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Comments Closed

On January 6, the National Catholic Reporter suspended and hid all comments indefinitely, citing the proliferation of “malicious, abusive, and vile” comments. 

In September 2013, the traditionalist blog, Rorate Caeli closed comments, citing overload:

Moderating so many comments is becoming close to impossible at this point -- we simply cannot keep up with an international readership commenting around the clock. ...

Unfortunately, we cannot keep comments open and not moderated. Yes, from time to time, tired and weary moderators do let some go through we wish we didn't as there were many in the queue and we didn't have time to read them all. But, for the most part, we do well keeping the more eccentric ones out (and trust us, there are many of them!) 

I've heard of a trend toward eliminating comments on other websites as well. And I know of blogs with increasing readers but decreasing comments. 

Is the era of expanding blog discussion winding down? Collapsing under the weight of neuroses and the inability to self-censor? Is the commenter pool getting more vile? More immoderate? Are reasonable readers more likely to pass up a discussion these days?

Many of our readers read and comment at several sites. I am interested in your impressions. What do you think is happening?

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

This is the only site that I comment on but I have been on other online discussion boards in the past. I think that it depends on the forum, the magazine, and the moderators.

I usually read the comments of you tubers when i see something on you tube. Often you have to wade through piles of just plain insulting and bickering comments but occasionally I come across something insightful and frequently they are good for the odd chuckle.

I think commenting should be allowed but in some places it is off the charts, inappropriate, and insulting. Not so much here. I think that there are ways to limit that if you wanted, rules requiring the use of a real name, for example, discourage some of it. I cannot comment on NCR or Rorate as I did not go there too often.

And online communities can and do self correct. Consider Wikepedia and you tube. You will not find pornography, or very little on you tube, as users will flag as inapproprate and the community ends up setting its own standards. With a large enough size, you get a fairly good standards of decency and you do not require policing as the community polices itself.

The Deacon's Bench site also turned off comments a year or so ago.  Here is a reflection from that site's owner, Deacon Greg Kandra, prompted by NCR's decision.  Headline: "The blogosphere shouldn't be Calvary"

I tend to get myself caught up in a number of debates here at dotCom - at least, I hope they're mostly conducted on the civil level of a debate.  I suspect that most of us have aggressive instincts in our daily person-to-person, face-to-face interactions, as at the workplace or in school, but we're (most of us, anyway) well-trained to suppress the uglier impulses, as there is a personal/social cost to expressing them (anything from a public reprimand to getting fired to getting socked in the snoot).   but apparently the cost is less in a remote, electronic forum, and so the temptation to leave the foot off the internal brake is greater.  People's behavior behind the wheel is another area where the hidden aggression tends to come through.  

I, for one, have the impression that I don't have much left to say on most of the topics that come up here regularly. I've said my piece, more than once. On gay marriage, abortion, contraception, married priests, women priests, the sex abuse scandal, and a few other topics that come back periodically, everything has already been said and most discussions are repetitive. This website needs new people commenting so that their voices at least are fresh. We know what to expect from most regulars, and it becomes boring.

Even when a post tries to give a new twist to old controversies, the discussions quickly drift back to the usual arguments.  When two persons argue, the others who might have wished to comment refrain and leave them the field. It's sterile.

In addition, when people find themselves unable to convince someone else of something which they care about, they become irritated and the discussion deteriorates to the point where moderation is sometimes needed.

When you are used to this site and comfortable writing comments, you tend to write the first thing that comes to your mind and react quickly with cheap one-liners that seemed witty on the spot but are only silly and distracting from the main discussion.

Regarding my own comments, I could easily delete 90% and the website would be no worse. It's too easy to comment when you're used to it.

Regarding posts, if they were more focused then it would be easier to detect and deal with off-topic comments. Often the post itself consists of some interesting but unstructured remarks about recent events, and the lack of focus of the post almost guarantees that the comments will go off into the direction of one of the classic topics and fall back into the same old, same old.

What could help make the threads richer?

I have a suggestion: limit anyone commenting to, say, a quota of 3 comments per day. How would that help? I might be more careful before hitting the "save" button if I knew I was "spending" one of my three tokens. I might spend a little bit more time composing my comments. I would avoid one-liners. Then, the discussions would not get so heated because here would be less back-and-forth. There would be more thinking between comments, and a single person or two would not occupy the whole space.

 

Thank you, Claire.

Internet commenters are the worst.

To solve the problems:  require every would-be commenter to subscribe to the magazine.  Then, when they post a comment, their real name and real email address appear along with their picture.  

Clicking on the picture takes the reader to a youtube of the poster in her/his house, introducing her/himself, showing the family, the pets, etc.

Hard to be mean to someone when you see them in their setting, hear their voice, see what books are on their shelves, etc.

 

OK, You first Gerelyn!!

I comment on this blog and over at Crisis, where I consider it almost a vocation to beg to differ. I have subscriptions to both magazines. The comments at Commonweal are well thought out, intelligent, articulate. Often, I just sit back in awe and say nothing. Over at Crisis, not so much. I have received many an insult from three or four individuals. And yet, I do have sort of a following there.

But as I surf and look at comments, it seem to depend on the site.

Contrary to NCR and perhaps Rorate Caeli, nasty people are flagged right away here and banned if they continue. Monitoring a blog is not easy. One can easily be too tolerant or to censurious. Very hard to control so many bloggers as in the case with NCR. The largest problem with NCR is that it allows too many to post anonymously. It encourages many to act without accountability. Secondly bloggers will call you on it here if you state something without substantiating in some way. There will always be here some who are too touchy or condescending. Overall it is a much kinder place. 

At Commonweal the contributors share and express their opinions. That helps build more of a community and it is more personal.  I like the America blog second to Commonweal. The only one there, however, who makes it more personal is Jim Martin. Their contributors are fine. But there does not seem to be the cohesiveness of this blog. 

Like democracy, as imperfect as it is,  the Commonweal blog is the best we have. 

The best blogs with the most constructive discussions moderate the comments. That means dedicating staff time to reading and deciding. It's called editing. The internet speeds this process up. What used to be called Letters to the Editor are no longer to the editor but to the post, and are not edited for brevity or appositness. Do the editors ever read most of them?

The disconnect between the print and the on-line edition of many publications can be quite striking. In fact, the image of some publications is dominated by it's on-line blog rather than the print edition, which presumably gets most of the editors' attention.

Equally striking are reasonable blogs with good posts that seem to collect ignorant and vicious comments. I am a reader of Juan Cole's "Informed Comment," offerings news and comment mostly about the Middle East. Cole knows a lot, translates from the foreign press, and reports on his travels. Recently and for the first time, I read some of the comments and had to ask myself if there was a disinformation campaign on against the blog because so many comments were strident and off the point.

My infrequent looks at the NCR comments makes me think the editors have done the right thing in closing them down.

 

Thanks for posting this, Rita. In general, I enjoy the comments on this site, and I'm happy to have gotten to know some people because of them.

I would note, however, that my last post has 36 comments on it. Only about 6 have any connection at all to what I wrote. I can't help but think that others might have commented on what I wrote if the discussion hadn't moved in such a different direction.

I also wonder if we would get more new people commenting if fewer regulars commented. I'm not saying that's a good idea, but I do wonder if we get to be a bit inside baseball here.

My infrequent looks at the NCR comments makes me think the editors have done the right thing in closing them down.

I have to say I haven't found them nearly as edifying as the comments at this site (although my sampling of the NCR comments also has been infrequent).

I suppose one of the potentially valuable things for a publication in keeping comments is to get some rough, unscientific idea of what its readers think of its content.  So NCR is foregoing that benefit.  

Prominent writers for prominent publications garner hundreds of comments.  This recent Dana Milbank piece in the Washington Post has 886 comments at the time I write this.  I'm not sure what the benefit is of wading through so many comments.  Who would even read them all?

I suppose comments become part of the content, part of the product, part of the brand.  Perhaps they can tarnish the brand.

 

"Only about 6 have any connection at all to what I wrote. I can't help but think that others might have commented on what I wrote if the discussion hadn't moved in such a different direction."

Scott, that happens oftenand you are not the first contributor to be disappointed. John Dear happpened to be in the news at that time when you were talking about Jesuits. At other times the thread changes when people feel that another angle of the story should be covered. Unlike letters to the editor the editors do not and should not control it. I understand it feels like someone is messing with one's point. But oftentimes some very interesting sidelights occur.One shortcoming of this blog and others is that the contribuors do not always keep up with developments in the Catholic world and other relevant events. A contributor should not just talk about one's interest, but what will interest others.

I find the blog more stimulating than the magazine though the magazine still has some smashing articles. Dominic and others do a good job in informing us what is in each issue. Better still why not individual blogs on most of each issue? The reason I prefer the blog is that you just cannot put all these great bloggers together in a publication. (I do get the kindle edition of the magazine) Some may deplore the plethora of subjects but it is a fitting price to pay than lose some gems to the cutting room floor.  

NCR might have made a big mistake in turning off the blog.  John Allen just announced that he's moving to the Boston Globe which is a big loss for NCR.  A pity they can't have someone monitor the way Grant does.  I also sometimes participate at Rod Dreher's blog.  He also doesn't put up with rudeness.

I suspect that one of the problems with rudenes is that people haven't been taught the difference  between rhetoric, especially name-calling, and defending a thesis.  However, there doesn't seem to be any excuse for calling others liars and hypocrits.  Maybe some of them are, but that doesn't enlighten anyone.  It's only a nasty distraction.

 

I for one would be in favor of only allowing comments if the person was willing to write his or her full name.  (Not sure how you could authenticate this but I bet there is a way.)  I believe that some years ago those who administer dotcommonweal debated this point but decided to still allow people to comment using a "nom de plume." I think that was/is a mistake.  With some rare exceptions, Commonweal does not print articles or letters to the editor by an anonymous author.  I think the same standard should be applied here.  It is much easier to write something rude, crass or outrageous when you sign your post with "Teddy Bear III" or "Pope John XXIV."

Now let me practice what I preach: Anthony Andreassi

The best blogs with the most constructive discussions moderate the comments. That means dedicating staff time to reading and deciding. It's called editing.

There now exist other ways to decide: on many websites the readers can vote comments up or down, and the best comments make it to the top in a natural manner, by distributed decisions  rather than by spending staff time. It's how MOOCs (online courses) maintain forums with questions and answers about the course.  

"McGrory said Allen, 48, will play “several roles of prominence. He will be a correspondent first and foremost. He will be an analyst on all things Catholic. He will also help us explore the very real possibility of launching a free-standing publication devoted to Catholicism, drawing in other correspondents and leading voices from near and far.” Boston Globe.

In an age when print journalism is struggling there will be a separate publication by a secular newspaper dedicated to Catholicism. Only in Boston. The reach of Francis is everywhere. Will be interesting to watch. How will Allen cover Opus Dei now that it is in apparent hiding. Allen has not written about it for a while. 

Now that I have changed the subject, Rita or someone can file a separate thread on the Globe's new venture.

I always post under the pseudonym "unagidon", because I write about insurance related issues while working for an insurance company and I wouldn't be able to do this under my own name.  When Commonweal started accepting things from me for publication, they allowed me to use unagidon for those things as well.

From this admittedly biased point of view, I think that the quality of the comments rests entirely in the quality of the moderators.  We have had trolls posting here under full names and it hasn't seemed to stop them.  What has stopped them is the moderators.  But it is, as has been pointed out, almost a full time job.

NCR used to moderate comments.

But then NCR switched and started using the Disqus format, which is unmoderated.

Under the Disqus format, you can be notified by email each time somebody comments on your comment -- you don't need to check back to see if anybody has commented on your comment, as you do at dotCommonweal.

This notification feature could heighten the sense of compeitiveness among the commentators.

I assume that NCR switched from moderating comments to using the Disqus feature because moderating comments had become more of a burden than what NCR could afford to expend on the website.

If this assumption is correct, it would seem unlikely that NCR will now go back to moderating comments at the website.

NCR used Disqus.  Any blog or article about gay-related issues would generate an order of magnitude greater number of comments.  One recent article on gay-related issues generated some particularly nasty exchanges.  Let's just say the insults went "rectal".  Besides the usual gay bashing and gay condescension, the same commenters would constantly make smug putdowns of certain contributors such as Sister Chittister, Father Dear, and Eugene Kennedy with pure ad hominem content. As for suggestions, perhaps three level control for the blog visitor.  The ability to totally switch off viewing the comments.  A level just for subscribers.  And an "anything goes, trolls welcome" level.

Re Claire's observations @ 6:49 AM: Reader's choices do promote to the top what readers consider the most helpful/interesting/funny (it's usually not clear what the standard is) comments. As far as I can tell, the NYTimes has a couple of systems at work. First, comments do not appear automatically. Somebody at the Times reads and then posts them; the commenter is notified that they have appeared! Second, there are three currents on posts that have comments (not all do): the chronological run of comments; editors' choices; and readers' choices. My casual observation is that the first choice of editors and readers is often the same, but as you read down there can be distinctive differences depending on the subject.

I don't think the Time's permits comments on news stories. The Public Editor when she dissects a particular news story allows comments though she presumably vets them.

The effect of an editor moderating comments seems to lower the volume and reduce incendiary comments. People know their mad/bad mumblings are not going to be posted, so they don't write them.

 

Thomas Farrell:

There must be some moderation on Disqus.

To their credit, the moderators at NCR would not publish a recent comment I made to a post of Fr. Z:

“The Fishwrappers claim that ‘culture warriors’ are no longer flavor of the month. Ptui!” 

I remember how my classmates, both boys and girls, in Catholic grammar school used that word in conversation, so I commented how juvenile Fr. Z is.

I tried to post two times.  I don't mind, because I was only trying to get a dig in.

The commenters at NCR are usually very informative but recently there seem to be more mean comments. Even John Allen was not immune. It would not surprise me that a tipping point was the article about the death of Fr. Nugent, which interestingly was not written by one of the NCR people but came from Religion News Service.

I wonder who will benefit more: the Boston Globe or John Allen, since Boston Globe website requires $3.99 a week to view any articles on their website.

I always post under the pseudonym "unagidon", because I write about insurance related issues while working for an insurance company and I wouldn't be able to do this under my own name.

Right.  I do it the other way around as a commenter: I post under my real name but never mention my employer and rarely write about my industry, and never in a way that would reflect poorly on my employer.

Helen!  I'm shocked :-)

I don't think I've mentioned my employer, and I don't write to cast aspersions on the company.  But I do not necessarily share the company's views on the overall industry.  The problem is appearing as a spokesman when I am not.

Stanley: I think that insults must be moderated. It is not enough that you personally can pick a level that shields you from seeing them. You don't want a public venue that is under the official Commonweal umbrella and on which insults flow freely, do you?

There are two issues here: one is to deal with offensive comments, and the other is to encourage constructive discussions. Offensive comments are what led to the change of policy of NCR, Rorate Caeli, and the deacon's bench. Boring discussions don't appear to bother people much (other than me), or if they do, no one is here to speak up against them. So, offensive comments are the main issue.

People here are pretty good at maintaining, by and large, at least a varnish of good manners when addressing one another, but they are defter at using snark, insinuations, and subtle put-downs. All of us use stronger wording than we would face to face, and I think that it would be less intimidating for newcomers if we were not just polite but also gentle. Easier said than practiced, of course.  When you have great inner conviction about something, it's difficult to write about it in a manner that is simultaneously firm and gentle.

We also have offensive comments towards, not specific people, but categories. For example, I was once told that bishops do not read this blog because they are constantly exposed to bishop-bashing which, to them, quickly gets tiresome. I don't really notice that kind of comments (unless it's about a category I belong to, of course) but it surely is a turnoff. Is that really what we want? 

I wonder if those who read this and who do not comment would be willing to say what would induce them to pitch in?

If we could post animated gifs in comments, then this whole place would be 1000 X better.

Margaret said, "I don't think the Time's permits comments on news stories."

Lots of comments today on news stories.  Christie, etc.  May be a feature of the revamped website.

------

Scott said, "I also wonder if we would get more new people commenting if fewer regulars commented. I'm not saying that's a good idea, but I do wonder if we get to be a bit inside baseball here."

Agree.  The regulars say the same thing over and over.  If the editors would restrict comments to one a month, it would be less intimidating for those afraid to speak up.  (And the contributors tend to open threads on the same themes over and over.)  

 

There is indeed a Groundhog Day effect with respect to both comments and articles. I wrote a dotcommonweal driking game a long time ago; it could probably stand to be updated.

Speaking of blogs and digressions from the topic at hand: I note, as I scroll through the blog this morning, that one of the ads is for something (a game?) called "Call of Roma".  The artwork is of a curvacious young female clothed in armor, although in such a way that one wonders how much protection it would actually afford, and I feel I'm on pretty solid ground in noting it would not have met the strict uniform standards of the Catholic high school I attended - in fact, I feel sure that the saintly School Sisters of St. Francis who ran the joint would send her home.  I assume Commonweal does not exercise control over the content of that strip of advertisements, and some web robot matched the word "Roma" to the stuff discussed here and thought it might be relevant.  

 

Holy-moly, if you don't have Adblock, it's your own fault.

Scott, you raise a good point about some comments that need a separate thread. I wonder what can be done about that. One option is that the person who originates the thread can jump in and redirect the conversation back onto topic.

In the latest instance however (your post on Regis) what set off the discussion was a news item that people had instant and powerful feelings about. Redirecting at that point would have felt like suppressing discussion of an important news story.

I think the best outcome might have been for someone to promptly put up a separate thread on the John Dear story, even if only a brief news update linking to the two stories, and then for Scott to invite people to continue the discussion on the new thread. Sounds complicated, but really it's not.

Commonweal bloggers tend not to post unless and until they have something to say or contribute that goes beyond their source (unless it's humor). And maybe that is fair. For this reason, I think such a post could be put up by the moderator, unsigned so it's clear that it's a newsworthy item but not analysis or comment. It would be a win-win situation.

A new discussion gets its space, and a headline to match.

The old discussion gets to proceed on its natural course.

Would this work without sacrificing any important values?

Adblock! I should use that. I avoid the America magazine website because the ads have pictures of starving children that make me feel bad. 

 

Agree, Jim.  The ads seem to be triggered by the content of the thread.  E.g., when there was a thread about the "donation" of human ova, an ad appeared soliciting college women to sell their eggs.  Shocking to see something on a Catholic site asking people to commit mortal sin.

People have pet interests (or obsessions), and will frequently redirect a thread to go with what they're obsessed with (I am diagnosing here, but that doesn't mean I think am immune); the direction things head in tends to be predictable. People (again, me too) should begin recognizing nutballs as nutballs  and let their nutballery fade away instead of engaging with it (especially if it's nutballery that pops up predictably). Just because somebody is terribly wrong doesn't mean you have to prove their wrongness to them. A quip will always beat some belabored multi-comment argument. (and an animated gif is even better, damn it).

Let me use myself as an example. In general, I think that the ultimate goal of comments is the bon mot. I always feel kind of dirty when I make an overly earnest comment. And I feel like a fool when I let myself get swept away by a troll (i.e., by genuinely engaging with him). A week or so ago, I did just that: I entered into a horrific morass of stupid comments because somebody said something really, really, really obnoxious--and I just couldn't resist telling them off. That was stupid, because it just added energy to something that needed to die. People should avoid doing that.

And if anyone ever finds themselves writing a comment that begins "This is totally off-topic, but I just had to bring up...," they shold hit delete and slap themselves in the face. Hard.

Re: adblock. If people want that I should be more specific in noting that Adblock Plus is what you want if you're using Firefox/Waterfox. Use Adblock if you use Chrome.

And I mean it: everyone should understand by now how ads on the internet work, so no complaining about what you see. Use protection.

I agree with everybody who has said that moderating is necessary. What you are doing in a blog is hosting a public space. A public space is fragile, and needs to be protected. It's open to the public, but only remains useful if the people who take part don't spoil it.

To make an obvious analogy: If people come in and throw trash around, your public park becomes a dumping ground. If playground bullies (trolls) come in and start smirking, shouting or throwing punches, it keeps away the very people it should be serving. 

From what has been said here, the Disqus system sounds like a nightmare--an attempt to get away with self-moderation, which anyone could tell you would not work. I'm sorry to say that NCR comments have always seemed to me to be mostly a food fight, posturing, and very little actual exchange of ideas. I rarely read them. And being able to write as "Anonymous" or under some fanciful title only makes it worse. The comments at Rorate Caeli, though colorful, were not useful either, and mainly rehearsed people's already deep resentments, insular worldview, and false information. (Helen, comments at NCR sometimes take 2 or 3 days to post, so yours were not necessarily withheld, just unbelievably delayed!)

Gerelyn is right that humanizing one's opponents is key to dialing down aggression, although the remedy she proposes is not one I would want to pursue! ;) And Anthony Andreassi, I am all for real names as a curb on irresponsible blogging. The cloak of anonymity usually brings out the worst. Not for people like Unagidon, who has a legitimate need and is totally reliable and trustworthy, but he is an exception. If we did change to real names, he could take a nom de plume and we'd be no worse off for it. (We all appreciate Xavier Rynne, don't we?) As noted, the editors gave him the OK and they know he is not here to make trouble. Would that we could say that about some others, who turn up under various names to snipe and bully.

I've met a lot of great people through the Commonweal comboxes, and often find the threads informative and friendly (although of course there are some useless and vexing exchanges too). Like Bill M., I think that this is one of the very few places on line where you can get a solid, yet lively and informed discussion. But I am also aware that FAR more people read than comment, which is fine and should be a reminder to all of us that whatever the strength or weakness of the discussion in the threads, there is something else going on that remains valuable. If it wasn't, others would not keep on reading.

Thanks to the moderators, most of the public space here is well maintained. 

What is the ratio of commenters to readers?  Is that known?

Claire @ 6:49,

What a terrible idea (to have commenters vote on comments). It passes the work of moderating on to the commenters, which is unfair. We have enough to do without constantly evaluating everything. It's wearying. Maybe it works in MOOCs, but in a blog it's purely a way to put the opinions you agree with first. Once a blog is well moderated, voting on comments for another purpose may be useful (like highlighting topics for further discussion) but not before.

The consumer today is being asked to do a million things. Find and compare products, bag your own groceries, do what the bank teller used to do to prepare for a transaction, pump your own gas, and evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. The constant demand for evaluation (products, services, tell us how we did, automated phone calls, surveys, questionnaires, you name it, it's relentless) is an exploitation of the consumer/participant's time and energy supposedly to benefit everyone but really it is all for the producer, not the consumer. 

Rita: FYI

"Helen, comments at NCR sometimes take 2 or 3 days to post, so yours were not necessarily withheld, just unbelievably delayed!"

Any comments that I posted over the past two years on NCR were on the website within a few seconds of my writing. I think that considering the bad blood that Fr. Z has toward NCR, my guess is that the name Fr Z was blocked.

Rita you use the word moderator suggesting there is one for dotCwl. Who would that be? My experience is that I have to moderate my own posts, i.e., delete or try to redirect to topic or respond. Most topics don't require much attention, except to have fun. As regular readers here must have noticed it is almost impossible to write anything about U.S.-Israel relations without a major set-to with "anonymous" Jeff, and others less anonymous. Delete? Respond? Put up with sh--? Close the comments? The general thrust is to bludgeon readers into agreeing that "there's no story here, folks."

Another topic, well-worn, by now, and that seems to drive a kind of frenzy, is the clerical sex-abuse scandal and its after-life. The comments seem to fall into two categories: "thank you for another nail in the coffin," or "show me what's the problem." I read the posts and skip the comments--nothing new there. Ditto Catholic high schools and  their policies on same-sex marriage. What more can be said?  Indignation!!! And then what?

As Commonweal’s digital editor I’ve been following this thread with understandable interest, and I want to thank Rita for getting the discussion started

A few thoughts. We have a stable of reliably frequent commenters. Many are knowledgeable and thoughtful; some are particularly incisive and direct. Some like to throw cold water on a discussion while others like to troll. Some we read eagerly to see what they have to say; others we tolerate or (gasp) ignore. And there are those who, deftly or not so, send the discussion off in a different direction—not all that unusual for what is ultimately a group conversation, and something that might make the conversation yet more interesting. Such are the risks and rewards of unfettered exchange.

One thing I have noticed here is how rare the ad hominem attack, the profanity, the name-calling, relative to other sites I’ve worked on and to many I follow. Depending on your tastes, that’s either a good thing (“a testament to the seriousness and maturity of our readers”) or not so good (“anathema to the spontaneity and freewheeling nature of online exchanges”). At the moment, I see it as good, if only because it makes the job of moderating comments that much easier.

And yet it raises an issue that some of you have touched on: Are we too closed, or at least, too “familiar” a community here? Do we discourage the “quieter” readers who might feel as if the conversation long ago began without them? What can we do to elicit more comments from those who come this close to hitting the “save” button but then decide not to? (Heretofore hesitant or would-be commenters should take this as the invitation that it is.) Personally, I’d like to see more and new voices here. What can we do to encourage that?

Something I don’t foresee is a blanket shutting-down of the comments feature. Just as blog posts should not be compared to traditional articles, online commenting should not be compared to letters to the editor; it is a different breed (if not species) of engagement with the editorial staff and the community of readers. It lets us know what people are thinking and feeling in the moment, and sometimes an unfiltered response is the most honest response. And, comments occasionally and helpfully alert us to different ideas, related reading, new sites, new voices – while the iron is hot.

I also trust that our online readers have trained themselves somewhat to sort the wheat from the chaff, the substantive from the stupid. Just as you might skim through a hundred or more comments at The Washington Post or New York Magazine, recognizing what’s worth your time and what’s not, so I hope you do the same here with the mere score (or two) of comments. To that point, I encourage you also to see Abe’s comment of January 9, 11:02 a.m.

Also know that Commonweal’s editors are all rabid readers of the comments. Not just for the occupational purposes of moderation, but for the same reason most of you read them: to learn what others are thinking. That’s the value of our commenting feature here, and something I’d hate to lose.

We’ll revisit this issue if needed, and we’re obviously not averse to modifying our policy as circumstances and conventions might compel us to. But for now, I’d say that the discussion generated here makes a pretty good case by itself for continuing as we have.

As a long time reader of DotCommonweal who has posted a grand total of two times in the last 6-7 years, I guess I will take up Claire's question for readers who never post.

I do find the discussion edifying a great deal, even if one can predict responses based on topics very quickly. 

I'm not one to chime in on terrain that seems as well-travelled as the trenches at Verdun or something...What would get me to comment regularly would be coverage on topics that hardly ever come up, particularly issues related to Catholicism in Africa and more generally outside the US and Europe. I'm a professor of African history at Marywood, a small Catholic university in Scranton.   So I realize I might be in a minority of one here! 

Case in point - Catholic churches in the Central African Republic are hosting literally tens of thousands of refugees right now during the ongoing civil war.  I'm a bit astonished that this seems to have not received much attention in Catholic blogland anywhere, regardless of the politics of any individual site.  If there was more coverage on issues like this - or just things not being rehashed again and again - that weren't being covered elsewhere, then I'm all in. 

Thank you, Dominic. This is very helpful.

Your presence as digital editor was not accompanied by fanfare, so I think many of our readers have assumed that Grant is still moderating the blog. Now it's Dominic.

This goes to your question, Peggy.

Grant did moderate it, in times past, and I was grateful to him many times for stepping in and sometimes spamming people who were saying truly objectionable things, calling names, or whatever. If tipped off, he took the offensive comment down quicker, but I don't think anyone knows the full extent of his intervention and troubleshooting behind the scenes. Up front, he appeared to be very tolerant and only to step in rarely. Dominic has continued this smooth performance.

It's a fact that there are some topics, like the Middle East or traditionalist liturgy, that elicit a very determined and hostile cadre of naysayers online. Peggy, I know what it is like to be dogged by people who don't want an exchange of views but are out to deny and nitpick and otherwise harrass or bully the writer of the post. If the goal is to have a discussion and not just keep correcting disinformation or dodging brickbats, more active moderating is needed on threads of this type, imho.

As to the other question you raise -- about topics done to death, indignation repeated ad nauseam and predictably on the same subjects -- I think this is a real problem, but I am not sure how to resolve it. I certainly don't think it's a good idea for the blog to become an echo chamber, a platform for the-two-minutes-hate, or a place where the self-righteous gather to reinforce their views. But the key seems to be in the posts. Is there a real point for discussion, or is it merely "there they [the recognized enemies of truth and justice] go again" from the start? No easy fix on that one.

Jeremy @ 12:52, bravo! I agree. Let's do it. I promise to put up a post concerning some subject in Africa next week. (Lots going on there liturgically too.)

Rita -

I realize there's issues that will be covered repeatedly on any online forum, and I wouldn't expect it any other way...I do not think there is any way to really stop that.  I'm just speaking for myself about what would lead me to participate more, rather than assuming it would apply to others...

Would be delighted to see African issues, of course!  Thanks...

I am going to comment – at great length unfortunately – on comments. I regularly read dotCommonweal, America, and NCRonline and comment on all three.  Commonweal comments seem, on average, to be mostly free of the kind of nastiness the "trolls" regularly post at NCR.  This may have something to do with the kind of publications they are.

Commonweal is a "journal", appearing on a schedule. dotCommonweal is a daily blog, but it is not a news site. NCR is a news site that also employs a group of bloggers.  As such, they post new stories and blogs frequently every day- Michael Sean Winters alone posts a blog or links to stories or other blogs around ten times/day.  Commonweal is almost self-consciously "intellectual" and is perceived as such - not as a news site for the "average" Catholic.  NCR was regularly afflicted by nasty trolls whenever an article or blog covered the topics of 1) homosexuality, 2) the role of women, particularly discussions of women's ordination, 3)"traditional" v. contemporary liturgy, music etc. The first two topics generated the most heat - and the nastiest comments were often written by posters who choose Latin pseudonyms for some reason.  Because of the volume of articles/blogs that appear every day on NCR, the heat was often very high on many threads. There are some who suspect that comments about NCR articles written by some "conservative" Catholic bloggers such as Fr. Z encourage extremists to go to NCRonline to comment on articles. I have only looked at Fr. Z's blog a couple of times - enough to know that I am not interested in what he has to say. I do know that he regularly refers to NCR by derogatory terms - National Catholic Fishwrap is only the most well-known of several he uses against NCR. 

It seems likely that very few of those who make destructive comments at sites like NCR are interested in the in-depth think pieces that Commonweal is known for. You scare them off. These are not simply news stories about another outrageous act by a clueless bishop, or about another case of sexual abuse, but articles that seek to get into complex issues at some depth.  This can be intimidating at times, even on the blog.  Many of those of us who read Commonweal are not educated in philosophy and theology to the same degree as are many of the bloggers and even many of those who comment (such as Ann Olivier).  When the comments in a thread rely heavily on high level academic knowledge and understanding of several generations of philosophers and theologians, we "ordinary" folk often fear to betray our ignorance by commenting.  The "trolls" would be so far out of their depth that they wouldn't even try.  Others may not wish to cross word swords with those who seem likely to be able to "out-write" them on some topics - and in general - Commonweal bloggers and commenters seem fairly consistently on the "liberal" side in both church discussions and political and/or economic discussions. I am an economist (focus on international), and am often far more "conservative" in my take on selected political issues than are most here - seeing complexities, ambiguities, and trade-offs that seem to be off the radar of most who write here.   Cost-benefit analysis is never mentioned.

It does not seem that Commonweal needs to worry about the problems facing NCR right now. From some of the discussion here by editors/bloggers, it seems there may be more concern about attracting comments than about shutting them off.  Page hits are important to attract advertisers (legit ones!) and good comment threads help to attract hits. I started turning to blogs and comment threads when I became discouraged in my "real" life with the lack of interest by "real" people in issues that deeply concern me, often to the point of "great angst" (the church's treatment of women, for example, and its failure to hold bishops accountable when they protect priests who abuse).  Most Catholics I know are content if they like their parish and their priest and don't worry a whole lot about what the church teaches about women or even much about the universal church - not only is the Congo off their radar, the next parish is of little concern unless a new priest comes who tramples over their parish and they have to go parish shopping. I like to read both articles and the comments for insights that often have never occurred to me.

Another issue for readers who don't comment is this.  Sometimes it's hard to be the lone voice against an army of extremely well-educated, well-informed, and highly intelligent people who have a different view. For example, I have not been convinced that the climate change issue is being looked at as rationally as it should be - especially from the economics point of view. However, I did not comment on that thread because I have in the past experienced a "tsunami" (sorry) of attacks because of my views on climate change.  I was reluctant to write my comments/questions on the "real presence" thread a couple of months back, but finally did. And I did appreciate the positive and mostly constructive nature of the comments of those who wished to "instruct" me properly - including Fr. K.  Even though the issue was not then, and is still not resolved for me personally, I was glad that I spoke up as many of the comments encouraged me to consider ideas that I had not considered before.

Sites like Commonweal, America and NCR offer thought-provoking articles, news, and discussions that are hard to find in the non-virtual world these days among "ordinary" Catholics.  I guess that's pretty sad. Plus, Abe R posts online and I wouldn't miss his comments for the world!

 

I totally agree with NCR's decision to temporarily shut down comments.  The vitriol had gotten ridiculous within the last month or so, with plenty of scatology and homophobia thrown in for bad measure, and I do mean scatology.

I refuse to read "Fr." Z, but someone who does told me that they are gloating over having shut down the NCR site comments.  On of the specific commenters to that effect had been a frequent naysayer @ NCR.  If there is a concerted effort to spam a site's comments, particularly on the weekend (when NCR evidently had no monitoring capability) or using misspelled words what are missed by the auto censor feature of Disquis, then it is nigh unto impossible to deal with that short of what NCR did.

The tenor of articles at dotC vs NCR is very different, attracting a different breed of commenter.  The NCR commenting capability lends itself to shotgun/scattergun posting and responding.  dotC seems to attract readers and posters who are willing to give thought to what they say.  I used to, but rarely do anymore ... that is why my commenting here has become sporadic at best.  It has to do with the esoteric nature of some of the topics or the fact that dead horses seem to come back in slightly different disguises and it's all be said before.

Or maybe not.

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About the Author

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press).