Thursday, August 4, 2011

What makes a good comments section?


This morning, on Salon, I read a really good article on aging by Lillian B. Rubin. The author did a wonderful job of unveiling the hypocrisies of how our society treats aging. On one hand, the age at which one can still be thought vibrant and active is moving upward. Forty is the new 20, you know. On the other hand, we genuflect to youth, try to fight off aging with botulism and surgery, devalue age and experience, and discriminate against seniors. I've been thinking about this stuff since I turned 40 a year ago and Rubin's writing was thoughtful. When I encounter a particularly good piece of writing online, I generally am moved to want to talk about it with other people. So, I headed to the article's comments. Big mistake.



The first response to one of Rubin's points about ageist discrimination in insurance:
Selling umbrella policies to battle-axes like her is what got us in the economic mess we're in today.
Yeah. Then there were several folks who wanted to nitpick Rubin's assertion that we are living longer, which wasn't really the point of the article anyway. Then, there was needlessly rude disagreement with the author:
"...I know it. You know it..."
Do you know the difference between an opinion and a fact?
How about the difference between your opinion and someone else's opinion?
I'm 55. Thirty years ago, I never thought that I'd feel or look this good at this age.
But hey, that's just my opinion...
And, of course, there were the people taking all those other people to task for "trolling."

Long story short, the comments weren't nearly as thoughtful as the article that spawned them. I should have known better, really. It's no secret that Salon has a notoriously horrible comments section--a hotbed of rudeness, sexism, racism and general misanthropy. It's nasty over there. I shouldn't pick on the online magazine, though. It's commentariat is only marginally worse than those at other mainstream publications with spaces online. I heard someone today say, "I don't do comments," meaning the person never ventures into comments section. Many folks agree with this tactic. In fact, I recently vowed never to read comments at a site that isn't explicitly and proactively equality-minded.

There are plenty of niche spaces where one can find good conversation--Racialicious, Shakesville, Pharyngula, etc. But one of the few mainstream media websites where I am guaranteed smart and reasonable discussion is The Atlantic, specifically Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog. Coates' commenters aren't perfect. I've been frustrated with them plenty of times. But it's never hateful there. You get the vibe that people are operating on good faith and actually attempting to tease out different issues. (Here's a good conversation on radical heroism.)

So, contrasting these commenting experiences has me thinking: What makes a good commentariat? A healthy blog community? Where are the spaces you return to for good online discussion?

Photo Credit: premasagar

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