On closing comments

Walter Russell Mead shuts down comments at The American Interest:

After almost three years and well more than 40,000 published reader comments (and half a million spam comments that either we or our spam filter managed to identify and trash), Via Meadia is joining the ranks of non-comment blogs. We’re grateful to readers over those years who have shared their reactions to what they read here, and hope to develop new ways to interact with readers even as we continue to benefit from their thoughts and responses, but the traditional comments section no longer seems like the right way to go. To make the comments section work in its present form we would have to edit and curate much more aggressively than we do now and in our current judgment the effort needed to do that is better spent improving other features of the blog.

One uncomfortable truth I have observed over time is that most bloggers really don’t want “to interact with readers”. What they appear to really want is to be admired, to be praised and to see their opinions echoed back to them. The primary reason they permit comments in the first place is because comments serve as a metric of both status and success; one of the hallmarks of a successful blog is a plethora of comments following every post. In most cases, even if they claim to value discourse and diversity of opinion, the spectrum of permissible discourse is quite strictly limited, regardless of the blogger’s place on the ideological spectrum.

Contra the assertion above, it is really not very much work keeping comments from getting out of hand. Mr. Mead purports to be overwhelmed by the difficulty of managing 40,000 comments in three years, whereas there have been 33,494 comments here at VP in the last five months alone. During that time, precisely one person had to be banned and that one person was only banned after first making dozens of comments and even having multiple posts dedicated to directly responding to him. The reality is that if you have a few good commenters capable of defending their own arguments and criticizing the overtly nonsensical arguments presented by others, there is very little that the blogger has to do himself. In nine years of this blog, which began in October 2003, I don’t think there have been more than 20 people banned out of the thousands who have left a comment here at one point or another.

Granted, a few of those 20 or so people have been banned repeatedly under an impressively long list of pseudonyms. Who, after all, can remember all of the various identities belonging to the infamous Jefferson or that would-be literary critic, Dimwit Dan? However, the true troll is both rare and very easy to identify. As a general rule, the sort of individual who doesn’t have the self-control to avoid getting banned in a comparatively relaxed environment also lacks the self-awareness to stop doing what got him previously banned.

Now, please note that I’m not criticizing Mr. Mead’s decision to shut down comments, any more than I have criticized John Scalzi’s decision to aggressively delete all comments from all sources that he so elegantly labels “assbags”, or Instapundit’s decision not to permit comments in the first place. Every blogger has a perfect right to run things however he happens to see fit and I can’t see that comments would actually suit Instapundit’s quick-hit, news-breaking format anyhow.

What I am criticizing in both the Mead and Scalzi situations is the pretense involved. In the former case, it is provably untrue that it is a lot of work to permit comments. In the case of the latter, it is provably untrue that differences of opinion on many subjects are permitted. As a blogger, one should do what one wants, but one should also be honest about what that is. If you want a one-way megaphone or you only want to permit dissent within certain parameters, that’s not a problem.

But in such cases, you cannot try to claim that you also value the sort of open discourse and competitive exchange of ideas that takes place on a regular basis here at Vox Popoli. That is simply false advertising. What John Scalzi describes as “a feculent miasma” is actually the rich and pungent aroma of intellectual freedom. But his description is extremely informative. Only a man who spends his days with his nose up his own ass could mistake the scent of freedom for bullshit.

Vox Popoli is not, and will never be, an echo chamber. There are not, and will never be, any topics that are definitively outside the scope of permissible intellectual discourse. If, for whatever reason, you wish to defend racism, sexism, cannibalism, the Holocaust, the designated hitter, the nonexistence of God, or even the novels of Robert Jordan, you can certainly do so here provided that you do so on-topic – I’ll even create a topic for you if necessary – and in an intellectually honest manner. The only commenters whose participation I will not tolerate is those who repeatedly lie, who demonstrate proven intellectual dishonesty, and who simply refuse to admit it when someone else has publicly shown them to be wrong. If you are not at least capable of acknowledging that you could be wrong about an idea, no matter how near and dear it is to you, then you will probably be better served commenting at a place where your ideas will not be questioned or criticized.

This may not be the best blog on the Internet, but I do hope that it is at least among the most open to ideas, however crazy they might be, and to genuine debate and discussion. I know I have changed my mind on numerous topics, from universal suffrage to free trade, as a direct result of the discussions that have taken place here, and I suspect I am not the only one.