Celebrating “Civil” with Seven Kinds of Civil Comments (As Seen on Autostraddle)

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What if “don’t read the comments” wasn’t a rule of thumb for those of us who populate this weird, wonderful world of the web?

The short answer is that everything would change.

The entire Internet stands to benefit from a better comment culture, and yet many websites are giving up on the idea of building one at all. (Riese has written about this previously.) Websites are cutting their comment sections, or hiding them, or suffering from trying to maintain them. We’ve arrived at a point when we often no longer have to labor through the troll-filled comment sections on some of our favorite sites — a point at which we lose the chance to be engaged in a community when we’re visiting them.

And this point — this exact moment for all of us digital denizens in this big, bright, world — this is the point at which Civil has come to change things up.

https://vimeo.com/131170273

Civil is a new software that seeks to create stronger, better, civil-er discourse online. Their method is simple: commenters are asked to evaluate and report the civility of comments on the websites they visit, including their own. Then, a machine eats all that data and devises a filtering system cutting the least civil comments from the conversation. It’s a software that makes comment moderation less of a burden, gives the folks who work at websites more time to focus on community-building instead of community monitoring, and demands that all of us participate in building a more civil Internet.

“Our ultimate goal is that five years from now, people will look back on this time and think, Wow, remember when Internet comments were terrible? I can’t believe they used to be that way! We want online culture to more closely reflect real-world social structures,” Christa Morgan, Civil’s Co-Founder, told me. “What we’re building is, hopefully, a good first step in that direction.

The basis of Civil is undeniable: That comments are fundamentally broken, and when they’re not broken anymore the Internet will flourish like never before. That’s true, and I know so because I work here. I know that an awesome community of commenters makes for an awesome website, and it’s because for a hella long time I’ve had the absolute privilege of talking to awesome commenters on this awesome website.

When comment culture actually works — which is to say, when the chance to comment is actually a chance to engage in conversations, socialize, and learn (and not to bully or be bullied) — the Internet’s real benefits shine through. Suddenly, the world wide web transforms from a place where people are mean to each other to a place where people are opening up to one another. Instead of worrying about the consequences of sharing our feelings, we can revel in the inevitable truth that we’re not alone in having them. Even better? We can learn, debate, grow, and challenge each other without fear of retaliation or brutality.

“What we’ve already seen happen — and it’s incredible — is that people really focus on each other’s ideas, instead of lobbing personal attacks at one another,” Morgan said. “Conversations can actually progress to a logical conclusion — even if that conclusion is let’s agree to disagree —because they’re not caught in a cycle of name-calling and retaliation.”

Civil asks us to think twice about the way we’re talking to each other online. Or, rather, it asks us to think about it more than a few times. And by doing so, it demands that we be the comments we want to see on the Internet. A commendable cause, indeed!

To honor the occasion, I’d like to lay out some strategies for more civil comments that can be used around the Internet. And you know how I know they work? Because I work here, and you comment here, and all of these hypothetical comments are things people like you — yes, you, in the cute shirt right there — have said to us.


Seven Kinds of Civil Comments You Could Leave Today

1. Hello, It’s Me, I’d Like to Politely Inquire As to Other Opinions On This Topic

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The Format: Hey! I feel X about Y, but I know a lot of folks have different opinions on Y and I am not a know-it-all because nobody really knows it all, y’know. So! Does anyone who feels Z about Y feel like talking to me a bit about A, B, or C? I’m really interested in a different perspective.

When to Post It: When you’re genuinely interested in hearing from people who maybe disagree with you, or at least hold different opinions or perspectives on a specific topic than you do. The catch is that you cannot do so with the intention of then beginning an argument with them, because that’s uncool.

As Seen on Autostraddle: I think one of the most groundbreaking things that ever happened on the Internet was when Rachel wrote about the second Democratic debate and someone asked a question that most people answered really sincerely and without any incivility at all. The question? At its heart, it was: hey, can people who maybe aren’t hardcore supporting Bernie Sanders come on down and talk to me about itWhat ensued included a gentle back-and-forth conversations about a tense primary that even included the words “thank you!”


2. Adding to a Post Without Detracting From It

The Format: Hey, [Author Name]. Thank you so much for covering this topic. You made some really great observations here! I just wanted to add my own two cents, because I spent 5.98 on a burrito and I hate pennies: [Insert previously undiscussed perspective, information, or point of difference.] It was a bean and cheese burrito just in case you were wondering.

When to Post It: When you’ve just finished reading something that was awesome sauce but didn’t mention an article on the topic you loved, integrate a perspective you hold, or differed from your own opinion. Also, if you’re gonna blow everyone’s mind and connect the dots between two issues or two pieces on one issue, that’s fun! The point is that you don’t come in swinging and trying to trash someone’s work — instead, you come to the comment section with the intention to broaden or expand upon the angle of their piece. Intention is everything, and so is not being a jerk.

As Seen on Autostraddle:  A strong example of this comes from my piece on the closing of DC’s lesbian bar and one of the last lesbian bars standing in the US, in which many a fine feathered friend came on down to tell me about the things they felt were cause for not only Phase One’s shuttering, but the legions of shut-down lesbo bars across the country and the world. I loved these people so much that I would like to take them all to Phase One, which has since reopened, when I return to DC.


3. Very Nicely Asking for the Content You Want

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The Format: This article on XYZ was great! Any chance y’all could cover ABC, seeing as how it is clearly related to the topic at hand in this piece and also relevant to your audience?

When to Post It: When reading one thing has left you with a burning desire to read another, but the other does not yet exist.

As Seen on Autostraddle: When I wrote about the dumb things famous women had said about feminism in 2015, a lot of y’all were understandably bummed out. I mean, that shit was like, Bummer Central. Which is why it made a super duper amazing load of sense for the one and only Claire to ask me for a happier counterpart piece as the next post in my Rebel Girls series, and her polite wish gave me even more reason to put together a list of awesome women.


4. Calling Out and Coming Back

The Format: I know that you came at this with strong and good intentions, but I wanted to point out to the readers and you, [Author Name], that you’re missing a valuable piece of information! Here it is. (And after, when the piece is corrected, you come back to recognize the effort and thank the author!)

When to Use It: When to call someone out? Well. When someone uses a turn of phrase that reflects a community but isn’t used by that community, when someone’s piece is missing a valuable nugget of actual factual information, when someone expresses an opinion that is problematic, etc. etc. I think what is important here, though, is the expression of good faith. This is a comment for someone who you know is doing their best to serve a reader like you – and thus, the comment isn’t snarky or mean. Just helpful, gentle, and, yes, critical. Because that can happen!

As Seen on Autostraddle: Laura’s piece on Flint got taken up a notch by a commenter, and Laura also heard out that commenter presumably because they were so so cool.


5. The Simple “Thank You!”

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The Format: Thank you for this piece! (That’s seriously it.)

When to Use It: When other words fail. When something is so beautiful, or deeply moving, or raw and personal, that to share a personal anecdote or do anything, really, except admire it in the comment section would be meaningless. When something is informative, and well-researched, but maybe doesn’t give you a jumping-off point for a funny one-liner comment or a feelings-filled passage on how it changed your life. When you wanna recognize someone’s work but don’t have anything to add or much to say besides that it was helpful / relatable / informative!

As Seen on Autostraddle: So many times over, y’all. Over and over and over and over. THANK YOU FOR THAT, PS. (I’m talking to you, people who commented on my most recent Rebel Girls.) This comment field is just chock-full of them, though.


6. I’m Working Through Some Feelings and I’m Not Passing Judgement on Anyone Who Has Made a Decision on Similar Ranges of Feelings

The Format: I’m not sure how I feel about the topic at hand, and thus I am about to elaborate on my mixed feelings on said topic. Throughout this elaboration, I will center my own experiences and refuse to judge or mock anyone who is steadfast in their decision to feel one way or the other about this topic.

When to Use It: When the Internet is up in arms about whether something was “good” or “bad” and you’re undecided, or when something major happens in your community and people have decided they are either for it or very much not for it, and you don’t really know because you couldn’t even decide between fish tacos or nachos for lunch and sometimes feeling strongly about a topic is a huge expense of energy. But! You’re interested in sharing your feelings on the topic anyway, perhaps to help yourself sort those feelings out or to get people to weigh in on it and help you shape an opinion. Either way!

As Seen on Autostraddle: When we all opened our hearts to sexy women in STEM, and women in STEM had mixed emotions.


7. My Experience is Different From Yours and It’s Okay

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Life goals, also.

The Format: Thank you for sharing your story, [Author Name]! How brave and really considerate of you, really, to open up and be so willing to tell us the finer details of your life on the Internet! I related to your story, but my experience was a little different. Here’s how…

When to Use It: When the person who wrote an article is not you, or does not come from the same set of experiences, and thus their story differs from yours though what they went through resembles something you went through, too. This is kind of a variation of Civil Comment Type #2: You’re adding to a narrative by talking about your own experience in the comments, and you’re doing so without passing judgement on someone for having an experience unlike yours or failing to tell your exact story.

As Seen on Autostraddle: When I told y’all I was broke and you responded with a resounding “us too!” and shared your own insights and tales of terror in the comments section.


Okay, y’all. Now come on down and show ’em how it’s done: Leave a bunch of civil comments down there!

Carmen is the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. , host of Bitch Media's POPAGANDA podcast and co-founder and Contributing Editor at Argot magazine. She previously served as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director at Autostraddle. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 927 articles for us.

46 Comments

  1. THIS ARTICLE IS GARBAGE.

    Just kidding, it was really interesting and I love y’all. I’ve always wondered why Autostraddle is so great when it comes to comments. I mean, we do have our fights every now and then, but by and large, we’re pretty great about not blowing up at each other when we feel passionately about something. And it’s rare that we get many trolls coming here to try to ruin our internet paradise, which is just astounding to me.

    Is it just the size of the community? If AS suddenly got lots more popular, would everything go to hell in a handbasket? Or is it something particular about the website, the wonderful people who run it, write the articles, and comment the comments that encourages such a chill, respectful vibe. Whatever the truth is, for now, I’m choosing to believe the latter because I’ve got enough negativity in my life so if I’ve got the opportunity to believe that people can be incredible, I’ll take it.

    <3

    • I think Civil is definitely onto something. I would love it if I didn’t have to systematically avoid comments everywhere but here. That being said, I’m not sold on their chosen method of achieving and promoting civility and mutual respect. First of all, who’s to say that users would take the rating system seriously? Would they pay actual attention to the comments they had to rate prior to publishing their own, or would they just click through the process randomly? How self-critical do we expect the trolls to be when rating their own comments?

      I’m also more than a little uncomfortable with the increasing burden of unpaid, unrecognized labor that is performed by members of various online communities. Civil is in essence recruiting unpaid moderators to lift the burden off of the actual moderators (who are no doubt themselves overworked and underpaid).

  2. The community at Autostraddle is quite lovely. I don’t know about this Civil thing though – if its a voting system, wouldn’t the majority just be silencing the minority, and wouldn’t that become kind of problematic in some more mainstream spaces?

    • i think the key is that it’s not just an up and down system – it’s a question of whether something is civil or not. i know that a lot of us have probably encountered civil disagreements online, or had them ourselves, and plus – the commenters don’t know that the end result of their answer contributes to a ranking system. (and the moderators, who still exist, still have final say over the algorithm!)

    • I came down here to say exactly that. It seems like a good idea on the surface with potential for abuse.
      Maybe then we’ll know which websites to avoid by their comments sections and the communities that develop in them..unless civil is web wide. Hmm

  3. Thanks for taking the time to find those great examples of civil comments. Like others, AS is the only site where I almost always read the comments, instead of almost always avoiding them.

    This week I watched the webseries Her Story (and loved it!) and went back to read the AS coverage of it and read the comments, then did the same at AfterEllen and nearly broke my computer in rage. Same article, totally different comments. It really demonstrates the community that AS has built – thank you!

    • I’ve encountered this same dichotomy, too, and I’m baffled by it. I’d presume that there’s a great deal of overlap in readership between AS & AE, yet the comment culture is so, so different. The only working hypothesis I have about it is that from Day One Riese, Laneia, and Rachel have employed a conversational tone and demonstrated a humility that’s unique on the Internet. And that’s a tone and practice that is now dyed in the wool at AS: I see it in pretty much all the site’s writers’ work, and in the vast majority of community comments, too. I think this is to the credit of Those Who Made This Site.

      I’ve read AE since the Sarah Warn days, and I’ve admired the good intentions of all their editors in chief and many of their contributors. I’m not at all suggesting that they’ve done a poor job. But something is remarkably different here at AS. I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to provide direct financial contributions to be an active part of a community that I so appreciate.

      • One of the things I love the most of AS is that old air of personal blog, you know, where you shared something and that was the trigger for feedback?

        This is one of the few places I follow where you can see the author of any post interacting with her readers, like the author is interested, even in a small part, in what we think, and that just shows me that the staff has a very strong passion for their work.

        That is almost non-existent in AfterEllen, where I always get that weird felling that the writers are kinda saying “I’m gonna post/dump this here, see ya next time”. Yes, the post may have very strong feelings about a subject but it’s just a monologue. I need dialogue every once in a while.

  4. Thank you very much for this article. It is chock full of great suggestions for how we can be critical and inclusive and community-minded. There’s not much that makes me feel better than articles and comments that invite critical discussion in warm and welcoming ways with great illustrative examples.

  5. I love the comments section at Autostraddle. It feels like family. As I’ve said a billion times this year, everywhere from FOT to A.A.A., from the articles where the moderators are ON IT when the trolls Coke out and they (sadly) need to be (my phone changed “come” to “Coke” and I’m totally going with it), to the thorough and well-crafted, totally transparent comment policy, all of Autostraddle’s comment sections are oriented towards kindness, information, self-care, and love for one another. It’s literally the only place online where I have seen such a thing. It’s amazing.

    I do, however, think that there can be a layer of defensiveness, sometimes, when caring readers are critical of articles for legitimate reasons. This layer, too, is curated by the staff, and is sometimes picked up and carried by the other commentators (myself included). I would not call this over defensiveness by any means. It’s a natural response to criticism, and I don’t mean to accuse or attack the staff around that, but I do think that sometimes it leads to a culture of many of us sometimes (pretty civilly, but uniformly) attacking the readers with dissenting voices. It is something I have been absolutely been guilty of playing into, and also been faced with when I was the one for whom an article or some language didn’t quite sit right (note that just as many times, other readers or staff have validated my perspective). It can be unsettling, and I think it is something that we can all work on changing.

    I don’t want to focus on that element by any means. The staff at AS are human, they are busy, they love all of us, and above all, they are doing extraordinary work.

    I agree that comment sections need civility, care, intent. But in that focus, I also want to be sure that we don’t lose any voices as we get so excited about being one big happy family.

    Anyway! Happy Saturday! ??? you all.

    • I agree with you. I think that there can be a certain amount of groupthink that happens here. I’m not excluding myself from it but there have been times when I’ve disagreed with an article but not commented because I thought the rest of the commenters would disagree and it would become a pile on. Teaching people to disagree without being unkind would be a wonderful thing!

  6. This was beautiful, because you know, Carmen, my mother will love you for this, for one simple reason: it’s a message to pay attention at what I’m doing, in a very sutil, useful and not condescending manner.

    PD: I’m unemployed at the moment, so can AS just let one spam comment pass so I can learn how to make money using Google?

  7. I think Civil is definitely onto something. I would love it if I didn’t have to systematically avoid comments everywhere but here. That being said, I’m not sold on their chosen method of achieving and promoting civility and mutual respect. First of all, who’s to say that users would take the rating system seriously? Would they pay actual attention to the comments they had to rate prior to publishing their own, or would they just click through the process randomly? How self-critical do we expect the trolls to be when rating their own comments?

    I’m also more than a little uncomfortable with the increasing burden of unpaid, unrecognized labor that is performed by members of various online communities. Civil is in essence recruiting unpaid moderators to lift the burden off of the actual moderators (who are no doubt themselves overworked and underpaid).

    • i don’t know that i would qualify ranking two comments and your own comment for civility in a push-button manner as “labor.” the real labor still goes on behind-the-scenes, where moderators are still key to this process and websites are utilizing the software to build active and thriving community. i mean, really, this process actually strikes me as more of a pre-emptive report button, which users here can utilize. instead of waiting for something terrible to go live, though, civil asks people to think twice about what they’re about to say in hopes that the question “are you being a jerk?” helps people realize they are, in fact, jerks.

      also, worth tossing in that the person who created civil was a moderator by trade, and came at the software from that perspective.

      as a team member of a staff where moderation is often a shared task that requires all of us to do, essentially, the unpaid labor of sifting through and dealing with comments gone wrong, i have to say that asking people if their comment is nice is nowhere close to the actual labor of moderating comments on a website, especially ones larger in size.

    • For some reason your comment made me think about the whole notion of the ‘free’ internet, which isn’t really free, we pay for it with our data and exposure to targeted ads. Newspapers and the like have always gotten a significant portion of their revenue from ads and the like in order to keep their direct cost to the consumer at a marketable rate… that probably doesn’t reflect the actual cost per unit of publishing. So in an online scenario, this tool will hopefully only get rid of the uncivil comments (trolls), reduce the volume and thus cost of moderating thereby allowing moderators to actually moderate in constructive and focused ways?? I hope this makes sense/ makes a point. (Essentially, if publishers can reduce overheads/ redirect/ optimise them.. more money can be spent on content/the good stuff… meaning we get to keep our ‘free/ cheap’ internet.)

  8. The community here is literally responsible for my growth into a compassionate and strong individual. The comment section, plus going to A-Camps, has introduced me to some of the most amazing people in the world, and not a day goes by that I don’t reflect on the lessons I’ve learned through these portals. Riese saved my life – and everyone else here has enriched it beyond measure. It breaks my heart that I’m not an active member anymore because I feel like I’ve missed out on thousands of conversations, hundreds of new lessons, and dozens more friends.

    Thank you for everything, Autostraddle ♡

  9. Maybe they are on to something, but where do we draw the line between hiding the trolls and respecting free speech? Couldn’t this software be used to hide unpopular but non-offensive opinions? I’m rabidly against censorship in any form and this seems like it could be heading down that road. Of course, I don’t read any comment section other than Autostraddle so I don’t encounter a lot of comments I would want to hide, so maybe I’m biased.

    • Thinking more about this, I realize I’m the type of person who’s good at ignoring what people on the internet think, so if someone wants to write that I’m going to hell for being queer I can laugh and click away. But I’m acknowledging my privilege in never having been the target of online hate, so maybe I should just shut up now. ?

  10. AS is certainly the only place on the internet where the comment section actually helps one grow!
    Some times, I’m feeling like I’m sitting down for a beer or a hot cup of tea with my imaginary internet friends, at other times things touch me very deeply, and I respond with all of my heavy, naked feelings out in the open, and then, miraculously, instead of lashback, all my anxious heart gets is a big old hug.
    I know that this is in part only possible, because the writers are putting themselves out there in the first place, so thank you for that.
    I’ve been mostly at home over the past year, and since this is already a love fest, and I might forget later, allow me to just thank you all for being around, writers and editors and fellow commenters.
    For being kind and sweet and thoughtful, intelligent and caring and thought provoking, accepting and protective and enthusiastic, just all of the things.
    It’s been truly appreciated.
    xoxo

  11. Hey that’s me! Carmen, you know I’ve always got your back to request more content…

    Seriously, thanks for featuring Civil, it seems like an awesome and innovative way to change internet culture for the better. I wish anyplace else on the internet was even a smidge like the thoughtful community I’ve found down below this beautiful aquamarine-colored top bar…

  12. autostraddle and AV Club: only comment sections worth my time. Here because it’s like the secret facebook groups I have with friends that I interact with primarily through facebook

    And AV Club because there is almost always a thread entirely of puns

  13. I am learning so much from your site, and I am trying to be a “leave a quick thank you” person… I guess we, I never thought that we could open up on here. This civil software looks good?* for new activists? Take me – Been through a lot of rejection and shit in the world, like all of us, including 2 attacks and PTSD (thanks cis norms). It sucks. And it affects our views on ourselves and therefore our worth. Now trying to learn to live and love, though. Mental health in the community would be a cool article to see, though I might have missed some – can anyone link me – I trust autostraddle content, so much shit out there :-/. Feels kinda lonely sometimes when non conforming identities get conflated with mental health issues, I guess that affects cis folk reading this as well, I feel for you xxx . Big Autostraddle fan. Major respect for your work. Peace, Hannah xxx

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