Com­ments are ruining the In­ter­net. So I got rid of them.

Ed­i­tor David Lat says Above the Law was over­taken by on­line jerks

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @DavidLat David Lat is the founder and man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of Above the Law, a web­site cov­er­ing the le­gal pro­fes­sion, and the author of the novel “Supreme Am­bi­tions.”

In Fe­bru­ary 2009, large law firms were in cri­sis. The stock mar­ket was in free fall, Lehman Broth­ers had re­cently col­lapsed and ru­mors of lawyer lay­offs and firm im­plo­sions were ram­pant. At Above the Law, the le­gal news web­site I founded in 2006, my col­league Elie Mys­tal and I were cov­er­ing the de­vel­op­ments closely. In the reader com­ments, we no­ticed per­sis­tent pre­dic­tions bub­bling up of lay­offs at lead­ing law firm Latham & Watkins. Th­ese com­ments led us to in­ves­ti­gate fur­ther, work­ing our sources at Latham. Be­fore Latham even­tu­ally an­nounced its mas­sive, record-set­ting lay­offs, we broke the story — and we owed the scoop, one of our big­gest ever, to our com­ments sec­tion.

Reader com­ments in the early days of Above the Law were a trea­sure trove of in­for­ma­tion, in­sight and hu­mor, ad­vanc­ing our mis­sion of bring­ing greater trans­parency to an of­ten opaque pro­fes­sion. Com­ments were wildly pop­u­lar; some read­ers came specif­i­cally to read them, and some com­menters be­came In­ter­net celebri­ties in their own right. “Loy­ola 2L,” a law stu­dent who helped raise pub­lic aware­ness about the risks and costs of go­ing to law school, was named Lawyer of the Year in 2007 by the Wall Street Jour­nal Law Blog.

Over the years, how­ever, our com­ments changed. They had al­ways been edgy, but the ra­tio of of­fen­sive to sub­stan­tive shifted in fa­vor of the of­fen­sive. In­side in­for­ma­tion about law firms and schools gave way to in­side jokes among the “com­men­tariat,” rel­e­vant knowl­edge got sup­planted by non se­quiturs, and ba­sic ci­vil­ity (with a touch of po­lit­i­cal in­cor­rect­ness) suc­cumbed to abuse and in­sult. A fe­male Supreme Court jus­tice was called a “bull-dyke.” An Asian Amer­i­can woman’s col­umn about ci­vil­ity in the le­gal pro­fes­sion pro­voked “me love you long time” in re­sponse. My col­league Staci Zaret­sky, who writes ex­ten­sively about gen­der inequal­ity in the le­gal pro­fes­sion, was told: “Staci, you have plenty of as­sets, like that fat milky white ass.”

So we de­cided to get rid of the com­ments sec­tion.

In part, our de­ci­sion was based on sci­ence. Re­searchers have found that when read­ers are ex­posed to un­civil, neg­a­tive com­ments at the end of ar­ti­cles, they trust the con­tent of the pieces less. (Sci­en­tists dubbed this the “nasty ef­fect.”) A study by the Atlantic found that neg­a­tive com­ments ac­com­pa­ny­ing a news ar­ti­cle caused read­ers to hold the ar­ti­cle in lower es­teem. In an in­creas­ingly com­pet­i­tive me­dia en­vi­ron­ment, web­sites can ill af­ford to have their con­tent and brands tar­nished in this way.

And then there’s the toll com­ments take on in­di­vid­ual jour­nal­ists. As writer Jes­sica Valenti ex­plained, “For writ­ers, wad­ing into com­ments doesn’t make a lot of sense — it’s like work­ing a sec­ond shift where you will­ingly sub­ject your­self to at­tacks from peo­ple you have never met and hope­fully never will.” This is es­pe­cially true for women and mi­nori­ties. The Guardian found that of its 10 reg­u­lar writ­ers who get the most abuse in com­ments, eight are women and two are black men, while the 10 writ­ers who get the least hate are all male. Be­cause of hate­ful on­line com­ments, some fem­i­nist writ­ers have re­tired, im­pov­er­ish­ing pub­lic dis­course.

Above the Law’s full-time writer-ed­i­tors are a di­verse group. I’m a gay Asian man, and I work with, among oth­ers, an African Amer­i­can man and two women. We have all reg­u­larly re­ceived racist, sex­ist and ho­mo­pho­bic at­tacks. My col­league Staci, who used to in­ter­act with com­menters more than the rest of us did, soured sig­nif­i­cantly on them af­ter one com­menter dis­cussed “tag-team­ing” her with an­other com­menter while hit­ting her be­cause, well, she looked like she could take a punch.

Neg­a­tive com­ments not based on gen­der or race can be hurt­ful and de­mor­al­iz­ing, too — and can’t be dis­missed as sex­ist or racist drivel. As my fel­low lawyer turned jour­nal­ist Jill Filipovic said of her ex­pe­ri­ence with nasty com­ments: “I doubt my­self a lot more. You read enough times that you’re a ter­ri­ble per­son and an id­iot, and it’s very hard not to start be­liev­ing that maybe they see some­thing that you don’t.”

De­spite such prob­lems, our de­ci­sion to scrap the com­ments sec­tion was dif­fi­cult, reached only af­ter months of dis­cus­sion, re­search and ar­gu­ment. It wasn’t a mat­ter of traf­fic, with com­ment-re­lated page views ac­count­ing for less than 3 per­cent of our to­tal. Nor was it a mat­ter of ad­ver­tis­ing; our col­leagues who sell ads had no say in the mat­ter (although I sus­pect they’re happy with our de­ci­sion). And it wasn’t a le­gal is­sue — the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions De­cency Act pro­vides pub­lish­ers with im­mu­nity from li­a­bil­ity over com­ments left on their sites by third par­ties.

The real is­sues were more philo­soph­i­cal. As some­one who started writ­ing un­der a pseu­do­nym, I un­der­stood how on­line com­men­ta­tors — es­pe­cially risk-averse, rep­u­ta­tion-con­scious lawyers — of­ten need anonymity to take im­por­tant but con­tro­ver­sial stands, dis­sem­i­nate sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion, or speak un­pop­u­lar truths. As jour­nal­ists who spend our days hold­ing law firms and schools ac­count­able, we viewed the com­ments as a way for read­ers to hold us ac­count­able, whether for sloppy logic, fac­tual er­rors or ty­pos.

But in the end, we re­al­ized that our read­ers were now en­gag­ing with our con­tent on so­cial me­dia in gen­er­ally civil and sub­stan­tive ways. We con­cluded that we no longer needed the ag­gra­va­tion of a com­ments sec­tion on ATL it­self. In the words of my col­league Elie, one of the last hold­outs, “I felt that read­ers had the right to crit­i­cize me if they in­vested the time to read my stuff — but now peo­ple just crit­i­cize me on Face­book.”

We’re not alone. In 2013, Pop­u­lar Sci­ence shut off its com­ments. In 2014, Recode, Mic, the Week and Reuters closed down their com­ments sec­tions. Other sites that have re­moved com­ments in­clude Bloomberg and the Daily Beast. Ac­cord­ing to a 2014 study by jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor Arthur San­tana, of the 137 largest U.S. news­pa­pers, 49 per­cent did not al­low anony­mous com­ments and 9 per­cent had no com­ments at all. Af­ter the Na­tional Jour­nal elim­i­nated com­ments on most sto­ries, its web­site traf­fic and lev­els of user en­gage­ment in­creased.

Should we have ex­plored other so­lu­tions short of re­mov­ing com­ments en­tirely? Like other news sites, we had al­ready deem­pha­sized com­ments, by hid­ing them in our lay­out and al­low­ing them to be de­ac­ti­vated on se­lected sto­ries. But nei­ther step stopped the harm caused by com­ments to our read­ers, writ­ers and site brand.

We did con­sider greater mod­er­a­tion or polic­ing of com­ments, whether by us, site users or a com­bi­na­tion thereof. As the ex­pe­ri­ences of the Guardian and Sa­lon sug­gest, com­ments sec­tions can work if sites and ed­i­tors put in the ef­fort to tend their dig­i­tal gar­dens, re­mov­ing weeds and plant­ing seeds for healthy dis­cus­sion. As tech­nol­ogy blog­ger Tau­riq Moosa has ar­gued, com­ments should be heav­ily mod­er­ated to pro­mote civil, in­tel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion; oth­er­wise, they should be re­moved.

At Above the Law, given our small staff, the in­ten­sive re­sources re­quired for fair and ef­fec­tive mod­er­a­tion, and the hu­man toll mod­er­a­tion takes on the mod­er­a­tors, we de­cided it wasn’t worth the trou­ble. We’d rather de­vote our time and en­ergy to work­ing on our sto­ries and in­ter­act­ing with read­ers on so­cial me­dia — which has the added ben­e­fit of evan­ge­liz­ing for our site, in­creas­ing our Face­book likes and Twit­ter fol­low­ers, and driv­ing traf­fic to ATL through Face­book and Twit­ter re­fer­rals. So­cial me­dia has even be­come one of our main sources of tips. As Kalev Lee­taru put it in Forbes, “By mov­ing the con­ver­sa­tion to so­cial me­dia, news out­lets not only off­load the cu­ra­tion and le­gal li­a­bil­ity to a third party, but now ev­ery com­ment be­comes an ad­ver­tise­ment to di­rect ad­di­tional read­ers back to the ar­ti­cle.”

Although I know we made the right de­ci­sion, with in­creased en­joy­ment of my job and de­creased anx­i­ety as con­fir­ma­tion, part of me is sad. I will miss our com­ments and com­menters, es­pe­cially the good ones. And I bear no ill will, even to­ward the mean ones. I feel about them the way I feel about a per­fectly nice ex-boyfriend: We had some good times, we grew apart and we should have split up ear­lier than we did. But I wish him all the best — even if I don’t need to hear from him ever again.

I feel about com­ments the way I feel about a per­fectly nice ex-boyfriend: We had some good times, we grew apart and we should have split up ear­lier.

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