Creating an interesting comment space can take a lot of time and energy. In an interview from December, 2011, 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.
BOB GARFIELD: He managed to keep his troll at bay by individually blocking him from public view. It turns out that is a solution, as they say in the online world, that scales.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor at the Atlantic, has a blog that draws visitors both for the posts and the extremely engaging Comments section because, Coates says, he moderates the daylights out of it. The jerks are invited to leave, the grownups to stay and chime in. Back in 2011, we discussed the intellectual treasure that is the non-trollish commenter community.
TA-NEHISI COATES: I always tell people it's like a dinner party, and I try to host it that way. I try to keep the conversation interesting, in terms of what is the bane of all comments sections, and that is, you know, rude commentary, people going over the line, trolling, that sort of thing. I generally follow the same rules, so I always tell people, if you were in my house and you insulted one of my guests, I would ask you to leave. I don't understand why it would be any different in a comments section.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, the criticism against that sort of policing is that it’s anti-democratic and that it somehow undermines the diversity of opinion and thought, and, and so forth.
TA-NEHISI COATES: It does all of those things, it does all those things. But the beauty of the Web is that whatever my comments section is, it's not the Internet. So if that's not what you want, you can go somewhere else. The Web is open, the Web is free. It's only in this particular corner that it is, in fact, totalitarian, anti-democratic.
There is no di — [LAUGHS] the diversity of opinion is rather small. I, I would certainly cop to that.
BOB GARFIELD: So what can't I do on your blog that I can do in the comments section of the more free-for-all variety?
TA-NEHISI COATES: You can't call people names. I mean, you can't say, listen, you idiot. You can't change the topic because you don't like the discussion. It's like, y- you're more curating comments. So what you're trying to do is present a conversation that's interesting, not for everyone but for a certain small group of people.
But I don't have like a code of conduct for what [LAUGHS] people can do. But it's very instinctive to me. I was tempted to make the pornography argument to say, I don't – you know, I don't what it is, but when I see it, I know [LAUGHS] what it is.
My only criteria is that you have a civil, interesting conversation.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this does not take no time. How much do you invest in keeping the conversation civil and directed?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Too much [LAUGHS], way – way, way too much, and more than I ever expected. I invest at least as much time in curating and in hosting as I do in actual writing. It can get really, really hectic. Blogging will burn you out, period. I think blogging plus having to curate definitely is a load. And I’m of the mind that it's not something that somebody should do for the rest of their life.
BOB GARFIELD: So you're – you know, somewhere in an inner circle of hell you have a blog but no time. Do you open one door in which there is no comments section because you haven't the resources to deal with it or do you open the other, which is the unmoderated fray and just - let the chips fall where they may?
TA-NEHISI COATES: I’m goin' with no comments. I’m – there’s no - I wouldn't even hesitate. This is just in, in terms of my opinion, an unmoderated fray is no comments.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there is the blog, which is – I guess is the point of departure for the – for the discussion.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: And then there's the commentator's way in.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: Are they separate things or is the actual product, the blog plus the commentary, inexorably intertwined?
TA-NEHISI COATES: To me, it, it is a whole thing. For many years before I wrote for the Web, I wrote for print and, in general, there weren't comments; there were letters to the editor that people curated. And when I started reading blogs for the first time, and even in our newspapers when they were published online they would open up their comments sections, you would have this thoroughly researched -- or at least an attempt at a thoroughly researched piece, and below it you have the worst sort of ad hominem [LAUGHS], the worst bag of - well, your mother's this, you did this, you black this-and-that. It was as though you went to an art museum and, you know, some kid had scrawled [LAUGHS] below the picture, you know, “Mikey was Here” or something like that. I mean, it really actually detracted from the content of the piece. And I look at the commentary below the blog post as content. I look at it as a space where people spend their time after they finish reading whatever I've written. So to me, it, it is a whole thing.
BOB GARFIELD: Sometimes I so want to answer back the commenters, and I write something, shall we say, pointed and have to struggle with myself not to hit Send.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: And sometimes I fail in that struggle and I get involved in a back and forth that I just don't want to be a part of.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: When do you hit Delete and when do you hit Send?
TA-NEHISI COATES: So I, I hit Send far too much. The first job I ever had in journalism we would publish, as most newspapers or magazines or whatever do, Letters to the Editor that were dissents. At the publication I was at, they didn't allow writers to respond. And the point was you had the gun, you had the platform, you had the cannon. Are you so petty that you have to go back and forth with somebody [LAUGHS] in the Letters section, in addition to already having to write as long as you got to write?
I always try to remember that I have the cannon. I very often forget that though, and if I go over the line, if I say something too mean, I apologize for it. And worse is sometimes you're actually wrong, and I guess this is the value to answering -- right? -- to answering when people come after you. I've gone back and forth on 20 responses, then at the end realize, you know what, I was wrong, and then had to write a post about why I was wrong. And I don't think people expect you to be perfect, but I do think they want you to be honest.
BOB GARFIELD: Far be it for me to give you advice, but in future?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm?
BOB GARFIELD: Don't be wrong.
TA-NEHISI COATES: [LAUGHS] Easier said than done. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Ta-Nehisi, thank you so much.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Ta-Nahesi Coates is a senior editor and blogger at The Atlantic.