• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you’re going to be asked to leave.


I Will Miss Comments When (If) They're Gone

Comments reflect community, but communities collapse.

September 10, 2017

I was traveling when the Inside Higher Ed editors posted their call for comments on comments, but upon return, when first reading it, I thought: Oh, crap.

I thought, oh crap, because I will miss the comments if they go away.

My second thought was that doing away with comments may be inevitable, because at what point does our capacity for monstrous behavior subsume any benefits of the public exchanges aired in the comments?

Reading through the various comments on the editors’ post, I realized something I’d never fully considered. I have never posted an anonymous comment on the internet.[1]

The reasons are a mix of the incidental and the purposeful. Joining the walled garden of AOL, it didn’t occur to me to be someone else. In my most formative experience in online communities at the Zoetrope online writing workshop, I used my own name because I wanted people to know who I was.[2] For a period of years, a mutually beneficial community of like-minded aspiring writers (mostly) successfully read and commented on each other’s work. It was great, until it wasn’t, and the community collapsed.

As I started publishing on the net and in print, I realized that if I was going to find outlets and attention for my work, I needed to build my “brand,” so I wanted as many words as possible associated with me, myself, and I, rather than an avatar or alternate persona.

As the nature of my work and the nature of the internet have changed, I’ve stuck to always being myself. For one, I’ve never had status or position that I could put at risk through my public expression. As contingent faculty, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

I also have not been subject to the routine harassment that women and minority writers are frequently subjected to in online public spaces. No one is seeking to hound me out of the arena through coordinated attacks and intimidation. If I received 1/100th of the vile garbage that women like Roxane Gay or Tressie McMillian-Cottom receive, I would’ve folded up my personal circus and left town long ago.

But by far, I believe the biggest reason I don’t post anonymous comments on the internet is to guard against my own capacity for terrible behavior of which I would later feel ashamed.

I do not want to risk becoming the Id that could be unleashed without having to own my public expressions.[3] I know I am as capable of cruelty as any other person, yet I have no wish to be cruel, so I keep myself from this temptation.

Like many of the people commenting on the editorial message, I believe IHE’s comments are among the best around. As a writer for the site, I benefit hugely from hearing from readers directly, and I enjoy engaging with readers in the comments on my posts. I think the collective discussion often manages to bring additional light to the subject at hand, as evidenced in a recent post about StraighterLine that brought out different perspectives on online education and credentialing. 

That discussion served my primary goal writing here, exploring the way different perspectives and different sets of values are ultimately manifested in educational practices. My ongoing argument in this space is that we have moved steadily away from the values that most “matter” when it comes to education, and education institutions are often operating in conflict with their purported values (see: adjunctification). The only way forward is to agree on some underlying values and then do our best to live them.

I’ve come to see the Just Visiting blog space as a kind of community. There are members of many different stripes, some of whom seem to actively loathe me and/or what and how I write, and yet their very presence suggests they are receiving something of benefit from the existence of this community and even my “haters” often bring something valuable to the table.

As Matt Reed wrote in his own thoughts about site comments, it’s extremely rare for my core perspective to be changed by contrary opinions in the comments, but I still find pushback on my ideas very beneficial. Only through exchange can I find the holes in my own arguments and make those arguments better. Thanks to the resistance of a well-formed response from someone else, I’ve often found myself making a superior case for my cause in the comments than in the original post.

All the reasons readers expressed for a desire to maintain their anonymity are well-taken and I would hate to lose the contributions of some of those who must participate under those conditions. Considering this specific space inside the IHE site, I think anonymity matters little. I believe people who offer substantive contributions do so because they’re seeking community.

I have my doubts about the efficacy of any of the proposed ideas outside of stepped-up moderation, and even this would make an already time-consuming task more burdensome and ultimately erode trust, a core value of any functioning community. Unlike a platform like Twitter, which offers few structural protections, and in fact incentivizes “trolling,” IHE comments are fertile ground for productive exchange if the commenter wishes.

Ideally, it’s the person authoring the comment that provides the best check on whether or not a comment is deserving of publication. Posting under my own name helps me with this. Yet, even with the governor of working under my own name, I have posted comments I regret. Almost always they were rash acts, lashing out at someone else for wounding me. I try to take a beat before I post, but sometimes my lesser angels win.

When the better angels reign it’s because I remember that this space is best when viewed as a community and responding to someone who throws a banana peel out their car window with some litter of my own doesn’t help.

But once enough people choose values other than community, the community will indeed collapse.

To me, the editors’ letter seems to be a warning of the inevitable.

If the comments are going to be saved, it really is up to us.

[1] I have used a pseudonym (Austin Sidley) for some of the things I’ve published at the McSweeney’s website. It started when we had considerably less material to choose from and I occasionally had to chip in to have something to run.

[2] Ego.

[3] I would most worry about something like Amazon reviews, where I could anonymously bash those who have had more success, success that in my darkest moments I’m certain is undeserved. Not only would my actions be cruel, it would be a form of self-destruction, as I spend more time worrying about others, rather than my own work.


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