You might not be able to win an argument on the internet, but does that mean we shouldn’t even have the discussion?
On September 24th, Popular Science online content director Suzanne LaBarre (@suzannelabarre) announced that PopularScience.com would no longer accept comments on new articles. While I’m sympathetic to the challenges of moderating online comments, I think she made a mistake.
LaBarre provides the following reasoning for hitting the “off” switch:
A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.
As I understand her, comments that call into question scientifically-validated topics are influencing people’s perceptions for the worse. Put another way, because people make stuff up and lie, there should be no conversation at all. I feel like I’ve heard this before.
It seems to me that there’s another option: comment moderation.
By turning off their comments, PopSci has, “taken its ball and gone home.”
While supporting PopSci’s move, The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri writes:
The few places where the comments sections are the home of a vibrant, riveting, polite discussion are the ones where the host site has made a vigorous effort to create community.
Exactly. Unfortunately, Petri also concludes that major news sites just aren’t the place to have good discussions:
And even if you are a regular on news stories (hi, folks!), the nature of big news or breaking science is that if it’s big and controversial enough for people to flood in to read about it, that small regular community gets overrun. It is hard to maintain community in the middle of a stampede. You only use the correct forks when you aren’t fighting through throngs of people to tear hunks off the new carcass.
There’s little question that discussion moderation requires vigorous effort. Even tiny sites may have to deal with hundreds, if not, thousands of comments on a regular basis. And the overwhelming majority of those are likely to be bots, trolls or spam. But is the solution to end the discussion altogether?
Perhaps there is room online for news sites that don’t allow comments. And maybe scientific research isn’t a great candidate for debate in a public forum. And of course, PopSci is free to define its identity. But isn’t their message, as Marie-Claire Shanahan, Research Chair in Science Education and Public Engagement at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada puts it:
“Well we didn’t really mean for people to be engaged, we just want you to listen to us more.”
I tend to agree with GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram:
— Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) September 24, 2013
I’m also with Slate’s Will Oremus in that moderated comments have value:
Writing on Slate, I’ve encountered plenty of both varieties over the years, and on balance I far prefer a mix of useful and useless comments to no comments at all. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been alerted to new developments, factual oversights, dissenting opinions, and fresh story ideas by readers using the comments section below my stories and blog posts. Commenters also help authors understand where they’ve explained a point in a misleading way, and what readers are taking away from their posts. Our commenting system is far from perfect, and yet I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Gizmodo’s Matt Novak neatly encapsulated the alternative: Writing on a site without comments, he said, felt like “whispering to myself in the wilderness.”
I wish Popular Science had taken a page from YouTube and come up with ways to make their comment system better.
Should lawyers’ sites and blogs have comments?
At the Post, Petri observes that:
the more obscure and bizarre the niche group, the friendlier the comments. By and large the comments on your Erotic Lincoln Vampire Fanfiction are much kinder and better spelled than the comments on a major news story about, say, wiretapping and surveillance, which mainly consist of erratically capitalized screeds against the president and observations that would not be out of place in a toilet stall.
Which raises the question, Do law blogs in general have the kind of niche audience (lawyers) that makes comments better than usual?
I’m not so sure.
While generally not as inflammatory as the stuff found at PopSci, the legal blogosphere is hardly immune from, “shrill, boorish, specimens of the lower internet phyla.”
Furthermore, as some veteran curmudgeons are quick to point out, some of the comments may actually be eroding well-established principles of the practice of law. Should the legal blogosphere also “hit the off switch” on comments too?
I say no.
At the risk of pummeling horse carcass, legal bloggers can use their judgment in deciding which comments see daylight. But I would suggest, that even those comments that go against everything veteran lawyers have learned from eons of practice have some value.
First, when attached to real identities, they help readers weigh the credibility of the person leaving the comment, as well as, the response. Second, they tease out “the work” of demonstrating why the comment is wrong.
To me, comments (even the dumb ones) are fundamental to the very nature of blogging. As noted at Wikipedia:
A majority are interactive, allowing visitors to leave comments and even message each other via GUI widgets on the blogs, and it is this interactivity that distinguishes them from other static websites. In that sense, blogging can be seen as a form of social networking. Indeed, bloggers do not only produce content to post on their blogs, but also build social relations with their readers and other bloggers. There are high-readership blogs which do not allow comments, such as Daring Fireball.
Sure, there are plenty of great one-way blogs. But there’s something special about a blog that can result in a robust community in the comments.
Comments and legal ethics
Of course, in considering whether to allow comments, lawyers must consider potential legal ethics issues. Especially those issues that relate to risks to clients and potential clients. Much of this risk can be diminished by holding comments for moderation before publishing. In other words, protecting clients and people with legal issues from posting something stupid that might put them in jeopardy. At a minimum, you should not allow any comments that reveal details about the commenter’s particular legal problem.
Have a comment policy
When you post a comment, you grant us the right to modify or delete your comment, but we have no duty to do so. If you want us to post your comment, make it coherent, relevant, and respectful.
Also, posting information about your legal problem on a public website is a bad idea. Any such comments will be deleted.
Mind your comment settings
No matter which platform you choose, you should hold comments for moderation. If you’re a WordPress user (and you probably should be), get familiar with the comment settings in the Discussion SubPanel:
I recommend checking the boxes for:
- Comment author must fill out name and e-mail
- Enable threaded (nested) comments at least 3 levels deep
- An administrator must always approve the comment
For repeat comment policy violators, you can use the Comment Blacklist:
When a comment contains any of these words in its content, name, URL, e-mail, or IP, it will be marked as spam. One word or IP per line. It will match inside words, so “press” will match “WordPress”. This text box acts the same as “When a comment conatins any of these words…” except comments which match these words will be deleted without warning. You may want to use this as a last resort, as genuine comments can end up deleted (WordPress 1.5 and later)
You might also consider requiring comment registration. However, Kevin O’Keefe provides a bunch of reasons why that’s lame. It really depends on the nature and purpose of your blog. But I agree with Kevin in that it’s likely to discourage people from commenting.
In addition to providing more advanced commenting options, third-party comment platforms can attract new readers. For example, if you embed Facebook comments, your commenters’ Facebook friends can see those comments, which may make them more likely to discover your blog. Remember, if you do use a third-party comment platform, configure them for moderation before posting.
What about anonymous comments?
One of the most effective ways to police unruly comments is to ban anonymous comments. As Jimmy Soni Managing Editor, the Huffington Post puts it defending HuffPo’s decision to end comment anonymity (citing Harper Lee):
We are capable of doing far worse things to one another when we do not have to own up to the things we do. The mob grants its members the gift of anonymity, but after Scout outs Mr. Cunningham, there ceases to be a “mob” in any real sense; there is just Mr. Cunningham, and associates. And when some kind of identity is attached to their group, the plans of that group carry a good deal more weight.
Of course, there are very compelling reasons against a total ban on anonymous comments.
It seems to me that we might want to nudge people to attach their identities to their comments, but at the same time, provide an avenue for anonymous comments. Again, this will largely be a judgment call for comment moderators.
My advice is to ask commenters to reveal their true identities, be liberal in deleting anonymous comments and allow readers to weigh the relative value of anonymous comments that meet “light of day muster.”
Should I respond to comments?
Responding to comments presents an additional layer of legal ethics issues. For example, can a lawyer respond to comments on their blog without creating an attorney client relationship? Sure they can. But they can also easily mistakenly cause someone to believe that the lawyer’s response was legal advice, thereby leading them to believe that such relationship exists.
So, should you respond? Sure, but don’t be stupid. Also, not every comment that’s worth publishing is worth responding to.
If you largely ignore comments, you shouldn’t be surprised when people stop commenting, and perhaps, stop reading.
Section 230 Protections & Comments
Legal bloggers should also become familiar with how Section 230 of Title 47 of the United States Code (47 USC § 230) might apply to them, and more specifically, to comments on their blogs:
Your readers’ comments, entries written by guest bloggers, tips sent by email, and information provided to you through an RSS feed would all likely be considered information provided by another content provider. This would mean that you would not be held liable for defamatory statements contained in it. However, if you selected the third-party information yourself, no court has ruled whether this information would be considered “provided” to you. One court has limited Section 230 immunity to situations in which the originator “furnished it to the provider or user under circumstances in which a reasonable person…would conclude that the information was provided for publication on the Internet….”
Obviously, while Section 230 might provide protection from civil actions, lawyers are held to a different standard and really need to focus on the interplay of blogging, comments and their state’s rules of professional conduct.
Should lawyers turn on comments in the first place?
It might seem that comments are more trouble than they’re worth. If you’re feeling that way, you might re-examine why you’re even blogging in the first place.
To me, there are plenty of reasons to allow moderated comments. Comments extend the conversation beyond the substance of the post. They provide valuable feedback to the author. They can motivate future posts.
They’re the symbiotic connective tissue between author and reader.
How does it make me look?
You might also worry that allowing comments, but not having any, makes it look like nobody is reading your site. Well is anyone reading your site? If you mean to encourage comments and they are not coming, you should consider whether what you’re writing is “comment-worthy.” The lack of comments can be an indication that what you are publishing is not very interesting.
Do comments help my pages appear in search results?
Maybe. If your blog regularly motivates authentic comments, and you have properly implemented your commenting system to make it easy for search engines to index comments, then there’s little doubt that comments provide valuable feedback that search engines use.
However, if you don’t moderate your comments, leaving your posts riddled with spam comments, you might actually be hurting your posts’ chances of appearing in results. Furthermore, depending on your comment system configuration, you may be limiting your comments’ indexation. While Google has been indexing some sites’ Facebook Comments, it’s not clear that this has been completely resolved. Over at Blind Five Year Old, AJ Kohn breaks down some of the search issues presented by Facebook Comments. If you do use Facebook Comments, you should still extract them and display them inline for search engines.
As search engines continue to evolve, who comments on your site is likely to play a larger role in how your pages appear in search results. Yes, fix the technical issues preventing your comments from getting indexed. But more importantly, focus on publishing stuff that real people actually want to read and comment on.