Are Blog Comments Ruining Your Neighborhood?

blogThe staff at Popular Science thinks so, which is why it was announced yesterday that they are turning off the comments option on their blog site. As a blogger who is approaching his 8th anniversary I can certainly appreciate their concerns, but I don’t believe that discontinuing allowing comments is the solution.

The magazine’s online content director builds her case by referring to a recent study, which showed that a “fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.” Even we accept the study’s findings, this at most suggests that the site’s moderating policies need to be tightened. It’s not all or nothing. In fact, a quick perusal through older PS posts suggests that very little was done to moderate and in the few posts I surveyed I saw not one staff comment.

For the first few years I did not moderate comments. I thought even the most outlandish comments reflected important aspects of Civil War memory and I wanted them to be part of the blog’s archival record. Of course, that conflicted with wanting to encourage sound debate and discussion about any number of topics related to the Civil War era. At some point I started moderating and over the years have even banned a select group. I do my best to allow as many comments through in the hope that I can maintain a workable balance between reflecting popular memory and keeping discussions on track. The toughest cases are not the personal insults, but those comments that reflect no understanding of the relevant history. I approve them and worry whether I am helping to spread misinformation. It’s not a perfect system. It does take time and it can be extremely frustrating.

I sometimes have to remind myself that Ta-Nehisi Coates moderates comments and he sees more comments in one day than I do in a couple of weeks. His site also serves as a reminder that it is possible to create an online space for thoughtful discussion.

More troubling, however, is the claim that blog comments are contributing to the undermining of “bedrock scientific doctrine.”

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

The undermining of scientific knowledge has been in the works for a long time now. The rise of the evangelical right, postmodernism as well as scientific theorists from Thomas Kuhn to Helen Longino have done more over the long run to shake our faith in scientific doctrine than blog comments.

I think the editorial staff of PS has a responsibility to engage its readers on its website. This is an opportunity for the magazine to show by example what it means to engage in reasoned argument.

Yes, it’s going to take time. Yes, it’s going to be messy. But it is certainly a better alternative than hiding behind a wall.

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

13 comments… add one
  • Brad Sep 27, 2013 @ 4:41

    I’m generally with Barbara on this one. Most times I see little value in the comments. However, on the sites I visit there are some intelligent comments and I would sure like to comment on some of the absurd things Dmitri says.

    I guess there is really no wrong or right answer to the question.

  • grandadfromthehills Sep 25, 2013 @ 18:05

    I can understand in a virtual world where a person can make mean, belittling remarks that do not lead to a resolution of a situation. For instance, I enjoy some of news stories, but when I read the comments made…oh boy please God say it ain’t so!

    I read an actual magazine article today (wish I kept it since it was on a visit to a local hospital) in the “Smithsonian Magazine” about one of the early Silicon Valley members who helped get the Internet 2.0 rolling. He now has issues with the anonymity as well as the privacy not to mention the ability to fleece the public with the massive tracking ability of Google and others which in his opinion will cause economic calamity. Yes – it took me a while to wrap my mind around that, but it is precisely that anonymity that encourages irresponsible postings that only serve to stir up hate and discontent. If you don’t want to place your name and honor on it, do not post it!

    Sam Vanderburg

  • Dave Sep 25, 2013 @ 17:26

    You’re doing a fine job, Kevin. You provide support for factual points, and explain your thoughts. A high percentage of your guests are inquisitive and informed, or want to be informed. Although its true that we are experiencing often politically motivated attacks on truth in many realms, I suspect this really isn’t just a recent phenomenon — rather, modern media has opened up access to both folks seeking to learn as well as those wishing to suppress learning and logic for whatever reasons. We should remain positive with the belief that truth and good sense will prevail even if it takes a long time.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 25, 2013 @ 17:32

      Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dave.

  • Brendan Bossard Sep 25, 2013 @ 17:22

    I agree, Kevin.

    In particular, I appreciated your comment about fearing that you may be helping to spread misinformation when you approve comments by ignorant posters. As a layman who loves history and hates ignorance, I don’t think you need to be afraid of that. First, you are not spreading misinformation. To the contrary, you are putting the spotlight on it. That is very healthy for a free society.

    Second, you provide a very balanced, entertaining, and educational forum. If I ever post anything that demonstrates historical ignorance, I would appreciate it if you would challenge me. My best teachers were the ones who weren’t afraid to give me F’s whenever I deserved it!

    Of course, if you are going to allow “foolish” comments and publicly rebut them, then by an unspoken rule of social decorum, it is only fair that you remain open to being rebutted, as well–and that is where I believe Popular Science is now falling short. Having never read their magazine or blog, I am not in a position to say with certainty that they are circling the wagons. I do have a good general knowledge of science and the scientific method, though, and I smell fear in their decision to shut down all publicly posted dialogue. If the scientific doctrines that they espouse are “bedrock,” then neither hurricanes nor tidal waves of inane comments can undermine them!

    So I ask you, Kevin, never to be afraid of allowing some ignorant comments on your blog discussions. They only make the truth shine brighter.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 25, 2013 @ 17:32

      Thanks, Brendan. I should also point out that one of the benefits of having such a thoughtful audience is that my own thoughts are closely scrutinized. In fact, it happened earlier today on a previous post.

  • Al Mackey Sep 25, 2013 @ 17:05

    I not only moderate closely, but I freely edit out insults and rude language. I will not allow any bullying on my blog, and I believe everyone should feel at ease that they’re not going to be subjected to rude behavior. I look at the blog as an extension of my home. I won’t allow one guest to insult or act rudely toward another in my home and I also don’t do it on my blog.

    • Alfred Loomis Oct 6, 2013 @ 4:10

      Mr. Loomis,

      You are welcome to comment on this site. However, you will not be allowed to insult other commenters. This is your one and only warning.

      Good day.


  • Patrick Young Sep 25, 2013 @ 17:03

    I work professionally for two blogs with highly controversial subject matter. One does not allow any comments, the other moderates comments. The leadership of both blogs have told me they question the value of comments.

    On my topic for the blogs, immigration policy, our polling shows 80% support in our catchment area for a moderate position that steers between extremes. On our local newspaper’s website, comments trend 90% harshly anti-immigrant with many using blatantly racist language.

    On the other hand, on The Immigrants’ Civil War facebook page, I have had very little trolling and almost no rudeness in a community of 4,000.

    I love the interaction from readers, but I think that apart from a small minority of sites, many readers now consider the unmoderated comments section a haven for twisted minds, ranters and liars. A lot of people tell me they no longer look at comments because there is no value there.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 25, 2013 @ 17:09

      I also believe strongly that readers like you, Al, Barbara and others function as moderators.

    • Craig L. Sep 26, 2013 @ 19:29

      I just tried to post a long comment on one of your posts on The Immigrant’s Civil War site, but apparently Disqus ate it and signed me up for an account in the process. It was actually quite a good comment, if I do say so myself. I was reflecting on the potential for ethnic interaction between the Irish and the Germans on the six week voyage across the Atlantic. My great great great grandparents crossed in 1855 on a ship that was roughly two thirds Irish and one third German. The proportions were reversed a year later in 1856 when my great great grandparents landed in New York. The 1856 crossing nearly coincided with the transition from Fort Clinton to Castle Garden.

      Many of the Prussians crossing on those ships, coming from what is now Poland, were accustomed to some ethnic mixing. Most of the place names in that region had nearly identical names with alternative spellings. For instance, the area the Prussians called Zehden was called Cedynia by the Poles. Mohrinsee or Lake Mohrin was and is spelled Moryn by the Poles. The German name means Dark Lady Lake. The Cistercians had a convent in Zehden for about eight hundred years and at least at one time many of the nuns were of Moorish extraction. Much of the education in that region was traditionally provided by the nuns and I don’t think it was restricted entirely to Catholics.


  • Barb Gannon Sep 25, 2013 @ 16:44

    I agree with the ban. See the irony. : ) Some internet commentary is degrading discourse. The Washington Post wants me to pay, I will for a version with no comments. There are trolls and bullies who use comments to spread viciousness and hatred.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 25, 2013 @ 16:48

      There are trolls and bullies who use comments to spread viciousness and hatred.

      Absolutely, but with a bit of work their influence can be minimized. My problem with PS is that there isn’t much of an indication that they have taken these steps.

Leave a Reply to Brendan BossardCancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *