How to Create An Engaging Comments Section

Friday, December 30, 2011


Creating an interesting comment space can take a lot of time and energy. Bob speaks to The Atlantic senior editor and blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates about his approach to internet comments and his own heavily moderated comment section.

Comments [11]


Oh, sorry, undeadgoat. I didn't realize that commenters were always wrong and moderators were always right. I had been laboring under the assumption that both were human beings. You've set me straight: moderators are superhumans who have escaped the confines of human bias and commenters are subhumans. So sorry.

By the way, I never said that a lot of comments aren't stupid. Clearly, comments are often stupid, and clearly moderators will sometimes use their power to shut-down comments they simply disagree with.

In one case, I had several commenters ask why my comments were deleted because they saw the original comment and didn't think it was offensive or deserved to be deleted.

Jan. 11 2012 04:51 PM

Brit, heavily moderated comment sections are not for people like you; they are for the sorts of people who read uncensored comment pages and then despair about the stupidity of humanity.

Additionally, as someone who has been a moderator in an explicitly ideological setting, I can say that most people who think they are reasonably rebutting the "official position" are not doing so, or are incapable of doing so to the satisfaction of most regulars. In this case, the goal of the moderators in deleting your comments is not to hide the fact that opposing opinions and arguments exist (believe me, anyone who is not a home-schooled 8-year-old is aware that not everyone agrees with them about everything); rather it is to create a zone where people can have more nuanced and productive discussions with people they have something in common with, without having to constantly prove and debate one big idea. If you were not at least notionally open to the ideas these websites were created to discuss, then you were an unproductive, distracting intruder.

I do have to say that mass bannings and swift deletions, while they do evince cries of "censorship!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" from people who believe in internet democracy a la 4chan, actually bring about a sense of relief from regulars and can bring lurkers out of the woodwork if they feel that there is actually a productive environment for discussion to occur.

Jan. 11 2012 02:57 PM

It sounds like Ta-Nehisi Coates does a good job moderating comments. However, I will say that the idea of moderating comments can become a problem. I generally dislike the idea that people throw around about "my comments section doesn't honor freedom of speech; I can be a dictator and delete stuff I don't like". If done well, it can improve the conversation, but I've been on a few websites that were run by people who had a strong ideology. I've had my comments deleted when they contradicted their position. (The websites, by the way, were a pro-intelligent design website and an anti-copyright/pro-piracy website.)

It wasn't a matter of being rude (I wasn't). The problem was that I offered reasonable rebuttals of the positions they were arguing. Apparently, they didn't like being contradicted and didn't want their readers to hear another side of the story. It was almost as if they wanted to create a zone where they could freely propagandize readers, where they appeared to have a consensus with their readers, and where nobody heard an opposing viewpoint. To this day, I still remember what these websites did to shut-down opposition viewpoints.

This is why I disagree with the general claim that websites should be allowed to be run like dictatorships - where anything can be deleted for any reason. I think the internet (including individual websites) should function with some allowance for opposing viewpoints. Yes, you're legally allowed to delete comments representing opposing viewpoints, but we should generally discourage that behavior if done with an agenda. This is why I generally oppose the idea that "comment sections aren't a democracy" - because it can lead to all kinds of heavy-handedness by comment moderators looking to justify deletion of opposing viewpoints.

Jan. 10 2012 01:32 PM
Donald Schwartz from Brooklyn, NY

Here's my complimentary post to this story. Hope in brings in a slightly longer view.

"Internet Conversations Have Gone Astray" by Donald Schwartz

Jan. 08 2012 01:51 AM
anna perez

Hi Bob, long time no talk.

I've been a regular commenter on TNC's blog for about four years and his moderated comments section is an oasis on the internet. It's engaging, enlightening and often very, very funny. Just what a good conversation should be. Think of the difference between TNC's curated section vs. say WaPo's comments section as the difference between a good Hitchcock thriller, i.e. "Strangers on a Train," and the latest slasher flick.

Jan. 02 2012 05:00 PM

I'm sorry, I don't know why that comment posted three times. Perhaps Brooke can...edit them.

Jan. 01 2012 08:21 PM

I have been using the dinner party analogy for years in my discussions about comment sections. There is no First Amendment right to say whatever you want on somebody else's website, and if the owner of the site doesn't exercise his obligation to maintain his own property, by monitoring the comment section. Like a dinner party, it is in the host's best interest to make sure that the most obnoxious guests don't scare away the more intelligent, polite ones.

Anyone who disagrees with me is probably a socialist who is bent on destroying America.

I'm kidding.

Jan. 01 2012 08:17 PM

This is a good discussion. While I don't dispute the dinner party analogy, I have had that levelled at me as a reason not to be given the right to comment on a blog where I was mobbed severely and where, after being banned for trying to defend myself, Comments were still made about me. 'My blog is not a country, only countries have to honour free-speech'.

This is not imo merely undemocratic but actually anti-democratic and all too easy for the blogger concerned. It's actually just perfectly ordinary bullying. Bloggers walk a fine line.

Jan. 01 2012 04:39 PM
KevDog from Williamsville, NY

I'm afraid, Riversong, that you are laboring under a severe misconception. A blog is not part of the democratic process. Mr. Coates is no more required to tolerate inappropriate posts on "his" blog than you are to put up with graffiti on "your" house. Both are private and therefore not subject to the First Amendment.

Jan. 01 2012 11:18 AM

To his credit, Ta-nehisi Coates acknowledges his totalitarian tendencies in controlling "his" corner of the internet, but appears to be as fearful of the messiness of the democratic landscape as the NYPD were of the populist #Occupy movement.

The NYC authorities used the excuse of public sanitation and safety to rid their streets of the unwashed rabble that is the very foundation of democracy and the free market of ideas. Coates uses a similar excuse (or rationalization) for cleaning up the unsanitized commentary to his blog.

Jan. 01 2012 11:10 AM
Stew from DC

Just a heads up, you're missing the 's' on Ta-Nehisi's last name: "The Atlantic senior editor and blogger Ta-Nehisi Coate about [...]" in the abstract above (it's correct in the tags).

I have to add my praise for the wonderful work Mr. Coates does. Among many fine qualities, his work stands out to me in particular for his:

1. Sincere esteem for the perspectives of everyone in the conversation--he clearly spends a lot of effort in listening and trying to understand.
2. His graceful approach to setting reasonable and reasonable and firm boundaries that allow his commenter community to flourish.
3. His ability and willingness to say "I don't know", when he doesn't know--this is truly rare and precious.

He sets a valuable example for all of us, offline and on. Mr. Coates, my friends and I love to read and talk about your blog--your work regularly enriches our lives--thank you!

Dec. 30 2011 04:49 PM

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