It was a bit of a lark that I decided to start Community Matters 3-1/2 months ago. Although I have done some writing over the years, I had never written a blog post or participated in regular blogging. But I had a vision for Community Matters; this would be a place that I could present issues that were important to me or that I thought were important to others in the community. I guess I figured it would be my online ‘watering-hole’ for local information. Although I had occasionally visited other blogs, I did not spend much time analyzing the ‘hows’ or ‘whys’ before venturing in to the world of blogosphere.
There was never any question in my mind that I would include comments on Community Matters. I wanted this to be forum that people would visit often; a place where they might learn something or provide thoughtful commentary themselves. Naively, I did not expect that Community Matters would become so popular . . . yesterday marked the 65,000 visitor. I did a monthly statistic check and found that February had 31,000 visitors. I guess the wintry weather forced many of us to remain indoors.
Making the decision to include comments on Community Matters was an easy decision. When it came to the decision whether to allow ‘anonymous’ comments . . . another easy decision, I wanted people to feel their identity was protected. In my opinion, a blog with comments disabled is more analogous to a newspaper editorial. But even with a newspaper editorial, readers can make public comments by sending a letter to the editor, which may be published in a later edition of the paper. A blog with comments disabled would tie the reader’s hands (and also struck me as elitist). To deny public conversation by disabling comments right out of the gate –based on the presumption that the comments would be negative or of low quality — again, seemed awfully elitist.
In my view, there’s an interesting cultural difference between a blog that allows comments and one that does not. A blog that doesn’t allow comments seems to me to be saying “this is the final word on this topic.” To me it seems there’s something formal about such publications — they distance themselves from readers; they hold themselves up as a paragon rather than engaging “on the level” with users.
As the administrator of Community Matters, I have the ability to edit comments but I made the conscious decision not to edit or to remove a comment (unless there was the use of profanity). What I was not prepared for, nor could I have forecasted, was the vitriol of negative comments. In my opinion, constant snark does not a credible blog make. But I did not want an overly processed, censored forum. The rough edges are what give Community Matters the patina of authenticity. But too much negativity and my blog can seem petty and immature. There is an ongoing desire to find a balance.
When people have criticized my choice of subjects or what people have perceived as my personal bias on topics, it has caused me pause. But I did not delete those negative comments; I did not want to give readers the sense that Community Matters had been wiped clean; especially because I myself resent censorship. I hoped that by leaving the negative comments showed that I respected other people’s perspectives and opinions.
The more difficult problem has been how to handle the negativity expressed between individuals that have posted. I have come to the conclusion that although I have been committed to letting people have their opinions; it does not mean that they should be allowed to run rampant. It’s okay to disagree with what people write, but the key word here is to respond respectfully. I do not want readers to turn away from Community Matters because of flame wars in the comment section. I enjoy passionate debate and discussion on issues; it tells me that people are engaged in our community. However, comments that are mean-spirited, disrespectful, and off-topic do not generally make a positive contribution to Community Matters.
The question remains . . . are comments worth it? The more I think about this, the more I keep coming back to my original position: a blog without comments enabled is not a blog. I’m not sure what it is, exactly, but it definitely isn’t a blog.
As a postscript, I received the following comment from JudgeNJury as I was writing this blog post. His/her comment speak directly to this topic:
JudgeNJury, on March 5, 2010 at 8:44 AM Said:
“[A]llowing people on your blog who resort to namecalling and ad hominem attacks (see John Petersen’s comments above) will not lead to open and meaningful dialogue.”
This is unfair to Pattye. A sure-fire way for Pattye to kill any chance of an open a meaningful dialogue would be for her to start censoring comments. If readers thought that Pattye might censor their comments because she either disagreed with the content or did not like the way the commenter expressed his or her ideas, they would stop taking the time to submit them and the discussion section of the blog would die.