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A Note to Our Readers About Comments

Sometimes silence is golden.

The executive editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson — who once worked as a legal journalist, for Steve Brill at the American Lawyer — recently issued A Note to Our Readers About Comments, in which she explained various changes to the Times’s commenting system. We thought we’d follow in the Gray Lady’s footsteps and announce a tweak of our own to the Above the Law comments.

Comments and online anonymity are hot topics right now, both here and abroad (e.g., India). Writer Katie Roiphe just mused about the angry anonymous commenter. Privacy lawyer Christopher Wolf recently argued, in the New York Times, that websites should “consider requiring either the use of real names (or registration with the online service) in circumstances, such as the comments section for news articles, where the benefits of anonymous posting are outweighed by the need for greater online civility.” Many Times readers disagreed, defending the value and importance of anonymous speech online.

In light of these conflicting concerns — civility, privacy, free expression — let’s turn our attention to the ATL comments….

The last major change we made to the Above the Law comment section was back in January 2009. In response to some readers complaining about comments they viewed as offensive or inappropriate, we changed our site design so that comments default to “hidden.” In other words, comments don’t automatically appear when you read a story; instead, you must affirmatively opt-in, by clicking a button to reveal them.

This change has been well-received by our readers. Over the past two years, we have received numerous compliments and expressions of thanks for hiding the comments (although some people still masochistically insist on voluntarily opening the comments, and then being offended by what they see; if you’re a sensitive type, don’t click — just pretend the comments don’t exist).

The reason this comment-hiding policy has been popular is simple: it respects personal choice. Commenters can choose to comment, rudely or nicely. Readers can then choose to read the comments, or to ignore them.

We’re now going to extend this principle of choice to our writers as well as our readers. Going forward, each writer will be able to decide, on a post-by-post basis, whether to allow comments on a story he or she has written. Here are a few reasons for this decision:

1. Writers will be able to insulate stories, especially posts about sensitive subjects, from inappropriate or counterproductive commentary.

2. Writers will be able to bring you a wider range of content. (In the past, some of us have engaged in “self-censorship,” avoiding certain topics because of concerns about what the comments might look like.)

3. Other sites use this policy, to successful effect.

Take, for example, the Volokh Conspiracy. As you can see over at the VC, most posts have comments, but some do not. The overall comment quality at the Volokh Conspiracy is very high.

Our expectation is that our writers will exercise the “no comments” option selectively. First, we believe in the value and importance of free — and yes, even anonymous — speech on the internet. This is why, at least for now, we are not inclined to adopt a real-name policy for our comments (i.e., requiring commenters to use their real names, perhaps by allowing them to comment only through Facebook or another platform that requires real names).

Second, as writers, we greatly value feedback, even when it’s critical or harsh. Most of us agree with Oscar Wilde: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Sometimes our feelings get hurt by mean comments, but what hurts even more is putting up a post that generates hardly any comments. Most writers will probably still allow comments on most posts. [FN1]

How will this policy affect the quality and quantity of comments? That part, dear readers, is up to you. If you post comments that are substantive, smart, witty, and full of useful or juicy information, then we as writers will allow comments on posts more often. On the other hand, if you post comments that are useless or offensive, then we as writers will have less incentive to activate them, resulting in fewer and fewer posts with comments.

Some readers may be upset that certain posts will no longer carry comments. Here’s one point worth keeping in mind: “[R]emember, it’s a big Internet. If you think we were mistaken in [closing comments on a post] — or if you prefer a more free-for-all approach — there are surely plenty of ways you can still get your views out.” For example, you can comment on an ATL post on Facebook, on Twitter, or on your own blog (if you have one). You can also post an ATL link to a message board with a liberal comments policy and comment over on that board. There are countless venues on the web, other than our comments section, where you can exercise your free speech rights to interact with our content.

One final note: we will continue to moderate comments, consistent with our existing policy:

We will continue to moderate comments — and we request your help in doing so. If you see a problematic comment that you want deleted, please email us (subject line: “Comment Moderation Request”), identifying the specific comment(s) by post title and comment [content]. Because of the sheer volume of comments posted to ATL, we have adopted this “notice and takedown” procedure to comment moderation, as opposed to full-time, active moderation.

Thank you for reading Above the Law. And, to those of you who do so — a statistically small but very engaged sector of our readership — thank you for commenting. We look forward to your continued contributions to the shared enterprise of enlightening and entertaining lawyers and law students across the land.

[FN1] Please note that whether to allow comments is entirely up to the individual writer, who is free to be arbitrary and capricious in exercising this power. And there is no appellate review, on an abuse-of-discretion basis or otherwise. Thanks.

A Note to Our Readers About Comments [New York Times]
Invitation to a Dialogue: Nameless on the Web? [New York Times]
Sunday Dialogue: Anonymity and Incivility on the Internet [New York Times]
Back Off, Angry Commenters [Slate]
India Asks Google, Facebook to Screen User Content [India Ink / New York Times]

Earlier: New Above the Law Comment Policy

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