So the other day I shared some thoughts about why I’m dubious of the business case for comments on media sites. (To sum up, while I have no problem with comments and can quite enjoy a healthy discussion, I think that 1) they take real work to keep useful 2) they have a bottom-line cost that should be factored into a media company’s budget 3) they aren’t essential to online media.)

One of our readers, Kevin, wrote me a couple of emails that I think do a good job of expressing readers’ concerns about this, while also being very honest with his inner conflict with the desire to be heard while also acknowledging the entitlement he may or may not have justification to feel about his “right” to comment.

Hello Joel,

I am a long time (appx. 2 years, I guess that qualifies as a long time in internet years) reader of AnimalNY and occasional commenter. Yes this is a response to your post about comments on internet blogs. I have to admit that at first I was pretty irked at your post, and especially at the disabling of comments. However, the post was very well written and I feel I learned some things from it. It also made me think more about commenting and gave me a bit of a different perspective. So I’d like to offer you my feedback and try to remain as “objective” and fair in the discussion as I can be. Please forgive me if this turns out to be lengthy or rambling; I am on a red-eye flight from San Diego to JFK as I write this with nothing to keep me entertained but Hydrocodone and Jet-Blue-provided cable news channels.

Let me just start by saying that I truly love AnimalNY and I find it immensely valuable. I appreciate that you are signing on to help better the site and I have enjoyed your material contributions to the blog in the form of your posting.

Firstly, putting aside the fact that it was an informative piece and an interesting internet meta-topic to read about, I can’t help but think that there was something strange or mutli-purposed about it’s presence. As if this was a premonition of the very real possibility of comments being removed from Animal. Or perhaps this was a public way of airing out some behind the scenes discussions; i.e. you formally and eloquently putting forth your position to Bucky et al. Perhaps it’s not my place to present these suspicions, and I don’t’ mean to sound accusatory. I mention this merely in hopes of poking you to elaborate on these possibilities if they are true (and if you even choose to reply to me.)

My first reaction to your post is curiosity about two things:

1. What your hopes and expectations are in concerns with where you are trying to bring AnimalNY.

and

2. What is your personal experience with internet publishing and commenters?

The first one I honestly am a bit unclear on. I do remember a few months back Bucky posting your introduction and, if I remember correctly, vaguely referencing taking Animal “to the next level.” I was certainly excited about this and a little bit apprehensive. Excited because I really enjoy Animal. It is definitely the blog that I frequent the most on the internet. My nervousness is that the success would somehow “ruin” it for me. There really isn’t any need for me to expand on that idea because I think you understand the sentiment and the actual specificities of it for me are superfluous. So I guess my question is, what level of “success” do you and Bucky hope to bring to Animal and what exactly does that look like? Gawker level success? Somewhere in between Gawker and where Animal is at right now? Where is Animal at right now?

The second question you hinted at a bit in your post and I did a small amount of internet digging, but still don’t have a good concept of your full resume. I read your post on Gizmodo addressing the same topic in different context, so it’s clear to me that you have experience with a large audience of people. It’s also clear to me, both from the knowledge that you’ve published with Gizmodo as well as what you put forth, you’ve also had experience with the full spectrum of internet commenters.

So this is what I don’t know. In light of that please forgive any ignorance on my part forthcoming. Now to get to the meat of the matter: I sincerely disagree with you on your general position on commenting. I cannot argue with what you have put forth about the economics of the comment system. You seem to clearly know much more about that than I. But, as a reader, I am not thinking about the economics of your site. I don’t even know if those who publish on Animal are paid or not. I do know that I value the commenting system, regardless of what frequency I personally take advantage of it. Full disclosure, I have commented infrequently over the past two years as Anonymous and lately I have posted a few times as “The Hater,” a tongue-in-cheek name. I was pleased to see both you and Marina reply to one of my comments the other day, and I was eager to start a discussion. With this first hand experience, I am encouraged to know that you don’t honestly view commenting as a complete waste of time!

As far as the zeitgeist of commenting on Animal goes, it’s clear that there is not a large commenting community, and that saddens me. I try to comment where I am genuinely interested and not to over-comment for the sake of being a try-hard to get commenting happening on the site. Given this, I am a bit confused why you would be so anti-commenting on Animal, seeing that there is such a blank slate. Perhaps I am a bit naive, but I still hope that Animal could be a place where decent commenters come in and have decent conversation.

It seems to me that the weight of your argument is that the commenting system is not “profitable” which is a theory that I cannot debate. I am not familiar enough with how that whole aspect of blog publishing works, but I feel that there are some intuitive observations that I can suggest in my coming points.

With the understanding that my knowledge is somewhat limited in regards to how much commenting affects the revenue system, either positively, negatively or neutrally, I’d like to address some of your thoughts one by one:

The occasional brilliant comment maintains the illusion of the worth of comments in general.

This comes across as a defeatist point of view. And one that the Managing Editor is entitled to as, for all intents and purposes, this is your site and you make the call. You’re the boss. But as a polite fan of your free product, I’d like to offer my point of view. Is it really the case that, if Animal takes off tremendously, there will have to be unnecessary funds allocated in order to “police” the commenting section? This is a genuine question, because I honestly do not know how it works. Also, if, as you say, less than 1% of the readers take the time to engage in the comments section, where is the real harm if the comment section goes un-policed? Who would be outraged and how would you lose actual unique viewers (ergo potential revenue) if an offended reader of the comments section chooses to not come back to your site?

Most comments are terrible… this is including a large helping of spam, mindless me-too or right on kudos posts..

If you truly equate “terrible” with “me-too or right on kudos” then I don’t know what to say. I appreciate that those types of comments have no value in regards to the outcome you are hoping to inspire, but to equate those two sentiments is a bit unfair. While the constructive value of these comments may be, at best, slightly above neutral, it feels irresponsible to equate them with “terrible.”

There just aren’t enough intelligent, civil people on the internet with the time to do free work for you out of the kindness of their heart. Or the smart, engaged people with the time aren’t the ones who have the information that would add real value to a thread.

Assuming there is no actual monetary loss in allowing an un-policed comments section, and no real loss of readership results in a majority of shit posting in the comments section, what purpose is there in qualifying posts? I say this to question, in a less polar manner, why there needs to be such a high standard for a comments section. I have come across these amazing comments threads on blogs in the past where the discussion goes beyond the original post in the quality of content, as you noted. And those have been fascinating to read and even more so fulfilling if you are lucky enough to be a contributor to that thread. But it seems like you are putting an unnecessary and perhaps unrealistic expectation on the frequency of these occurring, both in the specific case of Animal and the internet at large. What is the harm if 75% of posts have a comments threads that consist of the “mindless me-too or right-on kudos posts?” I used to have my own little blogger where I posted my art and writing, and had a following of about 5 – 10 people. Getting comments of any kind was what I lived for. Even the generic “awesome” was validation that people cared about what I was creating and sharing. I’ve never had any personal interaction with Bucky or Marina so I have no idea what their feeling is, but I like to think that they get one of those micro ego boosts whenever someone just takes the effort to say “good job.” Granted, you seem to be coming from a platform where you know that people are reading what you write because of the popularity of the blog you are publishing so I am assuming that you are a bit beyond this. But surely it is still a consideration.

In regards, specifically, to “Or the smart, engaged people with the time aren’t the ones who have the information that would add real value to a thread.” It seems that you have a very specific perspective of what you consider a “valuable, successful” thread. I am kind of just assuming from that one sentence that you prefer threads to be a continuation of presentation of further facts of the initial post’s topic peppered with a small amount of opinion offering. (Correct me if I am inaccurately reading into that.) This is completely valid. However, I’m less drawn to that sort of response thread and more interested in ones offer unique opinions and perspectives in reaction to the subject/topic of the author’s post. I guess this would classify me as the type of person you described, if I can be so bold as to describe myself as smart and engaged. This is clearly a matter of opinion and a difference in what we find value in comment threads, but I don’t necessarily find the journalistic comments, the ones that continue the fact finding and sharing, the most valuable.

Moreover, the most active commenters are given a sense of entitlement by the deference they’ve been given by media experts

Again, this seems a bit premature given the barren state of commenting at Animal. Granted it is fair to speculate on what the probability of the commenting content will look like based on what the internet undeniably is, I still like to maintain hope.

…leading to authors who live in perpetual fear of shaming by the very people who are supposedly their most ardent fans.

Given that you are, legitimately, a seasoned internet publisher and have this perspective, which I am not doubting because I have seen it happen, would it not be better to approach a growing commenting community at Animal with this in mind? To not be intimidated by commenters who think they are as valuable a contributor to your blog as you are? I can’t argue against the feeling that the real train wreck examples of bad comment threads genuinely feel like “an embarrassment sitting just below your own work.” If I were playing the role of Mr. Blind Positivity I would say that that can sometimes be the cost of publishing on the internet and encourage authors to just ignore all the juvenile displays and hatred. But that would be ridiculously naive and ignorant of me. No one deserves to have that underneath their hard work that they are sharing for free with the public at large. If that is the prime and final motivator for disabling comments entirely on Animal, then I cannot argue against that decision. I personally would feel saddened that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to try to create positive feedback, but I would totally understand and support that.

We somehow fooled ourselves into thinking we owed random people the right to comment on our work literally on our work, that this was somehow an integral part of the commons.

I couldn’t agree with you more on this. And your article at Gizmodo is pretty spot on in response to commenters who brazenly wield that disgusting sense of entitlement. These blog posts are your pieces of creation and you’ve earned your right to publish them on the site that they appear on. People have no right to question your ability to offer these thoughts, opinions, etc, especially on your blog. If they don’t like it they can fuck off. Your analogy of the dinner party says it perfectly.

I look forward to hearing your responses and thoughts wherever you post them. Except here.

Yeah, I was pretty butthurt over this. But I don’t know your reasons for disabling comments. My feeling is that this post might get a shit ton of comments, and if that were the case, you could be rightly infuriated that people chose this post to reply to and none others. I could see how the comment thread would probably be an example of most people loving to engage this topic for the sake of injecting their ego into a discussion concerning their ego. And surely this would taint any genuine discussion.

Having said my bit, I really hope you respond. Furthermore, I am interested in what you alluded to in regards to your thoughts on how you could reboot the way the internet does comments.

Hope to hear back from you,

Kevin

I responded: Thanks for your email and I hope you enjoyed your Hydrocodone. I don’t have time at the moment to give you a proportionate response, so I’ll take the easy way out and ask you a question in response: Why do you care? I get that you are a fan of ANIMAL and have enjoyed its content for a couple of years (and that’s awesome) but why does it irk you so to know that I don’t think of you–not *you* you, as we’ve only just communicated, but you-as-any-random-person–as someone who has merited a place at my metaphorical table? What is it about being a consumer of media that makes you feel like you’ve earned that invitation? (Ignore that having a comments box in the first place is an invitation, for the sake of argument; obviously that’s a sort of invitation that inherently confuses the issue.)

Joel,
Thanks for the reply, and for meriting me as someone to receive a place at the metaphorical table of conversation with you.

I think you are ultimately asking me, “what do I expect out of the internet?” At this point in time there is no doubt that that is a very, very, real question. The perception that comments are/were an expected part of blogging I think was born out of the idea of what the internet was. The internet, without using corny analogies such as “the wild west” and “anarchic medium”, used to primarily be known as a place that was designed for open, anonymous, and yes unaccountable, exchange of knowledge in many forms. Obviously now it is more known as a place where huge companies bring their brands to expand services and where small ideas come to build their brands into larger entities. Your very question reflects this disparity of past and present: “What is it about being a consumer of media..?” In the past, interaction with the internet was not viewed as a purely consumer role. It was just that: an interactive role. The internet was a place where it was more or less understood that you would be open to free interaction, not passive consumption.

The interactivity of the internet still exists here and there; sometimes successfully and sometimes less so. It is fair and accurate of you to point out that the probability of having a successful commenting community is extremely low, and perhaps at this point, not worth engaging. I still may disagree with you on the specifics of what constitutes “meaningful user feedback,” but that isn’t really necessary to address the fundamentals of your question.

To get right down to the meat of the argument, having been pushed to give this serious thought, I think you are absolutely correct in your sentiments concerning the usefulness of a comment section (if I were to look at the argument from the standpoint of a Managing Editor and contributor.) The fact of the matter is that the internet is no longer solely this place where communication and interaction is the primary purpose. It is a place where people display and share their works, of many forms, and that does not entitle open, free criticism and commenting from any anonymous party. In this respect, I think it is entirely understandable for any creator of content to want to have the instance where said content is displayed be allowed the dignity of a presentation free of aimless criticism, meaningless babble and a host of other drivel that often appears in the comments section.

I think that I was irked, mostly, because comments are enabled on every other post and were not on yours: a post about commenting. But realistically, I think it is fair of you to want to remove the commenting facet from Animal in any future overhaul/reboot. There is nothing fundamentally “wrong” or even less attractive about a creative site that offers written works and does not request immediate feedback on the same page that the creative piece is displayed. I would certainly still come to Animal as often as I do now and probably only enjoy it slightly less. Needless to say, I would be disappointed.

Having said all that, I obviously would much rather you did not disable commenting. As a reader, I would like Animal to have a chance to be a place where a positive and constructive commenting community can flourish. Especially knowing that these sites are so few and far between, I cling to my naive hopes that this could be a possibility with Animal. For me, it is frustrating that the only places where I can realistically go to get this sense of near-uninhibited response and reaction on the internet is either a place like 4chan (yes, I go to 4chan, don’t you judge me) or a place like Facebook, where discussion is almost always sub-par. Not to diminish 4chan’s contribution, but if you’ve ever been there you know that it can frequently be a struggle to get a decent conversation. It seems like there is this partition forming in the internet where it is all or nothing. You can frequent sites like 4chan, where conversation is mostly free and uninhibited but at the cost of poor company, or you can frequent sites that have intelligent, topical ideas but offer no channel for response or conversation.

Realistically, this is something that you have to decide at a strategic time, and not just when the commenting community becomes so shit that it is a necessity. So I applaud your foresight and agree that doing it at the point of a site overhaul is probably the best time possible.

Thank you again for engaging in this conversation with me and I hope to hear back from you yet again when you have the time.

I responded by putting your emails online, Kevin! (And will write more about this soon. I think I’ve got an experiment to try to test some of my theories.)