• Just Visiting

    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


So Long, Comments

I will miss what the comments here have provided, but I'm not sorry to see them go. Maybe there's a replacement?

June 24, 2020

Back in 2017, when the editors of Inside Higher Ed sought input from readers in order to try to address the burgeoning problem of comment sections that seemed to too often fly off the rails, I wrote a blog post titled “I Will Miss Comments When (If) They’re Gone.”

As it turns out, I am not going to miss the comment sections at Inside Higher Ed when they end July 1.

(I am going to miss some of the comments, though, which is why I’m considering a personal initiative attached to the blog that I'll get to below.)

Back in 2017, I identified what I thought was the core threat to the comments sections, the threat of collapse to the “community” that posts in these pages. For a community to thrive, there must be a shared set of values that foster norms beneficial to the community. At their best the comments at Inside Higher Ed reflect a vibrant community of people invested in a lively exchange of ideas and perspectives about the work of higher education. Over my eight-plus years of writing a blog here, I have seen hundreds of these discussions break out in the comments, often beneath my own posts.

But it is my view that any objective analysis would find that, in the vast majority of cases, the commenting chaff has overtaken the wheat. Oftentimes, that ain’t even chaff, but other farming byproducts you’re smelling.

The points of the commenters on Inside Higher Ed’s announcement are well taken; the comments can add value to the original article or post, but I believe that value is too often subsumed by comments that deflect, distract and ultimately overwhelm the more thoughtful and productive contributions. In many cases, these posts come from people who are not invested in the well-being of the higher education community and instead come here to do battle against their perceived enemy.

In other cases, we have pointless feuds among regular commenters that bounce from thread to thread, day to day. These are simply tiresome. Up until a couple months ago, I had never blocked myself from seeing anyone’s comments here, but there’s now more than a dozen on the list, the vast majority of whom never comment on my posts, but simply pollute my experience of the content I enjoy here as a reader.

Speaking personally, I used to approach the comments on my posts with a mix of anxiety and curiosity that gelled into excitement. Even after all these years, it is a pleasure and privilege to be read, and not just read, but often read incredibly well, in ways which enhance my understanding of my own ideas.

But over time, that excitement has become a combination of resignation and even dread as I brace for some usual suspects who have consistent bad-faith takes on just about anything they seem to read at Inside Higher Ed. I once viewed responding to comments on my posts as both a pleasure and responsibility. If people were going to read and respond, I should respond in turn. I feel this much less often, and even occasionally have found myself responding in ways that are rather shitty and unproductive.

I also have been avoiding writing about some topics because I dreaded the inevitable, often bad-faith responses I knew the post would garner. This is not a fear of pushback on my ideas, but simply a weariness over having to hear the same response I’ve heard a gazillion times before.

In 2017, I also expressed skepticism that stepped-up moderation would solve the problem, and this is clearly the case. The community cannot be bailed out by the imposition of authority. As is, there are constant complaints about what is and is not allowed through. I do not have any inside scoop on Inside Higher Ed’s operations, but it is hard to justify any staff time going to content moderation that could otherwise go to the journalistic mission. If this time is significant, then the decision to end comments is an easy one.

Yes, as some say, we could simply ignore the comments, but in my experience this is easier said than done, and once seen, it is very difficult to forget them.

So I will miss what comments here once were and can sometimes still be, but this is not too different from missing my 30s, when I did not creak and crackle when I walked from bed to bathroom in the morning. Some things simply aren’t coming back, and no amount of wishing will make it so.

Still, I don’t want to give up entirely on harnessing the collective experience and wisdom of the commenters who have contributed so much to this space over the years. For this reason, I’m going to establish an email dedicated to the "Just Visiting" blog ([email protected]) and for each post, encourage people to email me their comments.

I envision several potential avenues for these comments:

  1. Roundup posts. Here, I will collect and share the emailed comments that I found most interesting and publish them in a blog post. It won’t have the same feel as a thread of comments, but if you find value in reading the perspectives of others reflected against the original post, this will fulfill that goal. Rather than letters to the writer (in this case), these can be exactly what someone would write in the comments, if the comments still existed.
  2. Guest blogs. I already use guest posts from people on subjects where I think another perspective is desirable, so I suspect that hearing from people via email will trigger a desire to hear more from them. In this case, I may ask them to simply expand on their comment as a guest blog.
  3. Person-to-person exchanges. Over the years, off and on, I have had epistolary relationships with folks who have emailed me about something I’ve written here that they’ve disagreed with. I would respond to their email, they would respond to my response and so on. This may foster that kind of exchange more intentionally. In some cases, if the correspondent agrees, these exchanges could potentially appear as posts themselves, should they seem interesting to others.

Readers are already identifying the limitations of this approach. For example, some are wondering how I propose to be “objective” about what I choose to share in the roundup posts.

I’ll tell you how. I will not be objective. I will not publish opinions that differ from mine simply because they differ, though I hope to publish opinions that do differ. However, if I write a post about adjunct labor, for example, and someone tells me for the gazillionth time that the solution to the problem is for adjuncts to quit en masse, I will not be sharing that because it is both simpleminded and not new. If I get a comment on a post about writing pedagogy from someone who does not appear to have any expertise in writing pedagogy declaring what students really need, I will feel no compunction to share what I believe to be misinformation simply because it contradicts what I have to say.

Essentially, I will be looking for comments where I think, “That’s interesting, I’m glad I read that,” presuming others might feel the same. This will be entirely subjective, because I don’t know how it could be otherwise.

Maybe I’m perverse, but I’m getting a kick out of the thought of a series of posts of emails I’ve received titled, “Warner Is Wrong.” How many installments do you think we could do?

Don’t answer. Or do.

I personally am concerned about the amount of additional labor I am assigning myself, but I think it’s worth at least experimenting. It’s possible I’ll hear from precisely nobody, as the lack of guaranteed public forum for the comments will reduce the number of those who desire to be heard on what I write to at or near zero.

Or maybe the opposite happens and we start to build a different community, and as a community, we can explore technologies that allow for an exchange of ideas and perspectives that don’t flow entirely through me.

The only way to move forward is to try something new. This will be me trying something new.

If you have any suggestions, you can take advantage of your last chance to comment directly on a post below.


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