by riese but also some of this is by laneia
“It started as a little whisper last year. Are people commenting on your posts anymore?” Grace Bonney wrote in 2014 on Design*Sponge’s State of the Blog Union. “And then those whispers found other whispers from trusted blogging friends to join. Oh they’re not? Yeah, mine either. It’s like people just stopped talking.”
Even on sites with strong readerships and increasing traffic, a distinct shift was happening in these previously thriving comment sections. The shift was, basically, that people weren’t engaging how they used to. In the old days, comments were the sole location for discussing a blog’s posts, but social media has changed all that. Instead of discussing content on the website itself, users could link to it on a variety of social media platforms to discuss with their own friends and family. “Instead of coming to hang out at our houses, they were dropping by quickly, taking a few key pieces with them and leaving to comment and discuss those things in their own living rooms,” wrote Bonney.
This wasn’t necessarily an inherently negative shift for the readers, but it was a tough shift for writers to swallow. When I started blogging in 2006, I responded to every single comment left on my blog, and when we launched Autostraddle in 2009, I asked our writers to do the same. One of the many reasons I tapped Laneia to help me build this website is because she had extensive community-building experience from her own blog and moderating forums for The Planet Podcast. From Day One, we wanted it to be clear that we weren’t just here to talk AT you, we were here to talk WITH you, because that’s part of what we love about the internet to begin with. Sure, we had our fair share of conflicts, ignorant asshats and flame wars, but most of the time our comment section was full of empathy, support, and education.
We always cite what Autostraddle has accomplished when we talk about the kind of online community we want to build around our books. They are a site with a much larger, broader scope, but we live in awe of the vibrant health of their comments and forums — people treat each other with such respect and care, without being sanitized or sycophantic.
– Emily Gould of Emily Books
Needless to say, by the end of 2013, when our comment counts were lowering and our traffic was increasing, we weren’t quite ready to let go. We still aren’t, and we know you’re not either.
The Big Shift
Other sites, less reliant on or engaged with their community, adapted quickly to this change. Sites like Popular Science and The Week shut down their comment section, the latter because comment sections were too often hijacked by trolls. So did Re/Code, Reuters and Mic, who are focusing instead on social media comments. Everyday Feminism actively hosts all their conversations on Facebook and doesn’t allow on-site comments.
The possibility of an ideal comment ecosystem existing was also revealing itself to be a fallacy. Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ commenters on The Atlantic were famous for their genuinely progressive dialogue, but even Coates is now considering shutting down his comments altogether. “If there’s a lesson to be taken away from the story of the [Coates’ blog] Horde, it might be—depressingly—that trying to build a comment section that truly adds value to a writer’s work will inevitably become more trouble than it’s worth,” wrote Eva Holland on Longreads. This summer, The Verge shut down comments to give its writers a break from negativity. The New York Times recently decided to only enable comments on select articles to ensure they had suitable moderation resources to handle it. Slate is currently hosting a conversation on whether or not they should kill their comment sections, which are often overrun with negativity.
“Small sites are too poor to pay human moderators, and large sites have too great a volume of comments for human moderators to keep up with,” wrote Slate’s Senior Technology Editor Will Oremus. “The result is that moderation across the Web tends to be insufficient at best and nonexistent at worst.”
That moderation problem applies here, too. We don’t have dedicated moderators — almost every single comment that isn’t spammy or from a blocked user goes up without approval — but we do have a large engaged team of writers and we do have a increasingly detailed comment policy and we do have you. As a community, y’all self-moderate and step in when another reader is out of their depth or think reverse racism exists. You’ve helped steer derailed conversations back on track, while continuing to educate and support each other. Comments on Autostraddle aren’t always sunshine and hand-holding, obviously. Sometimes our comment section can get unpleasant: callout culture so toxic it’s often a parody of itself and people become unwilling to see the humanity in each other. When that happens, it can get harder to feel excited and engaged with a community that might appear to only speak up when they’re complaining or attacking other commenters. (Slate has the same experience.)
But even with these rare displays of callout culture, our comment section remains the most civil and empathetic we’ve seen anywhere on the internet.
So where does this leave us? A site that prided itself on a thriving, supportive commenting community, a site that aims to build community for its own sake as much as it does to inform and entertain its readers?
At first, we felt immune to the shift due to the specific nature of a queer audience: many of our readers weren’t out or else just didn’t feel comfortable discussing queer stuff on platforms accessible to their social network, or didn’t have queer people to talk to on social media. Requiring commenters to login with Facebook or Google Plus was never an option for us. We were, in fact, the first online magazine to launch a companion Tumblr, and our Tumblr community was strong and vast, but we didn’t think much about Facebook or Twitter. Until we had to, that is.
The Facebook Effect
Over the past two years, websites have became increasingly reliant on Facebook for traffic as many internet users began replacing “visiting the homepage” with “waiting to see what pops up on my Facebook news feed.” This has enormous and incredibly dangerous implications for the future of online media, but that’s an entirely different essay I won’t subject you to today.
Mainstream sites like Buzzfeed or HuffPo dominate the Facebook game, and their coverage of LGBTQ issues sometimes feels “safer” to share than the same stories from unapologetically indie queer sites like ours. Autostraddle readers who began using Facebook as a news feed were, by design, only being made aware of the most controversial or vapid posts we published, as whether or not something shows up in your feed is based on how much Facebook engagement, comments, likes and shares the post garners. We were baffled by readers claiming we had become a site solely for bisexual women when maybe two out of every fifty posts were about bisexual women and we were consistently being asked by bisexual women for more non-monosexual content — until we realized that if you’re only reading AS articles that show up on your Facebook feed, it could very well seem that way.
Regulars like Drawn to Comics and Things I Read That I Love are rarely discussed, liked, or shared on Facebook, despite having passionate and loyal on-site readerships. Personal essays and advice posts that provide the intimate experience our readers love us for often aren’t particularly ripe for sharing, either. The controversial or vapid posts usually also gather the most incendiary and obtuse comments, so for readers getting all their Autostraddle from Facebook, Autostraddle likely seemed like a burning bush fanning the flames of its ongoing war. Also: a semi-reliable source of information on Kristen Stewart’s romantic life.
This past fall, we surrendered to Mark Zuckerberg’s Higher Power and started “working on” our Facebook presence to ensure we kept our readers reading and aware of everything we published. Having good social media is just as important as having good content these days, and Heather and Carmen hit the ground running to ensure that we did, and we do. The more “engagements” (likes, shares, etc) we get with our posts on Facebook, the more people see those posts in their feed.
All this extra time spent on Facebook enabled us to witness another phenomenon at work: our comment sections were becoming 1-D victims of our 3-D success.
The Third Wheel?
As aforementioned, we felt blissfully immune to this evolution because of our queerness. Even when Facebook swallowed other websites’ comment sections, ours stood strong as the only place most of you had to connect with other queers on issues and stories that mattered to you. Then A-Camp started and the A-Camp Unofficial Facebook Social Group was born. Autostraddle meet-up groups started popping up all over the world with companion Facebook groups, as did specialized Facebook groups for different identities. Suddenly, Autostraddle wasn’t the only place you could connect online with other Autostraddlers, let alone other queers. These groups and networks have been an undeniably important and amazing development for our community (especially the QTPOC Speakeasy), but now we have to figure out how to maintain both while maintaining our sanity and on-site camaraderie.
This situation reached its peak after this past A-Camp, which, according to feedback surveys, was our most well-reviewed and beloved A-Camp yet. Usually our post-camp Open Thread gets 100 comments in its first few hours, but that’s been changing gradually over the years. This June, while the post-camp Open Thread languished in the double-digits, my Facebook feed was blowing up with heartwarming comments and testimonies from campers about their experiences. It made me sad, thinking about all the prospective campers who weren’t hearing the amazing stories I was reading on Facebook — not just the day that post went up, but ever. Even though commenting had gone up site-wide since we first noticed the decline, we saw in action how on some posts, social media community replaced site community. It also made me sad because, well, hanging out on Autostraddle is fun and hanging out on Facebook can be a little, um, stressful? WE MISSED YOU.
Facebook is a giant corporation owned by a cis straight white man that makes money by offering advertisers dirt-cheap access to millions of tightly-targeted customers. We should all be wary of moving our lives entirely to this platform, or any social media platform! Furthermore, not everybody has Facebook. Twitter conversations are great, but if a topic doesn’t have a hashtag, millions of readers (some who won’t even seek out the topic for several more years because they’re too young to care right now ) will completely miss out on the conversation forever.
“Twitter and Facebook have their merits, but they’re very poor venues for substantive, ongoing, multiperson discussions that are tied to a single, specific article or set of ideas. The ideal venue for that specific sort of conversation remains the comment section of the article itself.”
– Will Oremus, Senior Technology Editor, Slate.com
Why We’ve Dedicated This Week To Focusing on Comments and Community
Other web-writers we encounter are shocked we still read — let alone engage with — our commenters, but to us the comments are an essential element of the community we’re not looking to sacrifice. Social media is incredibly important to us, but it doesn’t replace our on-site community, and we don’t have the financial resources to hire anybody dedicated solely to social media like literally every other site this size does. So we want to engage on-site conversation and make connections here, in this space. Period.
Last year our traffic exploded as we became the world’s most popular website for queer women, but comments were lower than ever. This year, we disabled the login-only function and got our staff engaged in turning the comment culture train around, and the past few months have been going really well. But we think we could do EVEN BETTER.
Welcome To Our Queer Internet Commune
We’ve talked about how commenting culture has changed all over the internet and how connecting to other queers through social media has dimmed on-site discourse, but we also need to talk about commenting culture in general, and how many readers — including our own staff! — have become scared to comment, period. We have interview subjects request extensive edits to what’s supposed to be an off-the-cuff interview in fear they could be misread and/or taken out of context and swiftly declared offensive.
Laneia and Riese have been watching queer people talk to each other on the internet for almost a decade, beginning with our own blogs and then moving on to Autostraddle over six years ago, and we consider ourselves experts at this point. Over the past several years, we have seen an obvious uptick in the times that we’ve seen you cut each other down, assume bad faith, pile on people with less dexterity in social justice language and lose your damn minds over grey areas without clearcut solutions. We witness ourselves get rude and angry, too, and spend three hours in a comment fight instead of writing.
But more importantly — more telling of who you and we really are — we’ve seen you build entire communities around TV shows, support each other in coming out, make IRL friends and even find your future wives through the wonders of commenting. It’s been legitimately amazing. You’ve inspired people and changed their lives with your dedication to making this work. You’ve trusted each other, assumed good faith, reached out to newcomers, respectfully navigated grey areas that didn’t always come with obvious rights or wrongs, and generally changed the whole world, really. You’ve found a way to disagree with somebody while also making everybody laugh. We get emails all the time from readers who didn’t know anything about [trans issues, race issues, queer politics beyond marriage equality] and were grateful for the education.
We feel confident, after ten years of total immersion in internet dialogue, with stating the following: productive conversations only happen when we assume good faith and treat each other with the patience and kindness that we devote to conversations with our friends and others we know and respect.
We know in our hearts that this space is different, and that this community is uniquely capable of navigating grey areas and keeping the space accessible to all types of readers, because we’ve seen you do it! Once upon a time, we were all ignorant and naive, unsure of our own identities and patient with one another’s self-discovery. Those of us with this knowledge are now often in the majority, but it’s on us to share — not flaunt — that knowledge. Even if your politics are sound, the way you express those politics to others can end up replicating the very power structures we all want to dismantle, endorsing righteousness and performance above genuine dialogue. We want Autostraddle to keep being a place that invites more commenting, more engagement, more people telling their stories and listening to others.
We don’t believe that everything can be self-taught. Sometimes you can’t just Google something. Sometimes you’d rather get an education from somebody you trust, and not the first Tumblr that pops up. A single mother who works two jobs to support her family and never went to college doesn’t necessarily have the time to teach herself queer theory before jumping into a community like ours. Teenagers in small towns without any queer resources and no access to feminist literature come here knowing literally nothing, and that’s actually totally okay. We have readers who are the only queer person of color in their town, the only trans woman in their town, the only gay in the village, who desperately need a safe space to be themselves. We have readers who aren’t fluent in academia and we also have a lot of readers who aren’t fluent in English, either. We have readers who have the resources but still mess up sometimes and that is also okay.
We’re here to say that we will absolutely forgive those of us who are still learning — about the world and also themselves, their place in it. We believe that sometimes it is up to us, and to you, to assume good faith when it makes sense, and to educate people when we can. We want to intentionally leave room for the grey areas that don’t have obvious rights and wrongs, because that’s where growth happens. When we respectfully engage in conversations and we take on the role of being someone else’s sounding board and help them hash out their understanding of various topics and experiences, we necessarily affect change.
Many of you have your own communities where everybody is identified by name and face and nobody is anonymous — a class, a closed Facebook group, a book club — where you’ve been able to flex newfound muscles and try out your ideas; where people have given you the space to fuck up, try again, get it wrong before you get it right. You have family and friends who give you the benefit of the doubt, and you give it to them, and y’all help each other figure out the hard stuff. But even more of you do not have that community. A comment section filled with nitpicking and accusations of bad faith and language policing is unwelcoming and intimidating. Callout culture, pile-ons, and basic rudeness to each other and to writers can and will drive readers and writers away, people who are still learning and don’t have a community to be their sounding board and help them figure out the hard stuff. That’s why Autostraddle is different, and why it must continue to be accessible to as many levels of education and understanding as possible. We believe that if you can, if you have it in you, you should try to be that community for someone who needs it.
And fuck it, like, we honestly believe in kindness.
Most importantly — Commenting is feedback
I've only ever written for one website that didn't have comments and it felt like I was whispering to myself in the wilderness.
— Matt Novak (@paleofuture) September 24, 2013
Without your feedback or affirmation on our posts, we have no idea what you like! We have a few posts each day that get a lot of traffic, but a lot more that don’t. We publish those ’cause we think you might like them, ’cause we wanna talk about them, or ’cause we think the world needs them.
We often cancel columns only to suddenly hear that it was your favorite and you will die without it — you’ve gotta let us know before we get to that point, y’all! When nobody’s talking to our writers, our writers lose their desire to write. Yes, we’re getting paid, but not as much as we deserve, and regardless, our writers are here for more than a paycheck, they’re here for connection. Even an “I like this” can change everything for a writer. When we publish work by new underrepresented voices, a supportive comment section can be the difference between whether or not we ever hear from that writer again. Recaps, in particular, are a time-consuming drain, and without the immediate gratification of conversation with our readers, people are reluctant to write them. (Case in point: The Fosters.) Y’all if you want Gabby to recap Empire you have to comment more on her OITNB recaps, just saying.
Thank you! Thank you for every minute you’ve spent helping someone else grasp a concept in the comments, thank you for letting us know when we’ve mattered to you. Thank you for sharing our words on social media and going to meet-ups and coming to camp. Thank you for sharing yourself here and helping to make this space safe for other people to try themselves on. Please, keep it up.
We’re leveling with you: this is what we came here for. We’re here for the community and the communication. We’re here for the conversation. We don’t ever, ever want to whisper to ourselves. We came here to fucking talk, to fucking listen, and think and then talk and listen some more. We can’t grow as a community without conversations and feedback, and we can’t have those conversations without kindness and assumptions of good faith.
So, this week we’re really laying it on thick — there’s even a contest and we’re whipping up some resources to expedite the “Google it” process.
This is where you prove everyone else wrong and us right. You damn the man and save the comments! You save the conversations and the empire — the empire you helped build to begin with.