countries and back grounds, Asian, African, European, North and South American, etc. I also review international manuscripts and grant proposals, and so forth.

          It has never occurred to me that it’s possible to surmise the race or gender of the author from what they have written (as opposed to the other contextual information included with their writing). If people believe that they can do this then it seems to me that this is uncomfortably close to the kind of racial and gender stereotyping that all of us should abhor.

  4. I’m working class and have no college degree. So, I don’t have any great degree of privilege in this world. Neither am I a troll, especially not a paid troll.

    But I do like to comment at sites I regularly visit. And if I can’t comment, I eventually stop visiting. I don’t like feeling that I’ve been silenced or otherwise not allowed to be part of the debate.

    That is just my personal response. I have no strong ideological position about comments sections in general. I prefer them, that is all.

  5. @jeffollerton: 2nd Anonymous here. I agree with you. My response was directed at the 1st Anonymous, who took it upon herself to speak for all women.

  6. On topic now: as a member of more than one of the groups that you seek to protect and support, Terry, thank you! I appreciate the sentiment. But really, I don’t need it. If I’m upset at what a commenter writes here, I can close my laptop – it’s that simple. Doesn’t matter to me how big their reputation is, how many accolades they’ve amassed, etc. Would that dealing with such folks IRL were so easy! Am I weird in this respect? Maybe … but I don’t think so. That said, o.c., this is your blog, and you should do what feels right to you.

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