The editorial staff over at Christianity Today’s website have said, “Farewell, blog commenters.”
At their best, online comments sections sustain vibrant, respectful, and diverse conversations. That’s true on some of our own blogs and channels, we’re happy to say. But too often, our efforts to carefully and thoughtfully report on controversial subjects have been swamped by comments that do not reflect the mutual respect and civil conversation we want to promote.
Therefore, our news and feature coverage will no longer feature comment threads. The blogs we host and specific channels like Her.meneutics will continue to feature comments at their writers’ and editors’ discretion.
You may remember that in my recent essay on “Helicopter Outrage” I alluded to this as a growing trend amongst news and opinion sites. The reason is simple: Blog commenters are routinely out of control with vitriol. This is true of the internet at large but also seems to stick to Christian sites. Four years ago Jon Acuff wrote an op-ed for CNN entitled “Why Christians Are Jerks Online.” The Gospel Coalition editorial director Collin Hansen seconded Acuff and almost all of my online experience confirms Acuff’s diagnosis.
So what are websites, blogs, online journals and other places to do? I think in the coming years the most popular option will be to follow CT’s lead and simply scrap on-site commenting. The single most important factor in rancorous commenting seems to be anonymity. That explains why several sites (including CT) are beginning to move the “Discussion” sections to Facebook. Other places, like The Gospel Coalition, require registration via a third party platform (Disqus) and queue all comments for moderation. That second option requires an editor’s time, however, and it’s not time that many editors have.
I’d like to submit my own idea. Why not charge visitors a “Membership Fee” that unlocks on-site commenting? Many places do this in theory, yet the charge is usually a subscription fee that grants access to certain columns and blogs that a reader may not want access to. Rather than that, a site could charge purely for the ability to contribute to the on-site discussion. This would achieve the accountability needed to stifle trolls (it doesn’t get any more accountable than having someone’s CVC code) as well as make community interaction with the authors a special privilege. Encourage the authors of articles to engage the (smaller) commenting threads.
This approach would eliminate a great deal of the needless vitriol so commonplace in comment threads. Registering a fake account in five seconds or using a pseudonym seem to go hand in hand with irresponsible and hateful posting. Yet this doesn’t negate the real value that can be gleaned by thoughtful online discussion. Charging a small premium for the ability to contribute won’t demotivate those who truly have something to say, but it will certainly be uninspiring for opportunistic trolls.
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