An author recently asked me if I thought readers were unsympathetic to his work, judging from the number of critical comments it attracted. Not at all, I assured him: comments are distinctly unrepresentative of an omnibus site’s readership. In his case, the most recent piece he’d written had received ten times as many Facebook “likes” as critical comments, and the story’s overall readership was an order of magnitude greater still.
Most readers — 99 out of a 100 or more — don’t comment. And those who do comment are, often enough, apt to be those who dislike what they’re reading or have agendas of their own to promote. With websites dedicated to a single topic or personality, that’s not such a big problem: only a real troll would go to John Doe’s website just to complain about John Doe. But a site that covers many different interests may find that 1 percent or 5 percent of its readers like one particular niche but are most moved to comment on other topics — those where they find the author’s views least sympathetic. An objection always seems more urgent than a note of agreement.
Add to this a volume of partisans brought out by the election season the way rain brings snails, and you can see that a latitudinarian comments policy won’t do. So while the guidelines Wick Allison outlined awhile back remain in effect, enforcement will be a bit stricter. Fundamentally, comments should be germane, civil, and concise. They should suggest that the commenter is thinking his or her own thoughts — the operative words being not only “his or her own” but “thoughts.” Not attitudes, but ideas: things that deepen and enrich the conversation. Being concise, by the way, means not only keeping comments brief, but not barraging the site with several comments expressing variations on the same theme. Such redundancy is one of things we’ll be policing more closely. Another is the “me too” post that only recapitulates something that’s already been said. In general, the longer a thread gets, the higher we’d like to raise the bar for further comments.
These considerations won’t affect most long-time commenters (with a few exceptions) and they shouldn’t stifle independently minded, good-faith commenters of any sort, as long as their remarks add something new to the conversation. But it’s clear that a less rigorously moderated approach can lead to misunderstandings. And in an age of so much oversimplification and flattening of discourse, that’s something to be avoided even at some cost to participation.