A reader points out that The New York Times‘s Room For Debate feature this week has five people arguing over whether or not comments sections are worthwhile. 

For the pro side, here’s a bit from Samita Mukhopadhyay, an editorial director at Mic:

Even though these new platforms hold tremendous potential, and have high rates of engagement, it has not stopped online abuse. While the Internet has democratized publishing and provided an opportunity for a plethora of diverse voices to emerge, its openness has not come without consequences. Abuse seems to proliferate, in comments and on social media.

Still, vulgarity does not cheapen the voices of those who take engagement seriously, who are thoughtful and curious about online dialogue. Creating space for readers to grapple with topics that matter to them is still tremendously important — regardless of whether it happens on social media or in a comments section.

For the con side, here’s Jamilah Lemieux, senior editor at Ebony magazine. She says they are too overrun with jerks to be worthwhile. Excerpt:

Those sites with resources devoted to comment moderation may not seem as overrun with vulgarity, but the act of sorting through obscenity can take a heavy toll on moderators, especially when image sharing is enabled.

Comments sections have devolved into places where anonymous strangers can punch up at those they despise, admire, envy — or perhaps all of the above. Once upon a time, I’d lose hours debating with them. Now, I try to pretend they don’t exist: a challenge, because many just migrate to my Twitter feed to hound me there.

I think I have something to add to this. I am often complimented by readers on both the left and the right for the quality of the comments section on this blog. This is first and foremost a tribute to you commenters. But it is also the result of years of very patient, usually unpleasant labor on my part. When I began blogging at Beliefnet in 2006, I was shocked by the viciousness of so many of the comments, but I didn’t have the ability to delete the bad ones. Before too long, Beliefnet let me have administrator’s privileges over my own blog, and I began to weed them out, deleting bad comments and, when possible, blocking access to the blog. It took a long, long time, but I finally got it under control.

My blog went away when I was at Templeton from early 2010 through the summer of 2011, but came back when I joined TAC. I haven’t had nearly the problem with hateful comments here as I had at Beliefnet, and I’m not sure why, because my monthly traffic here is much higher. But I’ve still had, and do have, a challenge. You don’t notice it when I ban someone, but they notice it; all you see is that the comments thread is more pleasant, or continues to be relatively pleasant.

As you know, I try to be as tolerant as I can of views with which I disagree, even those I find somewhat repulsive. Some things are beyond the pale, though. I almost always send to the trash comments that attack me or another reader personally, and if the commenter develops a habit of that, I ban them from the site. I think of this site as a big garden party at my house. I’m happy to welcome all kinds of people to the party, but if you don’t know how to play well with others, I’ll show you the door.

True, there are times when I’ll let something slip through that I ought to have trashed, but that usually happens when I’m approving things in a hurry, often on my iPhone. There have been times when some of you point out to me that I ought not to have approved a certain comment. Sometimes I’ll remove it, sometimes I won’t. Again, at times it’s a fine line between judging a comment provocative but permissible, and judging that it has gone too far. I try to err on the side of more speech. But I do err, and I appreciate your tolerance.

I spend a lot of the work day on the comments section, trying to get it right. I interact when I can, but there are many occasions when I just don’t have the time to do an NFR (= Note From Rod), and I don’t want to hold up your comment until I do. So I just post it without comment. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s what I can manage now, with just me doing it. If this blog were more active in the comments section, I might not be able to do it all by myself. That’s a good problem to have, especially when the comments are so overwhelmingly good, from all of you.

So what do you think? Is this comments section worth it? I don’t read any comments section but the one on my own blog, because they are very much not worth it.