Ask most editors and writers which sites they’re active commenters on, and I’d be surprised to hear about any others besides the ones they work for. Looking at any comment section of any site, this isn’t a surprise. Anyone who makes and shares anything on the Internet has likely heard the common advice “Never look at the comments.” This rings especially true for creatives and writers who are women, people of color, or belong to any minority group, who experience a disproportionate amount of online harassment and death threats and are, at times, the center of targeted stalking for speaking and writing freely.
This is partly due to how the biggest platforms on which we can communicate online were built and not updated. On Twitter, it’s been widely acknowledged that the tools and reporting processes do not do enough to protect users who are being harassed. On news sites, it’s mostly up to writers, or if it’s a large enough organization, moderators to take the brunt of feedback or delete comments. The general issue with comments and community-building is that it’s hard to strike a balance between inviting discussion and not letting the worst trolls take over. Who comments on and off platform? What do they generally talk about, and is that the kind of conversation that builds or destroys the brand it’s attached to?
To develop a relationship with our audiences, we have to reckon with the parts of our platforms that are usually avoided or de-prioritized in order to (rightly) protect ourselves and our writers. There is value in hearing what our readers have to say, and it’s time to change the way our tools work and the way we feel about the comments section to engage with our readers. The New York Times recently tried bringing the comments section into the body of a story to bring context. The Coral Project’s mission is to rethink how to facilitate online discussion by building community tools. Several publications have writers who kick off comment sections. Polygon has a 24-hour waiting period after registering for new accounts to deter reactionary commenters who don’t contribute to the community. Self-policing communities include members who feel protective of their sites and help moderate comments. These are all interesting decisions that teach us valuable lessons about how to build a community around the content we produce.
Reading and sharing stories are only part of how we process the news. What do we and the people we reach think about what’s happening? It’s time to start bringing in feedback, context, and community to our sites.
Elite Truong is a product manager for partner platforms at Vox Media.