Internet Stewardship and the Comments Section

Eliminating the comments section, or applying the rules arbitrarily, is a dangerous enterprise.

comments section

comments section

Reader comments foster loyalty and engagement by keeping users on a site longer. But comment streams are vulnerable to abuse, and some news organizations are eliminating them completely.

The Washington Post recently wrote about news sites cracking down on over-the-top comments, which made me think of an article that Slate ran last year called “Why We Post Nothing—Nothing—About Our Kid Online. You Should Do the Same for Your Kids.” Amy Webb, the post’s author, received hundreds of comments by parents who disagreed with her thesis and advice.

Some people found it ironic that Webb would spend hours “crawling through Google,” trying to optimize her child’s digital identity in order to protect her from bullies, potential employers, institutions of higher education, the government, corporations and facial recognition technology.

Webb wrote, “On the day of her birth, our daughter already had accounts at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even Github. When we think she’s mature enough (an important distinction from her being technically old enough), we’ll hand her an envelope with her master password inside.”

Many people took exception with Webb’s premise, pointing to flaws in her arguments. Other commenters went a step further, posting videos Webb herself made public in which her daughter’s first and last names and image were also present.

Shortly thereafter, Webb posted a follow-up called, “Congratulations, You Found a Photo of My Daughter Online,” and all of the comments on the original post were removed. Naturally, the community took exception. There was no outright abuse, only arguments against Webb’s argument and posts pointing to what many people considered hypocrisy.

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According to Webb’s follow-up piece, “A few thousand Slate readers posted comments both in support of and against [her] central thesis.” If that is true, there was clearly no need to remove them.

Since most readers more or less took exception to the same themes in Webb’s first piece, she could have amended the post with an update. Having one’s thesis criticized does not qualify as inappropriate content, warrant removal or necessitate a follow-up.

Not to mention, a certain commenter had monitored and responded heatedly to disagreements in her defense, reaching more than 300 replies in under 72 hours until someone finally started a poll asking whether the commenter was “a) Amy’s husband, b) Amy’s bestie, c) Amy the author or d) Amy’s Internet stalker.”

Certainly, Webb couldn’t have enjoyed the unexpected backlash, but the Internet is not known for its diplomacy. Being part of the digital space means accepting criticism, even when it comes in forms we’d prefer to do without. Most community members invested in the comments section call out others who go too far. Too often, a site’s online administrators apply rules arbitrarily.

It is unclear whether Webb requested that Slate remove the comments or if the publication simply wanted to remove all traces of discord beneath an article they published. Either way, Slate should’ve known better. It may have rightly chosen to delete comments with links to images of Webb and/or her daughter (even though Webb had made them public). But evidently, it was more convenient for both parties to erase all traces of community discourse, discourse held in trust and in the public domain.

Webb’s teachable moment? “This has been a strong reminder that if we’re going to participate in the online data game, we need to continually monitor its ever-changing rules and to shift our strategies accordingly.”

In Webb’s case, the rules really haven’t changed much. If you’re going to participate in the online content game, you’d better develop a thick skin. You cannot simply delete content that you find disagreeable.

The original column ran again this year, which has thus far garnered 51 comments that remain.