by Ijeoma Oluo, Editor-At-Large
What were we thinking with this whole ‘no comments’ thing?
I f there’s one question we got more than any other in the few weeks after launching The Establishment, it was this one: Why don’t you have comments?
On the surface, it might seem strange for a newly launched online publishing platform to not allow comments. Frequently commented stories are shared more often and drive up page views, as well as time on the site. Comments equal clicks, and clicks equal revenue. For a brand-new platform with no established (yes, I see what I did there) reputation, it just doesn’t seem like smart business.
In addition, as a platform dedicated to discussing issues that don’t usually get attention in mainstream media, wouldn’t we want to promote dialogue in our comments section?
Really — what were we thinking with this whole “no comments” thing?
The truth is, in the ramp-up to launch, we thought long and hard about whether to include a comments section, but when it came time to decide, each and every one of us said “no.” The founding team — Kelley Calkins, Nikki Gloudeman, Katie Tandy, Jessica Sutherland, Ruchika Tulshyan, and myself — all had our own reasons for deciding that we didn’t want a comments section. We’ve decided to share those reasons with you here.
Kelley Calkins, Cofounder & News Director, focused on the fact that comments sections rarely provide the thoughtful feedback they were designed for:
“It can be an uncomfortable and painful process to encounter new ideas or opinions, especially if they are directly critical of your work. But this process is imperative; a true discourse — however challenging — is vital to moving us toward a more equitable and informed society. I keep this in mind when others call out issues they see in my words, and have come to value deeply the times when others invest energy in engaging with me, enabling me to evolve. A vast majority of my most formative ‘Aha!’ moments were borne of writers and thinkers rebutting and debating viewpoints.
This, however, rarely happens in comments sections online — and certainly never as a result of hurled invectives or brutal ad hominem attacks. And this is, sadly, what unmonitored comments sections seemingly inevitably devolve into. Never once has being called a worthless cunt contributed to my personal growth. Never once has being threatened with rape inspired intellectual advancement. Nary a single time has being called ugly and stupid enriched my life or society in any way.”
Nikki Gloudeman, Cofounder & Editorial Director, focused on how comments sections legitimize abusive language:
“The Internet, that greatest of democratizers, has in many ways served as a powerful force for positive change; in the best of circumstances, marginalized voices that might otherwise be denied a platform are provided the critical space to be heard. But by its very nature, this democratization also provides space for those who have always been heard, and who least deserve to be: namely, privileged, hateful assholes. Worse yet, the Internet presents the illusion that these bigoted voices carry as much weight, and deserve as much space, as the marginalized voices.
Every time, for instance, you read a story about rape, and then proceed to dive into a comments section where a bunch of men talk about how the woman probably deserved it or fabricated her story, you’re left with the perception that the voices of rape survivors and the voices of rape apologists are of equal merit.
Providing a platform for bigotry is an implicit endorsement of its value, when it actually has none.”
Katie Tandy, Cofounder & Creative Director, focused on fostering an environment that appeals to our better natures:
“I lament my beleaguered memory, but I recently read an article that described the comments section as the authentic America — that in the bowels of those small white glowing boxes was a true, if twisted, cross-section of our society. And I’m wont to agree. There, in the blissful bravery that anonymity provides, people indulge their darkness; their basest fears. They bare their fetid teeth and claws, lashing out at those who are alternatively the most brave and the most vulnerable. And often in this Venn diagram of writers, they are both.
Yet the comments section — which on paper is a virtual democracy in which all voices can and will be heard — has been hijacked and bastardized; it is decidedly Free Speech run amok. We have allowed behavior that is tantamount to hate crimes and granted it our greatest societal blessing. We have created and methodically maintained a ‘safe place’ for every disgusting ‘ism’ on the goddamn planet — while exposing writers and creators to the kind of caustic cruelty that as far as I’m concerned, only belongs in dystopian fiction.
As Mark O’Connell wrote so succinctly in his New Yorker piece, “It’s Comments All The Way Down”: ‘Clicking a View All Comments button is a mild manifestation, I suspect, of the Freudian death instinct.’
If the comments section is truly a cross-section of humanity, then we, as humanity, need to do better. Full stop.
And let’s be honest. There’s a lot of other ways to reach out — email, Facebook, and Twitter to name but three — to let us know what you think. This isn’t about silence or censorship; it’s about civility. It’s about fostering a critically thinking dialogue that isn’t predicated on expletives, fear-mongering, shame, or threats of sexual assault. Imagine that.”
Jessica Sutherland, Marketing Director, focused on the psychic toll that hateful comments take on both writers and readers:
“My marginal Internet fame was met with mostly positive comments, with the exception of white supremacists who hate everything, and creepy dudes who read an article about homeless college students and couldn’t contain their thoughts on where they’d like to put their penises. I had a public Facebook post once that led to a fairly large debate among absolute strangers about a woman’s right to choose, while other strangers told me I should have been aborted. It was intense for a couple of days, but fizzled out.
I think I’m fortunate in this regard, because I see what happens to everyone else and it terrifies me. It’s not just the writers . . . it’s also those whose life experiences make the news who are attacked by these faceless Wi-Fi warriors. A childhood friend of mine was attacked outside a gay bar, and the things people said about him in the comments sections of the news coverage broke my heart. I have hundreds of writer friends in my world, and I have seen them attacked in the comments, doxxed, threatened, and worse. I fear for my friends’ safety, but I fear more for their openness — they are brave enough to share a part of themselves with the world, and this is how the world thanks them. What if they stop shouting their stories?
I know these garbage people don’t matter, in the big scheme of things. That’s why, to me, it was not a difficult decision for the ladies of the Establishment to keep comments off our site: we strive to provide a platform for voices we seldom hear in the media, and our content creators offer up so much of themselves to our readers, so that readers may see things a little differently when next they look at the world. We have a responsibility to house that gift they’ve given us in a safe place of honor — not out in the yard, where the bottom-feeders can try to destroy it.
So yeah, we don’t have comments. We’re not here to waste our bandwidth on hate debates nobody can never, ever win . . . we aim to provide a positive experience for our content creators and consumers alike.”
Ruchika Tulshyan, Contributing Editor, focused on the disproportionate amount of abuse that women writers of color face in the comments:
“Writers who are also women of color encounter particularly damaging vitriol, mostly ad hominem, when they write about minority issues at the intersection of gender, race, and class.
Having been called names I wouldn’t dare call my worst enemy, by prowlers hiding behind the anonymous and cowardly masks the Internet readily provides, I have often felt deterred from writing on important topics such as immigration reform.
The Establishment recognizes that hot-button issues in the digital age give trolls the very platform they need to spew venom at bold writers. So we take a proactive stance to ensure our courageous storytellers never feel a moment’s hesitation when telling difficult, multi-layered stories.
We always welcome well thought-out critiques by email. We love active debates, but politely decline assholish diatribes.”
For me personally, Ijeoma Oluo, Editor-At-Large, the reason was simple: Abuse is not dialogue. Abuse is not speech. Abuse is abuse, and we owe it to our writers and our readers to stop legitimizing abuse. Assholes already have plenty of platforms from which to abuse women, people of color, disabled people, sex workers, the poor, and the LGBTQI community. We won’t provide one here.