Eva Holland is a journalist based in the Yukon who has written for publications including Pacific Standard and SB Nation. Her latest Longreads Original, “‘It’s Yours’,” explores the life (and maybe death) of an internet commenter community, “the Horde,” that Ta-Nehisi Coates helped foster at The Atlantic. I spoke with her via email about her own relationship with internet comments as a freelance journalist, and whether there’s hope for building sustainable communities that are not inevitably dragged down by vitriol and spam.
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Are internet comment sections really as doomed as people suggest?
Doomed in the sense that they will inevitably become terrible, or at a minimum, not so great? I think so. Maybe for smaller sites that stay off the radar of the trolls, you can maintain a higher level of discourse for longer. But once those smaller sites become successful, I think it gets exponentially harder to keep it clean, civil, and genuinely informative or interesting.
I sort of wish they were doomed in the sense that more sites will begin eliminating them entirely, but I doubt that’s the case.
I was surprised you ended up with a such pessimistic view of comments, given what great personal stories came out of Coates’s comments section—Yoni Appelbaum became an editor at The Atlantic, for example. Is it that, in your view, these redeeming qualities of community don’t make it worth all of the hate and spam that can come along with it?
Honestly, I was surprised by my own pessimism too. As a commenter, the Horde’s been invaluable to me—I really believe that mixing it up in the comments on Coates’s blog has made me a more critical thinker and a more thoughtful debater, as well as introducing me to so many new perspectives and ideas. I’ve learned a lot. I feel wiser and better for it.
But as a writer, and especially as I write more often for more prominent sites, open comments are my nightmare. I feel like I should be immune to abuse after eight years of writing online, but I’m not. Wouldn’t it actually be pretty weird to just become immune to a stranger calling you a dumb whore because they don’t like something you wrote?
I hate knowing that if I share my work, my family and friends might see that kind of comment. I really hate exposing my sources, the people who trust me with their stories and who for the most part aren’t public figures, to that kind of abuse too. Maybe I’m being too precious, but I feel like garbage comments appended to my stories cheapen my work.
So I’m not sure how to weigh the benefits of something like the Horde against the harm of your more typical comment section. Maybe the answer is that it’s worth it while it lasts, but everyone involved has to be ready to walk away when the time comes?
You bring up a very interesting point here, which is that, for a freelance writer, comment sections are a different world: It’s like the publisher is inviting a guest over to its house, and the feedback you get there has an impact on whether you want to visit again. Are there publications where you’ve balked at doing stories simply because their comments section is unregulated?
I wouldn’t say I’ve balked—I’ve never turned down an assignment because of the site’s comment section. But it definitely does affect my mentality about a forthcoming story—I’m less excited, and more anxious, for the ones where I know it’s likely to get ugly in the comments. And as I get more established as a freelancer, and more able to make choices about where I try to place my work, I’m beginning to be conscious of where I pitch: given a choice, pay being equal, between sites with open comments and sites with moderated or closed comments, I would likely choose to pitch the latter.
My other takeaway from your story, along with the recent debate over comments—and even the retirement of Andrew Sullivan—is that community-building on the Internet is a bit of burnout job, or at least a job that’s best suited for those writers who are still up-and-coming. Perhaps there’s a point where a writer like Coates benefits from maintaining that community, but once the writer becomes so well-known that it is no longer worth their time.
I think there’s something to this idea, that you move on from really mixing it up on the internet or risk burnout.
But if that’s true, that must mean there are still thriving comments sections from newer writers at specific publications.
Probably! But honestly, I think I might fall into the “internet burnout” category of writer—I don’t really blog anymore, and I don’t explore the internet the way I used to when blogging was a big part of my income. So wherever these thriving comments sections may be, I haven’t stumbled across them. I hope they exist and are going strong…
So, where does Twitter fit into this? It doesn’t seem to be proving any better in fending off hateful comments and spam. And Coates has left Twitter and then returned to it—is it more that journalists feel like they can’t, for career reasons, break from Twitter like they might break from commenters elsewhere?
Twitter feels different to me, despite its abject failure to tackle abusive behavior, rape threats, etc., because for one thing, only I can see my mentions—so it takes out the mortification factor of friends and family being exposed to this stuff. For another, there is a block button, so I can make things disappear after I’ve seen them – I have that option for comments on a blog of my own, I suppose, but not on a publication’s website. On some sites, the worst comments will still stand there no matter how much I wish they would be deleted.
And the cost-benefit calculus is different with Twitter too. In Coates’s case, because it was his blog and he had the keys to the vehicle, as it were, he could try to build something not just for the good of the internet, but for his own benefit too. I don’t have that option when I’m freelancing for various publications, and so comments bring me no benefits—aside from maybe a bit of a warm glow when someone says something nice or appreciative about my story. Twitter, on the other hand, has been critical to my career—so with the ugliness there is a tradeoff I’m more willing to make.
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